Produced naturally by the pineal gland (a small gland in the brain) as daylight fades, melatonin is a neurotransmitter which promotes drowsiness. That’s why it’s often referred to as the sleep hormone.
But melatonin also indirectly controls the time we wake up. This is because the body’s concentration of melatonin gradually diminishes during the night, as that of cortisol increases. It’s at the point that these two concentration curves cross that we wake up. Scientists thus refer to melatonin as have a ‘chronobiotic’ effect, in other words, it plays a role in synchronising our body clock with circadian rhythms.
Melatonin supplements are thus often used by those suffering from sleep problems. These supplements reduce the time it takes to fall asleep as well as the subjective effects of travelling through different time zones (jet lag) (1-3).
Though drinking a little alcohol when on a course of melatonin (or taking the odd melatonin tablet after drinking alcohol) will not produce any dramatic effects, mixing alcohol and melatonin is nonetheless not to be recommended.
Alcohol can actually raise or lower melatonin’s effects. Combining them can cause side-effects such as dizziness, bad dreams, daytime drowsiness, breathing difficulties, increased anxiety … In short, it’s best to take melatonin when you have no alcohol in your system or when you haven’t drunk alcohol in the previous few hours (4-6).
If you suffer from sleep problems more generally, stay away from alcohol and psychoactive substances. Despite their potential sedative effects, they tend to impair sleep quality (7-8).
Other substances that potentially interact with melatonin include:
So you should avoid supplementing with melatonin if you are taking any of these drugs or aids.
In terms of dose, a maximum of 2mg/day is generally recommended. You don’t necessarily need to take a tablet every single day.
As for how long to carry on supplementing, it’s advisable - even though there appear to be few long-term side-effects from taking melatonin - to follow a course for several weeks, stopping after two months, for example (9-10), so that you can evaluate the quality of your sleep. Leave a gap of a few weeks between one course and the next. Occasional use as and when necessary may also be beneficial.
Is melatonin suitable for everyone? In several countries, health authorities have taken the view that melatonin supplementation is contraindicated for the following groups of people:
In addition, melatonin supplementation should be discontinued if you experience any of these side-effects:
Melatonin is usually available in 1mg tablets (that’s the case for Melatonin 1 mg). You can take two tablets a day, reducing the dose to one a day if you find it hard to wake up.
Melatonin also comes in the form of a water and glycerin sublingual spray. Taking it in this form ensures rapid, effective absorption across oral mucous membranes (try, for example, Melatonin Spray).
Many people also turn to synergistic formulations which combine melatonin with extracts of relaxing plants such as valerian, hawthorn, hop, passiflora and Californian poppy. Together, and working synergistically with melatonin, these plant extracts can help improve quality of life (try, for example, Advanced Sleep Formula).
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