Melatonin supplements have become popular sleep aids, but how much should you take to get a good night’s sleep? It may surprise you, but our answer is none. That’s because our brains produce melatonin naturally to help us fall asleep. So, with the right behaviors, you can harness the power of your body’s own melatonin and skip the supplements altogether. However, there are a few key times when melatonin supplements can come in handy.
In this blog post, we’ll dive into how following good sleep hygiene practices and aligning your sleep-wake times with your circadian rhythm can optimize your body’s natural production of melatonin. Plus, we’ll cover the times you should consider taking supplements and how much you need to take in those situations.
First up, what even is melatonin? In short, it’s a hormone that promotes sleep. If your environment is dim enough, about two hours before your biological bedtime, the pineal gland in your brain will start producing melatonin. This moment is called the dim light melatonin onset (DLMO). This melatonin will lower your core body temperature, blood pressure, and alertness, priming your body for sleep.
Melatonin levels increase as you get closer to bedtime and come morning, your brain stops producing it, making you feel alert and awake. And so melatonin keeps your circadian rhythm in check — the internal body clock that controls your energy levels over a roughly 24-hour cycle. When your brain is producing melatonin effectively, you’ll feel sleepy at night and awake during the day.
However, our body’s melatonin production can be easily thrown off by light exposure. The brain is triggered into producing melatonin by darkness and light suppresses this production. So, for example, if you get too much light exposure in the evening — say through bright overhead lights and your TV — this will affect how much melatonin your brain produces, negatively impacting your sleep and therefore how you feel the next day.
This is one reason why people turn to supplements to top up their levels of melatonin. However, they don’t work like traditional sleep aids. Instead of making you feel sleepy straight away, melatonin supplements trick your brain into thinking it’s sunset, getting it ready for sleep, so you may not feel the effects for hours.
What’s more, we don’t yet know the full side effects of melatonin, especially from long-term supplement use. And side effects from short-term use include everything from depression to low blood pressure and allergic reactions. So before you turn to melatonin in supplement form, try natural sleep aids (in the form of good sleep hygiene) that optimize your body’s own production to get better sleep.
One of the many good things about relying on your body’s natural production of melatonin is that you don’t have to worry about the right melatonin dose for you. By following a few key daily behaviors, you can allow your brain to do its thing and naturally produce the right amount needed for a restful night’s sleep. You’ll see many of these daily behaviors involve light, and that’s down to a photopigment in our eyes called melanopsin. When melanopsin is activated by light, it suppresses melatonin synthesis — so you just need to get the timing of your light exposure right.
Sleep hygiene practices to optimize your body’s natural melatonin include:
The RISE app can tell you the right time to start or stop these behaviors each day based on your own circadian rhythm.
As well as doing daily behaviors to help your body produce melatonin effectively, and avoiding ones that interfere with it, you can also take further advantage of your circadian rhythm. There’s a time when your brain will be naturally producing the most melatonin it will all night — in the RISE app, we call this the Melatonin Window. If you go to bed during this roughly one-hour window you’ll have the easiest time falling asleep. But the timing of this window all depends on your circadian rhythm, which can change daily.
RISE predicts your circadian rhythm and gives you a one-hour window to aim to go to sleep each night. Line up your bedtime with this window, and it’ll be like taking nature’s melatonin supplement.
As much as we advocate ditching supplements and harnessing natural melatonin instead, there are times when our brain needs a little helping hand and over-the-counter supplements can be useful as a short-term solution.
Melatonin can be used to help certain sleep disorders like insomnia or diagnosed delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, or to help older adults with sleep issues (as we age, the pineal gland produces less melatonin at night). But you should speak to a healthcare professional to get tailored medical advice if that’s your aim.
For the rest of us, the main situations when you’d take melatonin would be when you need to sleep when you otherwise wouldn’t naturally. Melatonin acts as a chronobiotic — or something that can adjust the timing of your sleep-wake cycle. Taking supplements in the day can make you feel sleepy earlier or later than you usually would, allowing you to shift your circadian rhythm forward or backward.
So, you should consider taking melatonin supplements to help:
More research still needs to be done to determine the best doses to take in each of these cases, but here’s what the science says so far:
When you cross two or more time zones, you’re suddenly living completely out of sync with your circadian rhythm. It may be 11 p.m. where you physically are, so you want to go to sleep, but your body clock thinks it’s 4 p.m. — the time back home — so you’re simply not tired yet.
Studies suggest doses of 0.5 mg to 5 mg of melatonin may help people with jet lag fall asleep faster, with 5 mg being more effective. But doses above 5 mg don’t appear to be any more effective. Another study found 5 mg of melatonin taken in the afternoon made people feel sleepier 1.5 hours earlier, whereas doses of 0.5 mg and even just 0.05 mg made them feel sleepier less than an hour earlier.
And it depends on which way you’re flying. Research shows supplements may be more effective after eastbound flights compared to westbound flights. Other studies found 5 mg and 10 mg doses were more effective than smaller doses at making people feel sleepy, but there was little difference between smaller and larger doses when it came to adjusting circadian rhythm.
So, clearly, more studies need to be done to pin down an exact dose. But here’s what one paper recommends 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:
Melatonin supplements may also help shift workers adjust to a change in schedule. Research shows 0.3 mg to 5 mg of melatonin increases the amount of sleep people get when their sleep isn't aligned with their circadian rhythm, or when natural melatonin levels are low.
Experts recommend taking melatonin several hours before your usual bedtime to bring natural sleep forward, and taking it at your usual wake up time to delay it. Lower doses (less than 0.5 mg) are ideal when you don’t want the sleepiness effects straight away, and higher doses (3 mg) are better when you want to fall asleep earlier.
However, more research still needs to be done here, too. While there is some evidence suggesting melatonin supplements may help night shift workers sleep during the day, a report from the National Institute of Health stated some of these results were inconclusive or from small studies. In fact, light therapy has been shown to be more effective at helping shift workers adjust.
Melatonin can also help to reset your sleep schedule, shifting your circadian rhythm to a time that fits your life better. For example, if you’re a natural night owl, but you have to be up early for work, you may want to start waking up and going to sleep earlier. Taking melatonin about 4 to 8 hours before the DLMO will bring your circadian rhythm forward, making it easier to fall asleep earlier.
When trying to shift your sleep schedule, research suggests 1 mg may be enough to be effective. You can make this even more effective by combining melatonin supplements with natural light exposure in the morning.
Melatonin is regulated in many other countries, but the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies it as a dietary supplement, meaning there are no official guidelines on dosages.
You should always follow the instructions on the supplements you buy, but that doesn’t always guarantee you’ll take the right amount. A 2017 study tested 16 brands of supplements and found the amount of melatonin they contained varied wildly from what was stated on the label. It ranged from a disappointing 83% less to a dangerous 478% more than advertised, so it’s almost impossible to know exactly how much you’re taking.
And the amount of melatonin you need is likely much smaller than you think. Low doses of 0.5 mg to 1 mg have been shown to be just as effective as doses of more than 3 mg. So if you are turning to supplements, we recommend starting with a smaller dose to reduce the risk of side effects, and only increasing the amount of melatonin you take if necessary.
There’s also a bit of trial and error when it comes to finding the right dosage of melatonin. For example, if you’re taking melatonin in the morning to push back your sleep schedule, but it causes drowsiness in the day, try taking a lower dose. The aim should be to use the lowest dose needed to improve your sleep when needed.
More research needs to be done to find out the exact amount needed, but there’s likely never a need to take more than 5 mg of melatonin. For when supplements are the answer, our favorites are Thorne and USP tested, and the RISE app can tell you the best time to take supplements based on the timing of your Melatonin Window that day.
Melatonin is generally considered safe to take as a short-term sleep aid, but the use of melatonin supplements is increasing, and more research still needs to be done into the long-term effects. However, there doesn’t seem to be a risk of melatonin overdose.
You should speak to a doctor before taking melatonin if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, taking certain medications like anticoagulants (blood thinners), or have certain health conditions like diabetes or depression. Some medications may also have harmful interactions. There’s also little research into how melatonin affects children.
Melatonin is a key part of a good night’s sleep, but you don’t need to worry about how much of it you need to take. Instead, use the RISE app to practice good sleep hygiene and align your sleep schedule with your circadian rhythm. This will ensure your brain can produce enough natural melatonin to help you fall asleep each night, so you can perform your best each day.
On the rare occasions your brain needs a helping hand — think jet lag, shift work, or moving your sleep schedule — melatonin supplements can be useful as a short-term sleep aid. In those cases, we recommend starting with smaller doses to reduce the risk of side effects, and going back to focusing on natural melatonin production soon after.
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