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Why You Can’t Sleep Without Melatonin and What to Do Instead

You may not be able to sleep without melatonin because you’re psychologically dependent on it or you’ve got poor sleep hygiene that’s disrupting your sleep.
Published
2023-11-14
Updated
2023-12-22
17 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Woman considering taking melatonin to sleep

Can’t Sleep Without Melatonin? Here's Why & What to Do

  • You may not be able to sleep without melatonin due to being psychologically dependent on it, the placebo effect making you sleep better on melatonin, or because of poor sleep hygiene.
  • Fall asleep without melatonin by improving your sleep hygiene. This will help your body make all the melatonin it needs.  
  • The RISE app can help you fall asleep naturally by guiding you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits and predicting the time of night when your natural rate of melatonin production is at its highest, so you go to bed when your body’s primed to fall and stay asleep.

Sleep like a baby with melatonin, but lay awake all night when you don’t take it? There are a few reasons and — luckily — there are science-backed solutions to help you sleep without popping a single pill.

Below, we dive into why you can’t sleep without melatonin and how the RISE app can help you boost your natural melatonin levels and head to bed at the best time to harness them.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Dr. Chester Wu offers sleep medicine services at his private sleep practice and he’s one of our Rise Science sleep advisors and medical reviewers. Here’s his advice on melatonin:

“Melatonin isn’t addictive, but you can become psychologically dependent on it. And when you try to sleep without melatonin, the worry and stress around sleep can keep you awake. But you can change this. Making tweaks to your daily activities, taking time to unwind before bed, and trusting you can sleep without melatonin can help you fall asleep naturally without any supplements at all.”

Why Can’t I Sleep Without Melatonin? 

There are many possible reasons you can’t sleep without melatonin. 

The Placebo Effect  

Because melatonin doesn’t force your body to sleep like a traditional sleep aid, taking melatonin may not actually be making you physically more drowsy. Instead, you may sleep better when you take it because of the placebo effect. 

The placebo effect means melatonin may help you sleep, but only because you believe it will. You’ve probably seen advertising claims or heard raving reviews from friends. You therefore trick yourself into thinking you can’t sleep without it. 

Despite its ubiquity and renown as a sleep aid, melatonin works best when used as a chronobiotic, or something that changes the timing of your circadian rhythm, or body clock (more on this soon). If you take melatonin right before bed or in the middle of the night, it probably won’t physically help you sleep. It could even push back your body clock and your next night of sleep.

You may also be taking a poor-quality supplement with not as much melatonin as advertised. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classes melatonin as a dietary supplement, so it’s not well regulated. 

Melatonin is generally recommended for short-term use only, but you may have been taking it for a while. If so, there’s evidence suggesting melatonin use may not improve your sleep long term (although more research is needed here as some studies show it can). 

Taken at the right time, melatonin can help you fall asleep faster and get more sleep, but not by much. Research shows melatonin can help people with sleep disorders fall asleep seven minutes faster than a placebo and get just eight minutes more sleep overall.

And some research states melatonin may not be that effective for jet lag, insomnia, adjusting to shift work, or to fall and stay asleep — you’re probably taking it for one of these reasons.  

You can learn more about why melatonin doesn’t work for you here. 

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You’re Psychologically Dependent on Melatonin  

Melatonin isn’t thought to be addictive and there’s no evidence your body will stop producing natural melatonin if you take supplements (although, again, more research is needed). But you may develop a psychological dependence on melatonin to fall asleep (similar to the placebo effect). 

When you try to sleep without it, worry and anxiety about sleeping without melatonin or sleeplessness in general may, ironically, keep you awake. 

It’s a common problem. RISE users say stress and anxiety are the biggest barriers to getting a good night’s sleep. 

Sleep effort — when you try to control sleep — can make it harder to fall asleep and even cause and perpetuate insomnia. So if you skip melatonin and then put a lot of pressure on yourself to fall asleep or doubt whether you’ll be able to sleep, you may not succeed.

Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, co-director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University and one of our sleep advisors, agrees.  

“If you’re not able to sleep without melatonin, you may have developed a psychological dependence. Now that you believe you can’t sleep without taking it, you’ve erected a psychological barrier to actually getting sleep.” 

But there’s hope! Zeitzer adds, “You definitely can sleep without taking melatonin!” 

More on how to sleep without melatonin soon. 

We’ve covered what to do if you’re too stressed to sleep here.

You’ve Got Rebound Insomnia 

Rebound insomnia is insomnia that happens when you stop taking a sleep aid. Although it’s usually associated with prescription sleeping pills like benzodiazepines, you may experience it if you’ve been taking large doses of melatonin. 

This can happen if you’ve been taking what scientists call supraphysiological doses — or doses larger than your body naturally makes. This would be anything more than 0.5 milligrams, but you may be more at risk if you’ve been taking 5-milligram doses of melatonin. 

We’ve covered whether you can take melatonin every night here (spoiler: experts don’t generally recommend it). 

You’ve Got Poor Sleep Hygiene 

Sleep hygiene is the set of daily habits that can help or hurt your sleep. 

If you’ve got poor sleep hygiene, you may struggle to fall asleep and wake up often in the middle of the night

Poor sleep hygiene habits that impact when and how much melatonin your body makes include:

  • Getting too much bright light before bed 
  • Sleeping in a bedroom that’s too bright, noisy, or warm 
  • Drinking alcohol or coffee, having a large meal, or doing vigorous exercise too close to bedtime 
  • Having an irregular sleep schedule 

Melatonin supplements may help you drift off if you have poor sleep hygiene. 

Your sleep hygiene habits may also worsen when you stop taking melatonin. You might turn to alcohol to feel drowsy instead or have an extra coffee to get you through the day after a sleepless night. 

You’re Getting Too Much Light Exposure Before Bed 

This part of poor sleep hygiene deserves a shout-out. 

Light suppresses melatonin production. So if you’re spending time on screens or in bright artificial lighting before bed your natural melatonin levels may be lowered. 

Research shows exposure to room light before bed suppresses melatonin and shortens production by about 90 minutes compared to dim light exposure. 

Room light exposure during your normal sleep hours can suppress melatonin by more than 50%!

You’re Drinking Alcohol Close to Bedtime 

Alcohol also suppresses melatonin production.

In one study, participants drank a moderate dose of alcohol one hour before bed. Melatonin levels were down 15% two hours and 20 minutes later. Three hours 10 minutes later, they were down 19%. 

Heads-up: A moderate dose in this study was equivalent to almost three standard drinks for men and about 2.5 standard drinks for women weighing about 154 pounds.

You can learn more about how alcohol affects sleep here. 

False Attribution 

You might get a good night’s sleep when you take melatonin, but the good sleep is actually down to other behaviors you’ve done that day — maybe you skipped your afternoon coffee or hit the gym. 

Or you stop taking melatonin and can’t sleep, so take it again a few nights later and sleep like a baby. But you might have slept well that night anyway as you’ve built up sleep debt (the sleep you owe your body) from the sleepless nights. 

You can learn more about what sleep debt is here.

Expert tip: RISE can work out how much debt you have. To do that, it first works out how much sleep you need as it’s not eight hours for everyone. 

To prove that point, we looked at how much sleep 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up needed. It ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes.

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need.
The RISE app can work out how much sleep you need.

 RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here

You’re Out of Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm 

Your circadian rhythm is your internal clock. It runs on a roughly 24-hour cycle and dictates when you sleep and wake up. 

Melatonin supplements can change the timing of your circadian rhythm, shifting it earlier or later, and therefore helping you fall asleep when you usually wouldn’t. 

If you’re out of sync with your circadian rhythm and try to sleep without melatonin, you may find it hard to drift off. 

You might be out of sync with your circadian rhythm if: 

  • You’ve got an irregular sleep schedule (you’re not alone, about 87% of us do)
  • You work night shifts or rotating shifts
  • You’re fighting against your chronotype (like a night owl trying to sleep early) 
  • You’ve crossed time zones and are battling jet lag 

You’re Sleeping More and Better Than You Think Without Melatonin 

Your brain may be playing tricks on you here, too. When you sleep without melatonin, you may think you’re getting less sleep or worse sleep than you really are. 

Research on veterans with PTSD — a group you’d imagine get awful sleep — found participants underestimated their total sleep times and sleep efficiency (time spent in bed sleeping), and overestimated sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep). 

This is known as paradoxical insomnia, or sleep-state misperception, which is when it feels like your sleep problems are much worse than they are.

A 2021 study found how people feel about their sleep has a bigger impact on fatigue than sleep duration. And ruminating about fatigue and insomnia symptoms can lead to more fatigue. So you may feel more tired when you don’t use melatonin simply because you think you get worse sleep without it. 

You’ve Got a Sleep Disorder 

Sleep issues can mess with your nights, leading to restless sleep and daytime drowsiness. 

Sleep disorders include: 

  • Insomnia 
  • Sleep apnea 
  • Restless leg syndrome 
  • Narcolepsy 

Melatonin may not fix these sleep problems, but it may make you feel like you're sleeping better. 

Research shows melatonin may not be an effective treatment for insomnia, but a 2020 study found a placebo treatment can be effective at reducing insomnia severity and fatigue. So the placebo effect when taking melatonin may help you relax and drift off.

You’ve Got a Medical Condition 

A medical condition may make it harder to get enough sleep. 

Medical conditions that disrupt sleep include: 

Hormone fluctuations can also make it harder to sleep. This can happen when you’re: 

Some medications can make it harder to sleep or cause sleepiness, including: 

  • Antidepressants
  • ADHD drugs
  • Antihistamines

Again, melatonin won’t fix these health problems, but the placebo effect could help you drift off if they’re causing some disruption. 

Melatonin may help with age-related sleep problems, though. Melatonin levels are lower in older adults and 2022 research shows melatonin supplements can increase sleep duration in those over 55. 

How to Sleep Without Melatonin? 

You can sleep without melatonin. Here’s how: 

Go to Bed During Your Melatonin Window 

There’s a time of night when your body’s rate of melatonin production is at its highest. We call this your Melatonin Window in the RISE app.  Head to bed during this roughly one-hour window of time to make the most of your body’s natural melatonin. 

RISE predicts your Melatonin Window each night. Users say sticking to this suggested bedtime helps them drift off without outside help. 

“If I go to sleep according to my schedule, within my Melatonin Window, I am guaranteed to satisfy my sleep needs without any additional sleep aids, supplements, or medications. I am blown away by the accuracy and effectiveness of RISE.” Read the review

RISE app screenshot showing your melatonin window
The RISE app tells you the best time to go to sleep.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up a reminder to check their Melatonin Window here.

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Get in Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm  

Syncing up with your circadian rhythm can help you feel sleepy at bedtime — no melatonin needed. 

Heading to bed during your Melatonin Window is just one part of this. 

You can also sync up by: 

  • Waking up at the same time each morning  
  • Eating your meals are roughly the same times and during the day 

Sounds complicated, but RISE makes it easy. The app predicts the timing of your circadian rhythm each day so you can see when your body naturally wants to wake up and go to sleep. 

Learn more on why it matters what time you sleep here. 

Avoid Bright Light 90 Minutes Before Bed 

Make sure light isn’t getting in the way of your natural melatonin production. About 90 minutes before bed, turn down the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses (we recommend these).

Expert tip: Light therapy might be more effective than melatonin for night shift workers trying to sleep. 

Avoid Alcohol Three to Four Hours Before Bed

Just like with light, make sure alcohol doesn't dampen your natural melatonin. 

Avoid alcohol three to four hours before bed to stop it from disrupting your sleep. 

RISE can give you an exact time based on your circadian rhythm each day. 

We’ve covered more on how long before bed you should stop drinking alcohol here. 

Do a Relaxing Bedtime Routine 

Remember, stress and anxiety can keep you up, and you might be feeling extra anxious if you’re not taking melatonin. A calming bedtime routine can help you wind down and create positive associations with sleep. 

Try: 

  • Taking a warm bath or shower
  • Reading
  • Listening to calming music or a podcast 
  • Doing breathing exercises or meditating 
  • Practicing yoga or yoga nidra
  • Journaling 

We’ve covered more ideas for bedtime routines for adults here.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene 

Your body can make all the melatonin it needs. Practicing good sleep hygiene can help that happen and make sure nothing else gets in the way of sleep. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends 
  • Get out in bright light first thing each morning to regulate your circadian rhythm 
  • Spend as much time in daylight as you can during the day to mitigate the melatonin-inhibiting effect of late light  
  • Exercise, but avoid intense workouts within an hour of bedtime 
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, and alcohol too close to bedtime 
  • Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, quiet and comfortable 
  • Avoid taking long naps or naps close to bedtime (we found the average nap length among RISE users is a whopping 1 hour 40 minutes! Try taking a 10-minute power nap to boost energy instead). 

Sleep hygiene is scientifically proven to help you fall and stay asleep and is very likely to work better for you than melatonin. Improving your sleep hygiene and then trusting it’ll work can help you sleep soundly without popping a pill.

To make it even more effective, RISE can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits at the ideal time for you each day.  

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

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Speak to a Doctor About Sleep Disorders and Medical Conditions 

If you think a sleep disorder or medical condition is making it harder to sleep (with or without melatonin), speak to your healthcare provider. 

They can recommend the best treatment options, or if melatonin is right for you, they can recommend the best dosage.

Speak to a Doctor About Tapering Off Melatonin 

If you’ve been taking large doses of melatonin — Dr. Wu says this would be 10 mg or more — consider slowly reducing how much you take instead of going cold turkey. 

There’s no evidence of physical withdrawal symptoms when it comes to melatonin, so you can go cold turkey if you like. But slowly tapering off may reduce your risk of rebound insomnia. 

Speak to a doctor about a personalized taper schedule. 

If you’re going it alone, taper off over a couple of weeks and don’t cut time-release pills in half. This can lead to having more melatonin in your system at once, not less.

Make a plan for how you’re going to slowly reduce your melatonin supplements (such as by taking one every other day for a week at first). And make this plan during the day, not right before bed when you’re trying to sleep. 

Finally, avoid the temptation to take melatonin “as needed.” If you feel like you can’t sleep without melatonin, you’ll likely always want to take it and this additional sleep effort could keep you up. 

Do a Sleep Reset 

Remember, you can’t force sleep and trying to force it may make it harder to get. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, do a sleep reset. Get out of bed and do a relaxing low-lit activity, like reading or folding laundry. 

Avoid looking at clocks or screens and only get back in bed when you feel sleepy. Think of this time as bonus me-time and don’t panic about being awake. 

We’ve covered more on what to do if you can’t sleep here. 

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One night of bad sleep won’t make or break your health or performance. RISE measures your sleep debt over 14 nights, so you can focus on keeping it low overall instead of fixating on every minute of missed sleep. 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have.

 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep debt here

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How Does Melatonin Work? 

Melatonin is a hormone made in the pineal gland in your brain. It helps to prime your body for sleep and keep your sleep-wake cycle in check. 

Melatonin levels over 24 hours
Caption: Melatonin levels over 24 hours. Source: https://sites.psu.edu/lifeitmoveson/2018/01/26/sleep-external-influences/

Melatonin supplements don’t knock you out like other sleep aids. They work best when you take them to change the timing of your circadian rhythm, like when: 

  • Overcoming jet lag 
  • Adjusting to shift work 
  • Shifting your sleep schedule  

You can learn more about what melatonin does here. 

What is a Good Alternative to Melatonin? 

The best alternative to melatonin isn’t another over-the-counter sleep aid. They come with risks and potential side effects, they’re also not designed for long-term use, and they can cause more sleep problems like rebound insomnia or next-day fatigue (known as the hangover effect). 

Most healthy people don’t need a sleep aid at all, so a good alternative to melatonin is sleep hygiene, which is proven to help you fall and stay asleep. 

For those with sleep disorders, sleep hygiene can help alongside treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) or weight loss for sleep apnea if needed. 

Heads-up: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says the evidence that many sleep aids can help chronic insomnia is weak. Talk to a sleep specialist or your doctor for personalized advice. 

Want to scratch the itch of taking something before bed? Reach for chamomile tea instead of melatonin. 

Dr. Chester Wu recommends chamomile tea to his patients. Although there’s not enough evidence proving it’ll improve sleep, chamomile tea doesn’t appear to have any downsides and it may help you relax and drift off.

There’s also not much evidence behind sleep supplements like L-theanine, magnesium, valerian root, GABA, and lavender, but they may be better alternatives than melatonin. 

Again, for healthy sleepers, sleep hygiene is your best bet! 

Fall Asleep Without Melatonin 

You may be struggling to sleep without melatonin because you’re psychologically dependent on the supplement, the placebo effect is making you sleep better, or because you’ve got poor sleep hygiene. 

Luckily, for most of us, it is possible to sleep without taking anything. Try improving your sleep hygiene (including avoiding light and alcohol before bed to boost melatonin) and trusting it’ll help you get the sleep you need.

The RISE app makes sleep hygiene second nature. The app will tell you when to do 20+ healthy sleep habits at the right time for you. And it’ll tell you when you can make the most of your natural melatonin supply by heading to bed during your Melatonin Window. 

You could be falling asleep without melatonin in no time — 80% of RISE users get better sleep within five days.

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