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Is it safe to use melatonin for sleep?

By The Health News Team | January 10, 2024
Young girl in bed sleeping

Millions of adults regularly use melatonin supplements to tackle insomnia, jet lag and night shifts. Thousands more give melatonin gummies to their children to help them sleep through the night.

In the last two decades, Americans have increasingly turned to melatonin as a more natural alternative to other sleep aids. It’s also become a go-to sleep solution for kids. A recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder suggests nearly 1 in 5 parents give their school-aged children melatonin to help them sleep.

But is it always necessary? And more importantly, is it safe? If you or your children are struggling with sleep, here’s what you should know before reaching for melatonin.

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is one of our body’s natural hormones. It’s produced by the pineal gland — a pea-sized gland located in the upper-middle section of the brain — and plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle. Instead of a lights-out trigger, melatonin acts more like a dimmer switch, turning the day functions off and switching night functions on.

“Typically, production and secretion of melatonin increase when it’s dark and decrease in the presence of light. It essentially helps tell the body when to fall asleep and when to wake up,” says Seung Oh, the pharmacy supervisor at Sharp Rees-Stealy Santee Medical Center.

Are there side effects?

Melatonin can cause side effects, but it’s uncommon. Mild side effects include headache, nausea, dizziness and drowsiness.

“Before taking melatonin, talk with your doctor to determine the proper dosage,” Oh says. “Each person’s body may react differently to the supplement based on age, gender, sleep issues and health conditions.”

Additionally, melatonin has the rare potential to interact with some prescription medications, Oh explains. “Melatonin can increase the sedative effects of benzodiazepines. It can also increase the risk of bleeding if you’re on blood thinners,” he says.

Can you overdose on melatonin?

While large amounts of melatonin aren’t likely to be dangerous for most adults, they can be for kids. Since the supplements are commonly available as flavored gummies, they can easily be mistaken as candy and lead to unintentional overdoses.

Between 2012 and 2021, the U.S. Poison Control Centers saw a 530% increase in calls related to melatonin ingestion. In most cases there were no symptoms, but some children required hospital care and two died.

Many countries classify melatonin as a drug that’s available by prescription only. In the United States, it’s considered a dietary supplement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and sold over the counter. In other words, it’s not subject to the same requirements and testing as prescription medications.

It’s also worth noting that melatonin labels aren’t always accurate and may contain a much higher dose than what you see on the bottle. A study published earlier this year found that 22 out of the 25 melatonin gummies tested were mislabeled — with some containing over 300% more melatonin than advertised. The inaccurate dosage could have serious implications — especially for children.

“Melatonin moves through the body very fast, and its effects do not last very long,” Oh says. “Nevertheless, seek immediate attention if you suspect an overdose or allergic reaction or experience strong side effects.”

Is it safe for adults and children?

While short-term use for most people appears to be safe, research on long-term use and side effects remains limited. Since it’s an active hormone, it should be taken more seriously than a glass of warm milk or a bedtime lullaby.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not rule out giving children small doses of melatonin to help them sleep but encourages parents to discuss it with their pediatricians first. Many sleep difficulties experienced by both children and adults can be fixed with healthy sleep habits or addressing underlying sleep issues. Practicing good sleep hygiene, such as keeping a consistent sleep schedule, minimizing screen time before bed and creating a relaxing bedtime routine, should be your first move for a good night’s sleep.

If you decide to try melatonin — particularly if giving it to children — look for products certified by USP (United States Pharmacopeia) to ensure it contains the amount of melatonin listed on the label. To keep kids safe at home, be sure to always store supplements and medications out of reach and out of sight of children.

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