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What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. It controls the body’s night and day cycles.

Melatonin helps control sleep and waking patterns. It can be taken as a pill to help with sleep problems, including jet lag and insomnia.

When it gets dark, the body produces more melatonin to help a person to fall asleep. When it is light, the body produces less melatonin and prepares to awake.

What is the role of melatonin?

Melatonin controls the body’s sleeping and waking cycles. It is also claimed that melatonin is an antioxidant that can boost the immune system and prevent ageing and cancer. But these claims aren’t proven.

Taken in pill form, melatonin can re-set the ‘body clock’ and help you sleep and wake at the right times. This can help if you have travelled overseas and have jet lag; if you do shift work; or if you are vision-impaired. It can help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep for longer.

Unlike sleeping pills, melatonin shouldn’t make you feel sleepy the next day and you aren’t likely to become dependent on it.

What happens if I have too much or too little melatonin?

Too little melatonin can lead to sleep problems, depression and other mental illnesses. Too much melatonin can cause headaches, drowsiness, dizziness and nausea.

The body’s natural melatonin level tends to go down as we age. Low levels of melatonin can also be caused by not having enough sleep, travelling across time zones, doing shift work and taking some medicines. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can also lower melatonin levels.

In some people, melatonin levels are too high. This can happen because they:

  • are taking too many melatonin pills
  • remain in the dark for too long (for example, on a long-haul flight)
  • are taking some medicines
  • have seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

How can I adjust my melatonin levels?

The best way to boost your melatonin levels naturally is by getting enough regular sleep, eating regular meals and avoiding caffeine and nicotine. Avoiding bright lights can also help.

Watching TV or using tablets, smartphones, laptops or other electronic devices before bed can make it more difficult to fall asleep. The artificial blue light from these types of devices suppresses the release of melatonin.

If your levels are too high (for example, if you have recently got off a long-haul flight), you can go out into the light in the morning and do some exercise in the evening.

Melatonin pills are available in Australia. Currently, you need a prescription from your doctor for melatonin. From June 2021, a form of melatonin will be available from pharmacies without a prescription for people aged over 55.

There are 2 ways to use melatonin pills. The first is to take them so you feel sleepy and fall asleep more easily. It normally takes about 20 minutes to start to feel sleepy after you take the melatonin. Discuss the best way to do this with your doctor.

The other way is to help re-set your body clock. Take the pill around bedtime in the time zone you are travelling to. It works better if you combine it with bright light therapy — going outdoors into the light during the morning.

It’s important to talk to your doctor about how to take melatonin safely:

  • Because it makes you sleepy, you shouldn’t drive or operate machinery after taking melatonin pills.
  • Taking melatonin if you have drunk alcohol or are taking other sedative medicines or natural products is also not recommended.
  • Don’t use melatonin if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Melatonin should be used as prescribed by your doctor — generally this will be for temporary sleep problems. If you have a long-term sleep disorder, there are other things you can do to help you sleep. These include developing healthy sleep habits and making other lifestyle changes.

There are also ways to help children to sleep better without using melatonin.

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Last reviewed: April 2021

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