When sleep just won’t come, it’s tempting to turn to an over-the-counter solution for relief. If you’re considering sleeping aids, know that melatonin and sleeping pills promote sleep through different mechanisms.
Understanding how they work may impact how often you rely on them.
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is your body’s primary sleep-promoting hormone and signals to your internal clocks that it’s time for bed.
In the morning and throughout the day, melatonin levels are naturally low. When the sun sets, your brain’s melatonin center (the pineal gland) releases a burst into your bloodstream to send sleep-promoting signals throughout your body.
Your brain continues to produce melatonin into the middle of the night so that the build-up makes you increasingly drowsy until you, ideally, fall asleep.
When is Melatonin Effective?
Over-the-counter melatonin helps in situations where you aren’t producing enough melatonin (e.g., production is inhibited by exposure to blue light or you are producing it at an inconvenient time (e.g., switching between timezones).
- Jet lag: A dose of melatonin can help train your body to adjust to a new time zone by promoting sleep at a different bedtime.
- Insomnia: Melatonin can act as a counterbalance to occasional bouts of insomnia if you’re trying to encourage your body to wind down.
- Doctor-prescribed protocol: Melatonin has been used as a treatment for sleep disorders including disrupted circadian rhythm cases where patients are misaligned with their natural sleep cycle.
Is Melatonin Risky?
Melatonin is often touted as a “natural” sleep aid without considering the impact of disrupting a key hormone system in your body.
Dosage: Melatonin is not considered a drug and isn’t monitored by the FDA. This means that pills aren’t guaranteed to match the dosage or even the ingredients listed on their bottles. A recent study found that 71% of melatonin supplements didn’t match the content of their labels. This means you could be sending a much smaller or larger signal than you intended when your body is used to a gradual rhythm.
Dependence: Be aware that regular melatonin usage may trick your system into thinking it is overproducing melatonin. Your brain is constantly sampling the melatonin in your bloodstream and has a feedback mechanism that will slow production if it overproduces. If you’re constantly adding high doses of melatonin to your bloodstream, your brain will falsely sense it has overproduced and will scale back its natural production.
If you plan to use melatonin, it’s worth taking the time to research a reliable supplier. As with any non-regulated supplement, there is no guarantee that the supplement is of high quality unless verified by a third party. Look for “laboratory grade” supplements to ensure legitimacy.
What Are Sleeping Pills?
“Sleeping pill” is a generic term used to describe both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Most widely available sleeping pills target receptors in your brain to slow down your nervous system.
These receptors, known as GABA, are primarily responsible for inhibiting activity in your brain. By activating them, sleeping pills turn down the volume in your brain to the point that you fall asleep.
Are Sleeping Pills Risky?
- Blanket solution: Over-the-counter solutions need to work on a diverse population, so they take a widespread approach and blanket the brain in order to guarantee a dampening effect. This can lead to cognitive side effects the next day such as feeling drowsy or forgetful.
- Unnatural sleep: Sleeping pills are also called “sedative hypnotics” for their ability to knock out activity in the brain. As a result, some pills may cause abnormal nighttime brain waves when compared to natural sleep.
- Dependence: Over time, you can build up a tolerance to sleep aids and a risk of depending upon them. These medications can also cause withdrawal symptoms and a rebound of REM sleep upon stopping use.
Before reaching for a sleep genie-in-a-bottle, there are multiple ways that you can naturally improve your sleep.
- Erland, Lauren AE, and Praveen K. Saxena. “Melatonin natural health products and supplements: presence of serotonin and significant variability of melatonin content.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 13, no. 02 (2017): 275-281. (link)