Considering how much you fantasize about pulling on an eye mask, crawling between your sheets and shutting out the world for eight hours, you’d think falling asleep would be easy. But the truth is, millions of people have trouble hitting the hay. For those looking for a holistic solution—aka not knocking back NyQuil by the capful—melatonin supplements have long been the go-to. It’s all good if it’s natural, right?
A natural hormone that helps nudge your body into sleep mode, melatonin is a central player in your body’s circadian rhythm. But, at the risk of crushing your sweet dreams, sleep experts say many people are taking melatonin the wrong way, which can cause a dependency and wreak havoc on your body.
Here, two well-respected experts—The Sleep Solution author W. Chris Winter, MD (whom Arianna Huffington dubbed “The Sleep Whisperer”), and Nick Bitz, a licensed, board-certified naturopathic doctor and chief scientific officer for the supplement brand Youtheory—give their best advice about the proper procedure for taking melatonin.
The wrong way to take it
“People are getting used to the mentality that more is better and bigger is better, but with melatonin, less is more,” Dr. Bitz says. The supplement expert adds that he’s seeing doses of 3 to 10 milligrams of melatonin available in the marketplace, but he recommends only 0.3 milligrams, or 300 micrograms.
“Anything above 3 milligrams really has a pharmacological effect, or a drug-like effect that can cause heavy sedation,” he says. Heavy sedation might be something you want in the moment—hey, it’s doing its job!—but taking that big of a dose more than three nights in a row can cause some major problems for your body. “That’s when you start to develop a dependency.”
Dr. Winter agrees, saying, “What happens is, your brain just stops making the melatonin because it doesn’t think you need it anymore.” One of the most common signs of this is waking up in the middle of the night. (Fun, right?)
The right way to take it
However, there are a few scenarios in which popping back 3 or 5 milligrams of melatonin is actually beneficial, according to our experts. One is when you’re traveling. “If every three weeks you have to fly to San Francisco for work or you’re going to New Zealand for the trip of a lifetime and you want to hit the ground running, that’s when it’s actually helpful,” Dr. Winter says.
Another time it’s beneficial is when you pulled an all-nighter for work and need a little help getting your sleep schedule back on track. “I don’t think melatonin is bad,” Dr. Winter says. “You just want to have a plan for how you’re using it. And taking a big dose every night after The Voice so you can drift right to sleep isn’t a good plan.”
Dr. Bitz stresses the other right way to take melatonin: smaller doses. “A lot of people are missing the point with melatonin,” he says. “The point is to support your body’s natural production of it—not to override the innate response.” He says that the microdoses are safe to take nightly—best taken an hour before bed—and a much better way to encourage good sleep.
How to boost your own production without supplements
If you want to boost your body’s melatonin production without supplements, Dr. Winter says you should turn down the lights. “The biggest thing you can do is diminish light in the evening,” he says. He personally doesn’t turn on any bright lights after dinner—though dim ones are okay. And if you have to use your computer or want to scroll through Instagram, he recommends doing so with some blue light protection.
This works because the sun going down signals to the body that it’s time to produce melatonin, but artificial lighting at night can interrupt this directive. “Similarly, during the day, you want to make sure you’re around a lot of light,” Dr. Winter says, adding that he keeps his office quite bright for this reason.
A major tip to keep in mind when considering a melatonin supplement is that it should be just that, a supplement. Counting on it as a surefire method to fall asleep isn’t going to work in the long run, but using it correctly to give your body a boost can work wonders. Knowing the difference should help you sleep easy.
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