Getting enough sleep is easier said than done. We’re either too hopped up on caffeine to fall asleep, too stressed to stay asleep all night, or we’re battling jet lag, trying to get our sleep patterns to look somewhat normal. With all these common problems, it’s no surprise people turn to sleep aids to help. And one of those sleep aids is melatonin.
However, melatonin isn’t like traditional sleep aids that force your body to sleep. Not only does taking it at the time you want to sleep not work, the time you take a melatonin supplement makes a huge difference on how it affects you.
Below, we’ll dive into when you should take melatonin before bed depending on what you’re trying to do, and why in most cases you probably don’t need melatonin at all.
First up, what exactly is melatonin? Melatonin is a natural hormone your brain makes to help you feel sleepy and wind down. As long as it’s dim enough, the pineal gland in your brain will start producing melatonin about two hours before your biological bedtime. This moment is called the dim light melatonin onset, or DLMO. Melatonin lowers your body temperature, blood pressure, stress hormones, and your alertness levels, helping you fall asleep.
But melatonin can also be made in the lab or from animal glands, meaning it’s for sale as pills, gummies, capsules, and even sprays. This synthetic melatonin can trick your brain into thinking it’s sunset, making you wind down for sleep when you wouldn’t normally be doing so. However, it doesn’t force you to sleep like over-the-counter sleep aids do, you may not even feel the effects for hours.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies melatonin as a dietary supplement, so there are no strict guidelines around dosages.
You can learn more about what melatonin does here.
Melatonin is a chronobiotic, something that can change the timing of your circadian rhythm, or your body clock. Depending on when you take it, and how much you take, melatonin can either bring forward or push back the timing of your circadian rhythm, making it easier to go to sleep earlier or later than usual.
This means melatonin is effective when:
In all of these cases, you can take melatonin short term to help move your circadian rhythm and get the sleep you need.
Experts recommend taking melatonin about four to five hours before your normal bedtime to bring your circadian rhythm forward, and taking it around your usual wake up time to push it back.
The dose makes a difference, too. The recommendation here is to take low doses of melatonin (0.5 mg or less) when you want to stay awake until later and high doses (3 mg) when you want to fall asleep sooner.
You can learn more about how many mg of melatonin to take here.
Here’s more information to get the timing right:
As melatonin can move your circadian rhythm forward or back, you can fall asleep earlier or later than usual and adjust to jet lag and new time zones faster. If you’re flying west, take melatonin in the morning to help you go to sleep later than usual. If you’re flying east, take melatonin in the afternoon/evening, to help you sleep earlier than usual.
More research needs to be done on the exact timing, but here’s what one paper suggests based on multiple studies:
For eastbound flights up to 9 hours long:
For westbound flights up to 9 hours long:
For flights in either direction that are 10 to 14 hours long:
There are times in life when you may want to reset your sleep schedule. Perhaps bad sleep hygiene (more on that soon) means you’ve been staying up, and therefore waking up, later and later or your night owl chronotype simply means you prefer to keep a sleep schedule that’s on the later side.
Either way, melatonin can help you move the timing of your circadian rhythm earlier, helping you fall asleep at an earlier time and shift your schedule forward.
Take melatonin a few hours before bedtime to give it enough time to work. Four to eight hours before your DLMO will make you feel sleepy earlier than usual.
Research shows taking 5 mg of melatonin five hours before your DLMO can bring forward when your body starts producing its own melatonin by 1.5 hours, making it easier for you to fall asleep earlier. This study included people with delayed sleep phase syndrome, a circadian rhythm disorder that causes someone to sleep two hours or more past what’s deemed a normal bedtime.
For extreme early birds trying to shift their sleep-wake cycles later in the day, take melatonin in the morning.
Once you’ve used melatonin to help you make the shift, perfect your sleep hygiene to stay on the new schedule.
You can learn more about how to reset your circadian rhythm here.
If you work nights and need to sleep during the day, or work rotating shifts and need to sleep at different times throughout the month, melatonin may help you get used to the new sleep-wake schedule faster.
Again, it’s all about which way you want to move your circadian rhythm. Take it in the morning to push it back, and about four to five hours before your usual bedtime to bring it forward.
However, even though research shows melatonin can be useful for shift workers, not everyone agrees it’s the right option. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studies looking into this are small or inconclusive.
Josephine Arendt from the University of Surrey wrote in the Journal of Biological Rhythms: “Sleepiness/poor performance in the workplace or on the flight deck is a potential short-term problem with wrongly timed melatonin administration; hence, I strongly advise shift workers and flight crew members not to self-medicate with melatonin at present; that is, until we can be certain of correct timing.”
To avoid the risks of drowsiness at work, light therapy may be a better option for shift workers. Alternatively, melatonin can help you get back to a normal sleep schedule after a stint of night shifts.
Melatonin works best when you wouldn’t normally be sleeping, so when your natural melatonin levels are low.
If you don’t want to move your circadian rhythm and just want to take melatonin to fall asleep easier each night, think twice. While melatonin is safe for short-term use, there’s limited data on long-term safety. Plus, right now, it’s not recommended for those with insomnia. And side effects can include unintended daytime sleepiness, nausea, and dizziness, so it’s not something you want to rely on night after night.
You can learn more about whether you should take melatonin every night here.
If you do decide to take melatonin to fall asleep, and don’t want to move your circadian rhythm, you still need to take it a few hours before your biological bedtime. It’s tricky to get the timing right as melatonin affects us all differently, and different forms of the supplement work at different speeds — for example, you can buy slow-release melatonin, which dissolves into your body gradually.
You can use the RISE app to tell you the best time of day to take them, this will be four hours before your Melatonin Window each night (more on what this is soon).
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their Melatonin habit.
If you want to take melatonin to fall asleep in general, there is a better way. Harnessing the melatonin your brain makes naturally is not only cheaper than buying supplements, it’s safer, as you don’t need to worry about possible side effects, and easier, as you don’t need to think about getting the timing right.
You can learn more about the side effects of melatonin here.
Your body can make all the melatonin it needs, although it does decline with age (more on this soon). And this process can easily be disturbed by light. Light exposure suppresses melatonin production, as it signals to the brain that it’s daytime. This is helpful in the morning when you want to wake up, but not so helpful come evening when artificial light from screens accidentally keeps you awake.
Here’s how to boost your body’s melatonin production to fall asleep easily each night:
All these behaviors come under something called sleep hygiene, a set of behaviors that will help you fall asleep quicker and stay asleep all night. Other sleep hygiene habits include cutting off caffeine at the right time, making your bedroom cool, and avoiding alcohol too close to bedtime (this can suppress melatonin, too).
The RISE app can help you stay on top of sleep hygiene to keep melatonin high and make sure nothing gets in the way of a good night’s sleep. The app reminds you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors based on your individual circadian rhythm. You just may find all your sleep issues disappear, no synthetic supplement required.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their sleep hygiene reminders, including the Blue Light Control habit.
Once you’re following behaviors that let your brain produce all the melatonin it needs, you can make the most of it by going to sleep during your Melatonin Window.
In the RISE app, your Melatonin Window is the roughly one-hour window of time when your rate of melatonin production will be at its highest. Going to sleep at this window will give you the best chance of falling and staying asleep. So, essentially, instead of thinking about the timing of a melatonin supplement, focus instead of the timing of your brain’s own melatonin.
Still not convinced you should rely on your brain’s melatonin over the supplement form? In normal sleepers, research suggests melatonin decreases sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep) and increases sleep efficiency (how long you spend in bed actually sleeping). However, this improvement was so small it was deemed clinically insignificant.
So, if you’re a normal sleeper who only experiences sleep problems now and again, to improve your sleep, sleep hygiene is the way to go.
If you still decide to take melatonin to fall asleep, pair it with good sleep hygiene to make sure it’s effective — you don’t want a late-afternoon coffee or brightly lit bedroom canceling out the supplements after all.
Heads-up: Your natural levels of melatonin decline as you age, so supplements can help older adults get better sleep. While studies show melatonin can increase sleep duration and reduce nighttime awakenings in older adults (>55 years old), more research needs to be done, especially into very elderly or vulnerable older adults.
There are limited long-term studies into the safety of melatonin, so we don’t recommend relying on it night after night to fall asleep. It does appear safe for short-term use, however.
But, there are a few groups of people who should be careful. People who are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking medications like epilepsy drugs, blood thinners, immunosuppressants, or oral contraceptives, or have health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure should speak to a health care provider before taking melatonin.
Those suffering with insomnia or other sleep disorders should also seek medical advice before trying melatonin as a treatment option. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine is looking into whether it's safe and, for now, it’s recommending those with insomnia avoid it.
You shouldn’t rely on the use of melatonin supplements to fall asleep night after night. Instead, turn to them as a short-term solution to help you recover from jet lag or shift your sleep schedule.
As melatonin affects us all differently and more research needs to be done, getting the timing right can be tricky. Try taking melatonin about four to five hours before your normal bedtime to bring your sleep schedule forward and at your usual wake up time to push it back.
For the rest of your nights, harness your brain’s natural melatonin to get a good night’s sleep. The RISE app can help by reminding you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits based on your circadian rhythm and telling you when your Melatonin Window will be each night.
This way, you’ll have all the melatonin you’ll need for a better sleep, maximizing your energy levels the next day.
Melatonin doesn’t force you to sleep like traditional sleep aids. It makes you feel drowsy and winds down your body, getting it ready for sleep a few hours later. If you take it in the morning, however, it will push back your sleep-wake cycle.
Yes, if you’ve taken the correct dosage, melatonin should work the first time you use it. Depending on what time you took it, you should feel the effects a few hours later.
10 mg of melatonin may be too much. Studies show most of the time you don’t need more than 5 mg, and even 0.5 mg to 1 mg can be effective. Higher doses come with higher risks of side effects.
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