The Myths about Melatonin: Finding the Holy Grail of A Good Night’s Sleep

woman-2197947__480When it comes to my kids and medical issues, I am a deep diver into the sea of information on the internet. I don’t just read the top article and panic—I do a deep dive trying to understand. It has served me well over the years, as I have sometimes been able to identify potential issues that doctors have missed. The truth is, with doctors having such big caseloads, I think it is really important that parents become as informed as they can.

So when my son told me he was having difficulty sleeping, I dove in. I read all the articles that I could find about how to promote regular sleep, from limiting screen time to regular sleeping schedules to exercise and meditation. We tried all of them. And, because of my passion for brain science, I read about hormones that promote sleep, particularly melatonin.

In the sea of sleep data, melatonin is a favorite topic. It is a natural hormone, is not addictive, and seems to be promoted as the “magic bullet” for sleep. So, dutiful mother that I am, I ran to the pharmacy to buy my son some melatonin. Every article that I read, as well as the back of the melatonin bottle, suggested taking a pill (typically between 3 and 10mg) at night, giving some time before bed for it to take effect. So that is what we did. We started with 3mg. then moved to 5. We adjusted the time—trying a half-hour before, then an hour. Nothing seemed to work.

Finally, last week, when I realized that he was about to start his junior year on 3 hours of sleep a night, I made an appointment with a sleep doctor, who quickly informed me that almost everyone takes melatonin incorrectly. That is because the myths about melatonin and the way it works are the only thing that is available in the sea of information on the internet (and the back of the packaging).

Here is how melatonin really works:

It is a hormone that is naturally released at sunset in very small doses (.5 mg.). However, in our modern world, our brains are not often getting the message that the sun is setting, preventing the release of the melatonin, which throws off our biological clock. Melatonin is not meant to be a sedative and put you to sleep. For some people that does work in high doses at bedtime, but it is not the way that melatonin is meant to be used.

Our doctor suggested that we search for the smallest does possible (the smallest we could find was 1 mg, which we cut in half) and take it each night at sunset. Guess what? No more sleep issue.

So this is a call to action. I want to spread the word about how melatonin truly works. I will add this information to my presentations about brain science, particularly those focused on the adolescent brain, but this one really makes me want to shout from a mountaintop. How can there be so much misinformation about something that can be so critical in a society of sleep-deprived citizens? So please, help me spread the word.

 

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