Melatonin is called the “hormone of darkness” because it helps signal the body that it’s night and time to sleep. It’s secreted by the pineal gland in the brain about every 24 hours in a dark environment, typically starting around 90 minutes before you usually fall asleep. Levels stay elevated for about 10 hours and fall in the morning. However, it’s important to realize that artificial indoor light or the light coming from electronic devices may be strong enough to inhibit the release of melatonin, thereby affecting your ability to fall asleep.
Melatonin levels are thought to drop slightly with aging, but that decline doesn’t always correlate to having sleep problems. Nevertheless, the use of supplemental melatonin may help older people get to sleep faster.
A 2013 study suggests melatonin may help improve sleep and cognition at high altitudes. After taking melatonin, participants fell asleep faster and experienced fewer episodes of wakefulness after sleep onset than after taking placebo. Furthermore, in comparison with a placebo, mean reaction time (a measure of cognitive function) the day after taking melatonin was significantly improved.
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Melatonin is Effective for Short Periods
Some studies show that melatonin can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and reduce the number of awakenings, while other studies have found it’s no better than a placebo. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found evidence that melatonin supplements may be effective when used for short periods to treat delayed sleep phase syndrome. Melatonin is thought to be safe for short-term use, but information is lacking on its long-term safety.
Taking melatonin at the wrong time of day can reset your biological clock. If you take it in the morning, it may cause fatigue and delayed reaction time.
The optimal dose of melatonin has not been established. In addition, the doses in commercial preparations of melatonin may not be standardized and can cause blood levels to rise as much as 20 to 60 times higher than normal. Side effects can include fatigue and gastrointestinal upsets.
Melatonin can be beneficial to treat sleep-phase disturbances that relate to a misalignment between your biological sleep time and clock time. As a result, melatonin has been effective at improving jet lag when taken at bedtime for the first few nights in a different time zone.
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