When Melatonin Works — And When It Doesn't — To Help You Sleep Better

Your ‘sleep’ hormone comes in pill form — but does it really help you snooze? (Photo: Getty Images)

When you get tired at the end of the day, a hectic schedule or grueling workout surely play a role in helping you wind down for the night— but so do the natural biological processes occurring within your body.

When the sun sets, you begin to produce the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, which tells your body it’s time for bed. And in an ideal world, you fall asleep because of that cue.

But some nights (hello deadlines, dinner, workout classes, chores, and family!), it just doesn’t pan out like that. And in a day and age of forgoing the processed in lieu of the natural, a melatonin supplement seems like a no-brainer for a better night’s rest. After all, your body already produces it — so it’s certain to help you snooze, right?

Yes and no. In some circumstances, a small dose of melatonin — 1 to 3 milligrams — can boost your sleep quality. A new study in the journal Critical Carefound that in a simulated ICU environment, people who were given a milligram of melatonin woke up fewer times throughout the night, had improved sleep quality, reported lower anxiety, and experienced increased REM sleep compared with people who only used an eye mask and earplugs.

But experts caution against broadening results like that. “I don’t think melatonin helps promote better sleep in general,” W. Christopher Winter, MD, medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital, tells Yahoo Health. “But if you’re in an environment that’s hectic, you can use it to create a situation where the small bits and pieces of sleep you’re getting are more effective for your brain. You can create a sleep better environment when you’re dealt a crappy one.”

Related: How To Fall Asleep By Not Trying

Situations that qualify: If you have crazy work hours; if you’re criss-crossing the country throughout different time zones; if, like in the study, you’re in a hospital or the ICU where sleep conditions aren’t great; or if you’re staying up a few nights in a row in front of the computer. These situations can confuse your body, messing with your natural melatonin production, and thus hindering your sleep schedule and quality.

But if you’re lying in a cool, quiet, dark room and find yourself thinking, “I can’t fall asleep,” know this:“More melatonin doesn’t really help, since the pineal body [the melatonin-producing endocrine gland] does a pretty good job of making it when the sun goes down,” Winter says.

When we can’t make it (like in the situations above), supplemental melatonin can be very useful. But the question doesn’t always need to be “Do I need more?” but rather, “Am I doing all the things I can to make the most of what my body is already making?” he says.

Related: The Most Natural Bedtime In The World

After all, when we’re doing the right things, melatonin production is fantastic, he says. When we’re not? It’s not so great. Here are three actions you can take to make sure your body is making enough of the stuff:

  • Make sweating a habit. Exercise has been shown to strengthen your circadian rhythm, make you more alert during the day, and lead to longer periods of slow-wave sleep, one of the most restorative stages. And while it’s hard to see changes over night, a fitness habit is worth it: Northwestern research found that after 16 weeks, sedentary people who started working out saw significant increases in sleep quality.

  • Exposure yourself to daylight. Melatonin production is regulated, to a large extent, by light, peaking when the sun goes down. To keep yourself on track, make sure you’re soaking up the sun you need throughout the day. “We’re sort of slaves to the light,” says Winter. “The flower doesn’t open up its petals when the sun doesn’t come out. We’re not too far away from that flower,” he says. “So even on cloudy days, make sure the window shades are open so that you get the full spectrum of light.”

  • Please put down the smartphone. The blue light emitted from your devices is enough to disrupt — and even suppress — the release of melatonin, research shows.

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