Melatonin is one of the most popular over-the-counter supplements in the United States. And it’s no surprise, considering nearly 40% of Americans say they have trouble falling asleep.

Dr. John Chewning
Dr. John Chewning
Released naturally from the pineal gland in the brain, melatonin is one of the most important factors on a person’s circadian rhythm – a natural process that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle, said neurologist Dr. John Chewning at Novant Health Neurology & Sleep - Kimel Park in Winston-Salem.

“Melatonin helps us understand that it’s the end of the day and time to start winding down,” he said.

While it’s commonly used as a sleep remedy, melatonin supplements don’t come without risks. And people often misunderstand it. Chewning breaks down the facts in nine key points.

  1. Look for USP Verified.

Anything that is not prescribed is not closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. So you have to be careful when buying over-the-counter supplements.

One thing to look for is a USP Verified label. USP Verification Services tests the quality of ingredients from different suppliers. A product with this label has been voluntarily submitted for testing to show it does not contain hazardous substances. The label also tends to be more accurate in terms of dosing.

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2. Watch for a vegan safe label.

It’s not as common anymore, but 20 or so years ago, melatonin was extracted from animals. Make sure it’s labeled as vegan safe.

3. Take the correct dose.

Studies show that even very small doses of melatonin can affect our circadian rhythm. I’ve found that most adults take between 1 and 10 milligrams. Take the popular OLLY melatonin gummies, for example. One serving is about 3 milligrams of melatonin.

Keep in mind, anything above 30 milligrams is considered potentially harmful and dangerous.

4. Put down the electronic devices.

We tend to block our own melatonin production with all the artificial light that’s in our world. This light – a cellphone or computer screen – can prevent our bodies from producing it naturally. I encourage people to unplug, turn off electronic devices and avoiding stimulating activity for an hour or two before bedtime.

5. Take melatonin a couple of hours before bed.

Most people take melatonin right before bed, but if we're going to use it the way our body produces it naturally, you should take it a couple hours before bedtime. I suggest about two or three hours before sleep to mimic the sun going down.

6. Avoid melatonin that has other compounds in it.

A lot of times when you go to the shelf looking for something to help you sleep, you will see other ingredients such as valerian root, chamomile or lavender. When a product has more of those compounds in it, if you have an adverse effect, you really don’t know if it’s the melatonin or something else. If you’re trying to see if melatonin will help you sleep, get something with just melatonin in it.

7. Be aware of interactions with other medications.

Do not take melatonin if you’re already taking a sleeping pill or other sedative medications, because it can cause excessive drowsiness or dizziness. It can decrease the effectiveness of certain blood pressure and diabetes medications, as well as some seizure medications. It can also prevent blood clotting, so if you’re on an anticoagulant, your doctor needs to know you’re also taking melatonin.

The bottom line: Talk with your doctor before taking melatonin to make sure it won’t interact with any other medications.

8. Don't use it consistently for more than three months.

Melatonin is not considered addictive because it's something we produce naturally. But if you take anything to help you sleep on a regular basis, it can cause what we call a psychological dependence. So, you sort of become your own worst enemy in a way. While it's not a physical addiction, it's more of an expectation.

Studies say it’s considered to be safe to take for up to three months, but there’s no quality research on long-term use.

9. Side effects are possible.

At higher doses, dizziness can be a problem. I also have patients who experience headaches, nausea or even agitation from taking melatonin supplements.

Chewning also recommends keeping a regular sleep schedule to get the seven or eight hours of sleep recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “I always tell people: Your body doesn’t know what a weekend is. The more consistently you choose a time to go to bed and wake up, the better,” he said.

If nothing seems to work, speak with your primary care physician to determine if a sleep study is needed. Learn more here.