Is melatonin a helpful sleep aid — and what should I know about melatonin side effects?

Answers from Brent A. Bauer, M.D.

The hormone melatonin helps control your natural sleep-wake cycle. Natural levels of melatonin in the blood are highest at night. Some research suggests that melatonin supplements might be helpful in treating jet lag or reducing the time it takes to fall asleep — although the effect is typically mild. Melatonin might be more effective for other types of sleep issues, such as delayed sleep disorder or sleep disorders affecting circadian rhythm.

The most common melatonin side effects include:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

Other, less common melatonin side effects might include abdominal discomfort, mild anxiety, irritability, confusion and short-lasting feelings of depression.

In addition, melatonin supplements can interact with various medications, including:

  • Blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants)
  • Medications that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants)
  • Diabetes medications
  • Birth control pills

If you're considering taking melatonin supplements, check with your doctor first — especially if you have any health conditions. The correct dose depends on the intended use. For example, circadian rhythm sleep disorders are often treated with 0.5 milligrams of melatonin a day, while doses of 3 to 5 milligrams a day might be used to treat jet lag or reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. In addition, remember that melatonin is generally recommended only for short-term use — up to two months. Some research indicates that longer term use might be appropriate in certain cases, however.

If you take melatonin, choose commercial supplements produced in a lab. Melatonin supplements made from animal sources might contain various contaminants. Don't engage in activities that require alertness — such as driving or operating heavy machinery — for four to five hours after taking melatonin.

Oct. 20, 2011