When and how you use this potent natural sleep aid matters
The Right Way to Take Melatonin When it comes to this potent natural sleep aid, how and when you take it are the keys to success.
“The main function of melatonin, from a circadian perspective, is to signal the body that it’s nighttime.”
I first heard of melatonin in them id-1990s after complaining to a friend that I wasn’t a morning person. “Take melatonin,” she said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. At the time, a Newsweek cover was touting the supplement as a magic sleep bullet, and prominent signs in windows of health food stores proclaimed, “We have melatonin.” Excited that I might become one of those people who savors watching the rising sun, I started taking it— but not for long.
I did fall asleep and wake up earlier, but after a few days, I was living in a mental fog, something I’d never experienced before. When I stopped taking the supplement, the fog lifted and I decided that sunrises are overrated after all.
Fast- forward to my interview with Michael Grandner, PhD, sleep expert at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and I understand what happened in my personal melatonin experiment. With no clue about how to use it, I took too much, and I took it at the wrong time of day.
How It Works
“The body has many diff erent 24- hour or daily cycles that regulate everything from cellular metabolism to insulin function and hormone secretion,” says Grandner. “The main function of melatonin, from a circadian perspective, is to signal the body that it’s nighttime.”
Unlike many other sleep aids, melatonin is not a sedative. It’s a hormone that our bodies produce at night. Supplements can boost our natural levels and help get our body clock on track.
“Melatonin isn’t like a drug, where a higher dose is more eff ective,” says Grandner. “If anything, lower doses tend to be more eff ective.” He recommends 0.5– 3 mg per day, although some people may benefi t from larger amounts.
Timing is equally important. “If you take melatonin as your body is starting to naturally produce it, you can potentially jumpstart the system and get it to start producing melatonin a little faster,” Grandner says. “Your whole clock is going to shift.” Melatonin generally starts to rise about two hours before you go to sleep, although the exact time varies from person to person. When taking a melatonin supplement:
Start with 0.5 to 3 mg. If you experience side eff ects, such as grogginess or a headache, reduce the dose. Take melatonin about two hours before you want to go to sleep. If it doesn’t work as you hoped, try taking it a bit earlier or later. If you tend to wake up during the night, try a sustainedrelease melatonin supplement. Enhance your own nighttime melatonin production by getting morning light, which has a more benefi cial eff ect on your body clock than daylight later in the day. For about two hours before bedtime, stay away from digital screens and other bright lights, which suppress melatonin production.
You can also increase your body’s melatonin levels by adding a few key foods to your diet. Montmorency tart cherries are the richest food source of melatonin, according to an analysis of various plants at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. A British study of 20 people found that drinking tart cherry juice signifi cantly raised melatonin levels and improved sleep, compared to a placebo.
At Louisiana State University, scientists found that drinking 8 oz. of Montmorency tart cherry juice
in the morning, and again 1– 2 hours before bedtime, increased sleep time by 84 minutes among people with insomnia. Although juices contain much smaller amounts of melatonin than supplements, they can exert benefi cial eff ects on sleep.
Melatonin is also found in tiny quantities in other plant foods, including coff ee, although caff eine counteracts its sleepinducing eff ects. Finnish researchers who examined how nutrition aff ects melatonin noted, “It has been demonstrated that some nutritional factors, such as intake of vegetables, caff eine, and some vitamins and minerals, could modify melatonin production but with less intensity than light, the most dominant synchronizer of melatonin production.” They identifi ed B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and omega- 3 fats as nutrients that support naturally healthy melatonin levels.
Tryptophan is a precursor to melatonin production, and is used as a natural remedy for sleep. Food sources of tryptophan include fi sh, poultry, eggs, whole grains, potatoes, bananas, dairy, and legumes.