Melatonin For Sleep: Can This OTC Supplement Cure Your Insomnia?

Melatonin, a hormone produced by your body, is readily available as a sleep supplement at local drugstores to improve sleep quality and limit sleep disturbances.

If you’ve ever mentioned having trouble with your sleep, chances are someone has recommended you give melatonin a try.

It’s easily one of the most commonly turned to sleep aids out there. In fact, nearly 3 million Americans used a melatonin supplement in 2012.

It’s likely this number has only continued to climb since then, particularly during the coronavirus where even more people have reported experiencing insomnia symptoms.

But what exactly is melatonin and how can it make you sleep better?

Here we’ll answer those questions, take a deeper look at how it should be used, and explore who it’s best suited for.


What’s Melatonin?

When you think of melatonin, what comes to mind?

If you’re like most, you probably imagine the sleep aisle at your local grocery store that’s teeming with colorful bottles of gummies, tablets, chewables, and more - all with bold claims for a more peaceful night of rest.

And while, yes, melatonin is available as an OTC supplement, it is first and foremost a hormone that your body produces to help you fall asleep.

Quick science lesson (don’t worry, we won’t go too far into the weeds):

Your pineal gland, a small, pea-sized gland located in your brain, produces melatonin where it is then distributed throughout the bloodstream.

That’s right - whether or not you take a supplement at the end of the day, your body produces melatonin as a hormone to help regulate your circadian rhythm.

When it gets dark outside, your pineal gland gets the memo to start releasing more melatonin which in turn tells your body it’s time for rest.

It’s simple:

More melatonin = You feel sleepy. Less melatonin = You feel awake.

Though research is still early, there are signs that this hormone does more for your body than just regulate your sleep-wake cycle.

It’s been suggested that melatonin production plays a part in your immune system by activating your body’s T-cells, the cells that help your body fight against foreign substances.

Recent studies also show that Melatonin may work as an antioxidant that improves skin and hair; however, research in this area is still quite limited.

Last but not least, as mentioned above, melatonin is also the primary ingredient in a range of supplements that may help you sleep (Notice, we say “may.” More on that later).

Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a doctor dual board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine, says that Melatonin supplements can be a great option for those looking to overcome sleep problems:

“I’ve worked with numerous older patients in whom I have seen improvements in sleep with the use of melatonin supplements. It’s always interesting to see how far this relatively common supplement can go in the right person, and I believe it is always worth a shot in someone who comes in with trouble falling or staying asleep.”


How Melatonin Works

Melatonin works by binding to receptors throughout your body, including in your brain, your retinas, your kidneys, your skin, and more.

As it’s released, it relaxes your body and reduces nerve activity in your brain. Melatonin also inhibits the release of dopamine, a hormone that can cause agitation and wakefulness.

So what happens if your body doesn’t produce enough melatonin?

Simply put:

You’ll have trouble falling asleep or getting a full night of rest.

Smoking, stress, too much blue light close to bed, and not enough natural light during the day are all factors that could potentially hamper your melatonin production - therefore leading to fewer hours and lower quality of sleep.

On the flip side, there is such a thing as overproduction of melatonin.

This is especially common during the winter hours when days are shorter and we see less of the sun. This is one reason why you may feel more sluggish during the winter months.

Less exposure to light can signal the brain to create too much of the hormone. In some cases, this can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).


What About Melatonin Supplements?

Whether your internal clock has been thrown off, you’re having a particularly stressful time in your life, or just experiencing a period of poor sleep, melatonin supplements might be the help you need to get your sleep back on track.

Because they’re available over-the-counter, tend to have small doses, and usually come with mild to no side effects, they’re often one of the first things many people turn to for better rest.

Melatonin has been shown to be particularly beneficial for people who are experiencing occasional insomnia. In these cases, it’s been shown to improve sleep onset, meaning you’ll fall asleep faster.

Additionally, Melatonin has been shown to minimize sleep disturbances, such as wake-ups in the middle of the night, and improve overall sleep quality.

This is beneficial as those who are able to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night are more likely to hit all four sleep phases, including crucial deep sleep.

Outside of insomnia, other clinical trials have shown that these supplements may also help improve rest when related to:

  • Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD)
  • Jet lag (or a change in time zones)
  • Shift work outside of regular hours
  • Surgery-related anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia experienced by older adults

Melatonin supplements are available in multiple forms including gummies, chewable tablets, pills, drinks, and even sprays.


How Much Melatonin Is Too Much?

Let’s revisit the simple formula from above.

More melatonin = You feel sleepy. Less melatonin = You feel awake.

So this means you should opt for a higher dose melatonin supplement right?

The answer is definitely not.

Taking too large of a dose can impact the safety of melatonin. In fact, taking too much can actually have the opposite effect of what you want to happen, making you stay awake even longer.

This is a case where less equals more.

You can start with doses as low as .5mg. It’s possible to buy melatonin in significantly higher doses, but most health care providers don’t recommend going higher than about 3mg.

Dr. Dimitriu warns that taking too much melatonin can worsen the effects of sleepiness rather than improving it:

“I generally advise people to never take melatonin at doses higher than 3mg - and many studies have shown efficacy at a 110 dose of 3mg - which is 300 micrograms. People often take too much - more than 3mg or they do not try the supplement long enough to get a clear idea if it works. I often recommend at least 1 week of regular use to make the call.”

He also points out that it’s important to make sure you’re maintaining good sleep hygiene as a complementary practice throughout your melatonin trial.

“I often tell people to use this opportunity to ‘work with the medicine’ rather than fight against it or wait for something to ‘knock them out’,” said Dr. Dimitriu.

The best practice is to speak with a doctor to learn what dosage you should try. In most cases, you’ll start with a small dose and only increase it if needed.

In addition to keeping you awake, high doses of melatonin can have side effects like:

  • Changes in mood
  • Increased anxiety
  • Upset stomach
  • Joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

Though less common, side effects are still possible even with low doses of melatonin. These might include:

  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea

In many cases, the use of melatonin is safe for short-term use. But be sure to follow instructions and consult a doctor about any sleep medicines or supplements.


Immediate-Release Vs. Extended-Release Melatonin

In addition to the levels of melatonin you’re taking, you should also be aware of how long the effects of melatonin will last in your system.

Compared to other sleep aids, this one has a relatively short half-life of about 40-60 minutes. This means after about an hour, the effect of melatonin is reduced by half. The exact amount of time depends on you and other certain factors.

Most melatonin supplements you’ll see are immediate-release melatonin. As your body digests the capsule or gummy, the melatonin will dissolve quickly, entering your bloodstream all at once.

For people who have trouble falling asleep, this works just fine.

But if you find yourself usually able to fall asleep but can’t stay asleep, the effects of regular melatonin might wear off too quickly to help you.

In this case, you may find more benefit from extended-release melatonin.

This version of the supplement dissolves more slowly. So instead of getting the full dose of melatonin all at once, you’re delivered smaller doses over several hours.

That can keep some melatonin in your system throughout the night, helping you stay asleep better than a larger dose right before bed.

Dr. Dimitriu told us:

“Immediate release (or non-ER melatonin) is usually better for people who have trouble falling asleep in the first place. Extended-release melatonin can help people with middle of the night, or early-morning insomnia. With any extended-release formulation, it’s important to be careful with falls, dizziness, and especially driving in the mornings.”

We recommend speaking with a doctor to understand which version is the right one for you.


Who Shouldn’t Use Melatonin?

Melatonin may be easily accessible with no need for a prescription, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right solution for everyone.

In fact, there are some people who should avoid the use of this supplement. Those who shouldn’t use melatonin include:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Depression
  • Seizure Disorders

Melatonin also isn’t recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, as there hasn’t been enough research to support its use.

Melatonin can also lead to negative drug interactions. Be sure to take caution and speak with a doctor if you’re currently taking any of the following:

  • Anticonvulsives
  • Antidepressants
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Blood thinners
  • Diabetes medications
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Other sleep aids or sedatives

One final thing to point out:

Melatonin is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a “dietary supplement.”

This regulation is less strict than the regulation for prescription drugs or other over-the-counter medications.

As a result, it’s important to make sure that you choose a brand that actually contains what it says on the packaging. Talking to a doctor can help ensure that you know what you’re taking and how much.



Years of studies have found melatonin to be a safe and effective sleep aid for a wide variety of people. It is easily available and may be the perfect solution for people who are experiencing sleep problems, especially on a temporary basis.

Still, as with any medication, supplement or not, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor about melatonin. A sleep expert can rule out any other sleep disorders or conditions and help find the right solution for you.