Sleep doesn’t come easy for nearly 30% of Americans, and for women in post-menopausal years, nearly 60% report insomnia. A night of tossing and turning with restless sleep can set you up for a long day ahead, and if poor sleep becomes a regular occurrence, there are longer-term complications such as increased risk of heart disease, poor blood sugar control, decreased immune function, and weight gain.
There are many types of treatment, therapies, and lifestyle modifications that can be made to help improve sleep quality and quantity, but a melatonin supplement is often the first thing that comes to mind when people are looking for better sleep. While it doesn’t require much effort to start taking a melatonin supplement, is it the best option to turn to?
Melatonin Supplement Safety
First, it’s important to be aware that melatonin products are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They’re sold as dietary supplements and under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the FDA set the regulatory framework for supplements but they do not set standards for the contents or nutrient composition of a product, or take responsibility for their labeling claims, safety or effectiveness. Instead, it’s the responsibility of the dietary supplement company to ensure they meet safety standards and labeling requirements.
A recent analysis that appeared in the Journal of American Medical Association, found that out of the 25 melatonin gummies they tested, 22 of the products did not contain the amount of melatonin that was listed on the respective label. The doses of melatonin ranged from 74% to 347% of what was listed on the label, while one of the products didn’t contain any melatonin at all despite advertising it did.
Variations in melatonin dosage have even been found within different pills from the same bottle. These dosage differences can occur because there isn’t strict regulation from the Food and Drug Administration.
Melatonin & Sleep
Melatonin is a natural hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles and is released in the evening when the eyes begin perceiving darkness to help prepare the body for sleep. Once light appears in the morning, melatonin production decreases so the body can begin to wake up. Levels of melatonin start to decline at puberty and as we age, sleep periods become much shorter due to less melatonin production.
While a melatonin supplement can be a great solution when we need to adjust the sleep-wake cycle due to jet lag or temporary sleep routine disturbances, it’s not a great option for long-term use. Headaches, sleepiness during the day, dizziness, irritability, and feelings of depression are commonly reported side effects with long-term melatonin supplement use.
You can actually get melatonin, plus additional nutritional benefits, from certain foods such as tart cherry juice, tomatoes, pistachios, and egg yolks. A 2018 study found that adults reporting insomnia that drank an 8-ounce glass of tart cherry juice in the morning and 1-2 hours before bedtime, were able to extend their sleep by 84 minutes. The Montmorency variety of cherry is the specific type of cherry used to make this juice, and in addition to providing melatonin, it also contains polyphenols that can help with sleep and reduce inflammation.
A melatonin supplement won’t address the root cause of insomnia so while it may help with sleep initially, it’s not the ultimate solution. The truth is, there most likely isn’t one solution to getting back to better sleep for most people. It’s a combined effort of addressing dietary choices, physical activity, stress management, and sometimes will require cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, referred to as CBT-I.
Working with a healthcare professional to address the underlying reasons for the sleep troubles will provide longer lasting results than relying on supplements and risking additional adverse effects that could impact your daily life.
Karman Meyer is a Registered Dietitian, speaker, and author of Eat To Sleep: What To Eat & When To Eat It for a Good Night’s Sleep and The Everything DASH Diet Meal Prep Cookbook. She speaks to groups across the country about simple changes they can make to sleep better and feel more energized day-to-day! Visit her at karmanmeyer.com or on Instagram @karmanmeyer.