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How does Melatonin Work?

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From just its name alone, melatonin might sound like serious business. A vague definition will tell you that melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain’s pineal gland. That still sounds kind of serious! Basically, your brain will produce melatonin to regulate your sleep. 

Another way to think about melatonin is that it makes your internal clock tick.

In the United States, you can get melatonin over the counter as a dietary supplement. It’s not classified as a prescription drug or a controlled substance. You can find it near other supplements like iron, zinc, and vitamin D. It has an intense-sounding name, but all it does is help your body function properly. 

People might use melatonin if they need to sleep at odd hours – say they just got off a flight and have jet lag, or they’re working a night shift. There’s also the chance of experiencing a melatonin deficiency as you grow older. As the years go by, it becomes even more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Your brain’s release process regulates the body’s circadian rhythms and creates a “sleepiness” effect when it’s time to go to bed. But even if you start to feel drowsy at the end of each day, probably right around the same time, it isn’t as simple as your brain releasing melatonin when it wants sleep. Melatonin is also released in response to darkness. 

And when it comes to melatonin as a sleep aid/dietary supplement, that last part about darkness is especially important. Light exposure interrupts melatonin production, and ends up knocking your REM cycles out of whack. In an age when tons of people use their cell phone as their alarm clock, our exposure to light at a time when our brains crave sleep is at an all-time high.

After World War I, only about half of Americans enjoyed the luxury of electricity in their homes. That feels like a long time ago, but it was less than a hundred years. Unwanted or unnatural sources of light weren’t things people had to think about. We’ve gone from street lights to lights in our homes to televisions in our bedrooms and now phones next to our beds.

So while all our technology – most of which produces light – is great for staying in touch and up to date and getting work done at odd hours, it has adverse effects. It can literally rewire our brains. Melatonin isn’t the only thing that can help ward this off: if you’ve bought a pair of glasses recently, they probably gave you the option to make the lenses filter blue light. 

It probably comes as no surprise that mainlining light from your phone moments before your head hits the pillow – or after it already has – can disrupt your sleep. It stops your melatonin production and throws off your REM cycle. Scrolling social media before bed isn’t quite the same as falling asleep to late night television, even if you’re just looking at videos of cute dogs.

It’s no coincidence that melatonin pills and gummies for sleep have become more popular as we’ve invented more and more sources of light. As a sleep aid, melatonin is most commonly sold as pills and gummies. In the United States, it’s available on the shelves of drugstores and anywhere else you can buy supplements. 

It’s common to wonder if you can take too much melatonin. Like anything else you’d ingest, how much melatonin is safe to take depends on a number of factors (age, weight, height, etc), but it’s always best to start small. When it’s sold over the counter, whether as pills or gummies, you’ll find melatonin in doses of anywhere between 1 and 10 milligrams. You might even find it in bath salts, but there’s no true dosage for that. 

How long does melatonin last depends on the dosage you take, but can also be impacted by whether or not your dosage also has a timed release. Melatonin produces those feelings of drowsiness, which get you to fall asleep, but melatonin with a timed or delayed release may help you stay asleep longer. 

This can be especially helpful for people with melatonin deficiencies, which are increasingly frequent as people get older. Maybe this is one of the reasons why a teenager can sleep until noon but his grandmother will start her day at 4:45AM. We’re still learning a lot about sleep and the human body, and the discovery of melatonin itself is only about seventy years old. 

If you’re looking into melatonin, you may also have run across information on other natural products like CBD. CBD is short for cannabidiol, CBD is extracted from marijuana plants. You might see CBD gummies or CBD oil available in vaporizer cartridges the same way you would THC. But unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive. 

And while THC products can be used in sleep aid, its psychoactive elements may have the opposite of the desired effect when it comes to falling asleep. CBD can provide plenty of the same effects as THC, but without the potentially unwanted side effects – the feeling of being high– that marijuana is most commonly associated with. Hemp’s reputation doesn’t quite line up with how complex it really is.

Like THC and unlike melatonin, CBD is classified as a drug – not a supplement. However, like melatonin, it is not addictive. It doesn’t cure, treat, or prevent disease, but it’s been associated with feelings of relaxation and emotional well being. For anyone asking themselves “Can I take CBD with melatonin?” the answer is absolutely. 

Some sleeping gummies or pills may contain both CBD and melatonin. They’re usually vegan friendly and gluten free, just like melatonin on its own. Even when you’re drowsy, anything from high stress to excitement can prevent you from falling and staying asleep. With a combination of CBD and melatonin, you might find yourself getting deeper, more restful sleep more consistently. 

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