I will discuss what my data shows, how easy or difficult I found this strategy to implement, and what previous research says. These three factors will be combined for an overall score and grade on how effective melatonin can be for improving sleep.
HOW COULD MELATONIN IMPROVE SLEEP QUALITY?
Melatonin is naturally produced in the body. It is considered the sleep hormone, and it usually begins to be released about two hours before we normally fall asleep at night.
If you are young and healthy, there is a good chance that your brain already produces enough melatonin. In this case, adding melatonin in tablet form may not make much of a difference to your sleep at all.
As people age, sometimes they don’t produce enough melatonin naturally, so taking pills can help them to sleep better. It’s also really good if you have a delayed circadian rhythm (internal body clock) and want to bring your sleep times forward, or if you have jet lag and again want to sleep at times that are more appropriate for your new timezone.
By combining melatonin at the right time with light exposure at the right time, people can shift their internal body clock by as much as two hours every day. Bigger doses may make you feel sleepier, but doses as small as 2mg still have phase shifting properties, meaning they can help you to fall asleep earlier at night.
Melatonin can be bought over the counter in the US, and this is what I did while I was there to try it out. In Australia, you need a prescription, and this can be provided by your GP.
For the first week, I took melatonin tablets 90-120 minutes before I wanted to sleep. This was as early as 8pm on the Friday, and as late as 11pm on the Saturday.
For the second week, I took no melatonin tablets, and have not taken any since then either.
Let’s see if the melatonin pills had any impact on my sleep for the week…
Comparison: Melatonin vs No melatonin
Based on my sleep diary data, the findings were as follows:
- The number of awakenings:
- No melatonin – 0.86 per night
- Melatonin – 1 per night
- less is better
- Time in bed:
- No melatonin – 7 hours 49 minutes
- Melatonin – 7 hours 28 minutes
- 8 hours is ideal for me
- Time to bed:
- Melatonin – 10:59 pm
- No melatonin – 10:38 pm
- 11:30pm is ideal for me
- Total sleep time:
- No melatonin – 7 hours 24 minutes
- Melatonin – 7 hours 4 minutes
- 7 hours 30 minutes is ideal for me
- Sleep onset latency:
- Melatonin – 10.71 minutes
- No melatonin – 12.86 minutes
- quicker is better
- Wake after sleep onset:
- No melatonin – 12.14 minutes
- Melatonin – 13.57 minutes
- less is better
- Rise time:
- Melatonin – 6:27 am
- No melatonin – 6:27 am
- 7:30am is ideal for me
- Sleep quality:
- No melatonin – 4.57/5
- Melatonin – 4.29/5
- more is better
- Sleep efficiency:
- No melatonin – 94.67%
- Melatonin – 94.64%
- higher is better
AND THE WINNER IS…
With a count of 6.5 points to 2.5 points, the no melatonin week was a generally better week of sleep than the week where I took melatonin tablets every night.
Both weeks were much better than the two weeks prior when I was experimenting with creativity before bed, but it’s hard to know if the second week was better because I had taken melatonin the week before it, or if it was better because I was on holidays and was more relaxed during the days as well as at night time.
We flew down to Tasmania on Boxing Day and spent a really nice week in a secluded spot right on the coast, so I do think this could have contributed to the better sleep I experienced in the second week.
This means that melatonin is potentially helpful, but other factors may play a bigger role than just taking a tablet if you want a consistently better night of sleep.
IS TAKING MELATONIN REGULARLY A GOOD SLEEP STRATEGY?
IS IT EFFECTIVE?
It depends. It has been shown to be effective for people with jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorder, astronauts in outer space, blind individuals and the elderly. For me, it did lead to better sleep than the two weeks before it, but not as good a sleep as the week after I stopped taking it.
I, therefore, give the effectiveness of this strategy a 13/25.
CAN IT BE APPLIED?
It can, but you need a prescription for it in Australia from your GP, and then the tablets can get costly over time if you need to keep refilling your prescription. It’s much easier to take it in the US as they can be bought over the counter.
Once you have melatonin tablets, it still becomes important to know if you are taking the right medication for your sleep problem. A regular review by a sleep physician would help to ensure you are taking the right tablet at the right dose at the right time. This can be expensive, but it is important to ensure you are doing what is best for your sleep and overall health.
I, therefore, give the applicability of this strategy a 15/25.
IS IT SCIENTIFIC?
Garfinkel, Laudon and Zisapel (1995) found that controlled-release melatonin can improve sleep quality in the elderly more than a placebo can. This helps to offset the decline in natural melatonin production, and is especially effective for elderly people who complain of insomnia (Garfinkel et al., 1995).
A 2005 meta-analysis by Brzezinski and colleagues found that across 17 studies, melatonin reduced time taken to fall asleep by 4 minutes, increased sleep efficiency by 2.2%, and increased total sleep time by 12.8 minutes. For people with insomnia and no other medical conditions, the improvements in sleep efficiency and total sleep time can be even greater (Brzezinski et al., 2005).
A more recent meta-analysis showed the strongest benefits for melatonin in individuals with delayed sleep phase disorder, primary insomnia and blind patients (Auld, Maschauer, Morrison, Skene & Riha, 2017).
As Gandhi and colleagues (2015) said, melatonin is required for effective sleep regulation. For a lot of people, this occurs internally at the right times. Where it doesn’t, external melatonin given at the right time can help.
I, therefore, give the science of this strategy a 40/50.
Overall, taking melatonin tablets regularly at night as a way to sleep better gets a score of 13/25 + 15/25 + 40/50 =
WHAT I RECOMMEND
First, get some morning sunlight if you are wanting to go to bed a bit earlier at night. Even 30 minutes shortly after you wake up can help you to feel more energetic during the day and get to bed earlier at night.
Avoid any devices that emit blue-light in the last two hours before bed. If it’s a phone or a tablet and you want/have to be on it, but it on night mode under the brightness and display in your general settings. If it is your computer and you want/have to be on it, download f.lux and have it installed on your computer. If it is the TV and you want/have to watch it, buy a pair of blue-light blocking glasses and put them on in the past two hours before sleep. There are even new lights that you can have installed in your house that become more orange/red in colour the closer it gets to bedtime. All of these things are likely to assist you more than melatonin tablets.
If you have tried all of the above strategies and you are still not sleeping at the times you want to, see your doctor or get a referral to see a sleep physician. They will tell you if melatonin is likely to be helpful for you, how much to take, and when to take it.
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