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.
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.
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).
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.
“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.
Before reaching for a sleep genie-in-a-bottle, there are multiple ways that you can naturally improve your sleep.