Maybe you’ve tried melatonin supplements once or twice to help you fall asleep — and they worked! So, now you’re considering them as a go-to tool to help you drift off each night and worrying whether they’re as addictive as traditional sleeping pills.
Rest assured, most experts agree melatonin isn’t addictive — but it’s not as simple as that. Melatonin still comes with its risks, especially long term use.
Melatonin is made naturally by the pineal gland in our brains to promote sleep, but it’s also available in supplement form in everything from pills to sprays to gummies. It’s only available by prescription in countries like the UK and Australia, but you can get it over the counter in the US, and it’s been growing in popularity for years.
Below, we dive into the science to show you that, while the supplement isn’t thought of as being addictive, you should still be wary about using it long term. Plus, we’ll share how you can skip worrying about melatonin being addictive altogether, and focus on boosting your natural melatonin production instead through sleep hygiene and the power of your circadian rhythm.
While there’s still a lot we need to learn about melatonin, especially about long term use, most experts agree it isn’t addictive.
As it’s a hormone our bodies make naturally, we don’t seem to build up a tolerance to it, so we don’t need to take more and more of it over time to feel the same effects (although a small study shows some evidence of that).
Compared to other sleep medications, melatonin is the safest choice. It doesn’t have a hangover effect the next day — when you wake up feeling extra groggy — and you’re unlikely to become physically dependent on it to fall asleep.
The side effects of melatonin are usually mild when compared to other sleep medications. They include:
Compare this to possible side effects from traditional sleeping pills:
Some experts believe taking melatonin supplements may cause your brain to stop making its own supply of the hormone, which could lead to dependence. But this didn’t happen in a study of night shift workers who took melatonin for seven days and had their natural melatonin levels measured against those taking a placebo. However, more research needs to be done to see if this happens with long-term use.
One study looking into melatonin use among psychiatric patients found it may have withdrawal symptoms causing a “free running” circadian rhythm. This is when your sleep-wake cycle isn’t synchronized with cues like light and dark, leading to disturbed sleep patterns, insomnia, and daytime sleepiness.
In this case, melatonin could be seen as potentially addictive for vulnerable people, as they need it as a cue to control their circadian rhythms. However, more research needs to be done, especially clinical trials with participants without health conditions.
If you have a history of addiction or medical conditions, speak to your healthcare provider to make sure melatonin is right for you.
In many countries, melatonin is only available by prescription, but in the US, it’s unregulated. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies it as a dietary supplement. That means there’s no clear guidelines around dosages.
And as the amount of melatonin and the time you take it can dramatically change the effects, without clear guidance on these things, it’s easy to keep missing the mark when it comes to trying to fall asleep with melatonin. Because of this, you may find yourself reaching for higher and higher doses each night, trying to make it work. We covered in more detail how much melatonin is too much here.
But melatonin supplements aren’t a magic sleep pill. They don’t work in the same way traditional sleep aids do. Instead of forcing your body to sleep, they trick your brain into thinking it’s sunset, making it start winding down and preparing for sleep, so it may take a few hours to start feeling drowsy.
And there are many things that can counteract this. If you aren’t practicing good sleep hygiene — maybe you get too much light exposure in the evenings and drink coffee, alcohol, and eat a large meal late in the day — you may cancel out the sleepiness supplements cause. This, again, may lead you to start taking higher doses, trying to override sleep disturbing behaviors, instead of addressing them head on.
Melatonin isn’t thought to be addictive, neither physiologically or psychologically, but that doesn’t stop some people feeling like they need it to fall asleep.
If you take the supplement regularly, and find it helps you drift off, you may find on nights when you don’t take the supplement, you worry about how you’ll fall asleep without it. This, of course, leads to anxiety at night and being unable to fall asleep as easily as when you take a supplement, leading you to believe you need it.
Melatonin is safe to take in the short term. It works as a chronobiotic, or something that can shift your circadian rhythm, helping you fall asleep earlier or later than you would naturally. Most studies run up to seven days and show minimal, if any, melatonin side effects.
Melatonin can help when:
However, while research shows melatonin is safe, even in high doses, studies into the effects of long-term use are few and far between. So, we’re still not sure whether it’s safe to take night after night as an ongoing sleep aid.
In fact, when talking about supplements, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health say “there’s not enough information yet about possible side effects to have a clear picture of overall safety.”
Melatonin may help those with sleep disorders like insomnia, but if this is you, it’s best to speak with a healthcare professional to see if this is the right treatment. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine even recommends against using melatonin to treat insomnia.
More research needs to be done to determine whether it’s safe for children and adolescents to take melatonin every night. Those taking prescription medications should speak to a doctor before taking melatonin. And those who are pregnant, breast-feeding, or have a medical condition like dementia are advised to avoid supplements altogether.
While there’s plenty of research into short-term use, there really isn’t much looking into whether you can take melatonin every night. One 2015 paper looked into several studies and concluded the data for long-term use of melatonin was limited. Most studies are one to seven days long, and one paper even stated there are no studies longer than six months.
So, while there’s no evidence to say long-term use is unsafe, there’s also no evidence to say it’s safe. It’s much better to take low doses of melatonin in the short term — like when treating jet lag — and then get back to natural sleep aids, like maintaining sleep hygiene, instead.
Worried about becoming addicted to melatonin, or want to skip the potential side effects of long-term use? There are science-backed ways you can optimize your brain’s own production of the hormone. It takes time and constant practice, but with a few lifestyle tweaks — and some help from RISE — your brain can make all the melatonin it needs for healthy sleep, giving you more energy each day. Here’s how:
Sleep hygiene is a set of behaviors you can do throughout the day to help you fall asleep and stay asleep come nighttime. They include:
The RISE app can remind you when to do all of these behaviors based on your circadian rhythm each day. For example, you can set a reminder to get blue light in the morning to help wake you up, and avoid it come evening to increase levels of melatonin and prime your body for sleep.
Aligning with your circadian rhythm — the roughly 24-hour cycle that dictates your energy levels — can also help you take advantage of your natural melatonin. There’s a roughly one-hour window of time when your brain will be making the most melatonin it will all night. In the RISE app, you’ll see this as the Melatonin Window. Go to sleep during this one hour window, and you’ll find it easier to fall asleep while melatonin levels are high.
Want to use the safest melatonin out there? That’s the kind your brain makes. Focus on boosting your brain’s own production of the hormone, so you don’t have to worry about whether supplements are addictive or not.
You can still turn to supplements in the rare occasions they’re needed — like when adjusting to a new time zone or shifting your sleep schedule. In these cases, the RISE app can tell you the exact time to take them to make them more effective.
For every other night, RISE can tell you when to do good sleep hygiene behaviors and it can predict your circadian rhythm, so you can harness your natural melatonin for a good night’s sleep and happier, more productive days.
Melatonin is safe to take each night for a short period of time, but more research needs to be done to know if it’s safe to take long term.
Most of the time, you don’t need more than 5 mg of melatonin, and even 0.5 mg to 1 mg doses have been shown to be effective. Higher doses come with a higher risk of side effects.
There doesn’t seem to be any risk of withdrawal symptoms from melatonin supplements.
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