Want an easy way to start a highly-profitable, $200 million-per-year health fad? Tell the insomnia industry that your “all-natural” supplement is the cure-all secret to sleep problems, and buy your own “research” to support your claims!
Yep, I’m referring to the absurdity of the “melatonin madness” craze, which has been going strong since the mid-90s. The wildly-exaggerated and outright-fraudulent claims used to sell the supplement have been bafflingly successful, in spite of the grave lack of legitimate scientific evidence to support them. The very few selected studies which point to the supposed benefits of melatonin are seriously flawed—with one even found to have been conducted by a scientist who owns a company that sells melatonin!
If you’ve been taking this supplement with the intent of improving your sleep, I’m sorry to tell you that you’ve been duped. Melatonin doesn’t work, it isn’t safe, and you could be seriously gambling with your health if you continue to take it.
Why Melatonin is NOT a Sleep Aid
If you’re into natural health, chances are that you’ve tried taking melatonin for sleep before. Because, why not, right? Everything you read about this stuff says that it’s completely natural, and a necessary hormone that you need to sleep!
Well, I may be in the minority when it comes to opinions on this “natural” supplement, but I absolutely do not recommend taking melatonin.
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced in the body, but just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean that taking the hormone as a supplement is a good idea. Why do people take melatonin? Well, because it’s associated with sleep. But that is only because melatonin is a stress hormone. It is produced in response to the stress of your body exposed to darkness, without exposure to natural light. Darkness is actually highly stressful to the body, and the body’s response is to sleep, which is anti-stress.
Let me clarify that—melatonin does not promote sleep, it simply turns on around the time that your body needs to sleep, in response to the stress of darkness. Its function is more that it reminds your body what time of day it is—night time—and adds to the stress load of the darkness. Your body will naturally want to counteract this stress by going to sleep. But as the saying goes, “Correlation does not equal causation.” It’s not the melatonin that signals your body to sleep—it’s only signaling that it’s dark outside!
Your body produces melatonin out of the amino acid tryptophan. When you consume tryptophan, as is found plentifully in muscle meats, the acid is converted to serotonin. And serotonin is converted into melatonin, however, this conversion happens more efficiently at night, because light blocks the production of the hormone. That is why people mistakenly think that avoiding bright lights at night is beneficial—so you can produce more melatonin. But this is simply not based in sound biological science.
If you struggle with insomnia and think that your melatonin supplement is the answer because it gives you more “sleepy hormone,” I can assure you, the problem is not that your body can’t produce enough melatonin, as though that were something you need to fall asleep in the first place. It’s not. It’s simply a hormonal reaction to the stress of darkness, but thankfully one which is vastly overshadowed by the anti-stress benefits of sleep. You will sleep best if stressful melatonin levels are minimized, not increased with supplementation!
What the Makers of Melatonin Don’t Want You to Know
In spite of all the hype, very little scientific research has been done on melatonin supplements. And in fact, the limited evidence to support it as a sleep aid has indicated that it may only be useful in remedying jet lag and may help to induce sleep in the elderly—and again, these studies are often biased and paid for by the industry itself. They also were found to have used healthy sleepers as subjects, not people who have insomnia. And the results were very inconsistent.
There simple is no solid scientific evidence to support melatonin’s effectiveness for treating insomnia in young and middle-aged adults. NONE! And there have been several studies which actually concluded that melatonin definitively does not significantly improve total sleep time, nor reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. It has therefore been proven completely ineffective in treating insomnia.
“But melatonin works! I get sleepy when I take it!”
Yeah, you might. The reason why it’s making you feel sleepy is in part due to the fact that melatonin induces a mild stupor in which you become less reactive to stimuli and cognition is impaired. Additionally, the body’s core temperature drops, and blood is restricted to the brain, heart, and organs (vasoconstriction).
These are all symptoms associated with a sleepy, drowsy state of being, which is why it may feel as though you’re being naturally primed for sleep when you take melatonin. (You’re also likely to be under the influence of the placebo effect—studies showed that even prescription sleep aids provided only about 10 more minutes of sleep than a placebo!) Because melatonin is produced prior to and during sleep, its reputation as the “sleep hormone” has been unfortunately born.
Remember, the biological action of melatonin does not initiate sleep. If you think your melatonin supplement “knocks you out” at night, you’re either experiencing physiological effects of stupor, which can cause grogginess, dizziness, and drowsiness especially in large doses (anything more than 1 mg), or you’re simply experiencing the placebo effect. And you’re actually suppressing your body’s ability to sleep soundly at the same time.
Synthetic melatonin supplementation inhibits your body’s metabolic rate. When the metabolism goes down, adrenaline goes up in direct response. And when adrenaline goes up, so does melatonin, which further slows the metabolism. This perpetuates the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system, which worsens your sleep quality. Minimize melatonin, and you’ll help your body stay de-stressed and sleep better during the night. There are better ways to induce drowsiness without the dangerous side effects of excess melatonin.
The Many Dangers of Melatonin
Continued use or excessive levels of melatonin in the body has been shown to have the following effects.
- Causes vasoconstriction of the brain, organs, and heart. Doesn’t that sound healthy? Melatonin can be very dangerous to anyone with heart problems, especially.
- Shrinks and involutes the thymus gland. This gland is critical to the immune system. Damage to the thymus gland can lead to autoimmune disease. Melatonin has the same atrophic effect on the pineal gland—the gland which produces the hormone in your body naturally.
- Shrinks sex organs. Yes, as in, testes, ovaries, and the genitals! This is especially a concern for growing children, whose sexual and hormonal development may be impaired by melatonin. And these effects are permanent.
- Inhibits thyroid function. Melatonin stimulates the production of estrogen, and inhibits progesterone, which in turn down-regulates the thyroid and reduces plasma levels of T3 and T4.
- Increases heart rate and perpetuates the stress cycle. Melatonin stimulates increased adrenaline, cortisol, and aldosterone—three of the primary stress hormones. It slows the metabolism, and causes the release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream, which further stimulate the stress response.
- Causes infertility. It breaks my heart to think of all the women out there trying to conceive who may likely take this “all-natural” supplement nightly to help them sleep, when it’s hurting their health and their chances of conception, and is probably worsening their sleep! Shockingly, melatonin is actually being tested in the Netherlands as a contraceptive—but are we hearing about these effects? No! And get this—the researchers are not finding sleepiness as a reported side effect of the contraceptive melatonin. Oh, the irony!
When you think of melatonin, think stress, stress, stress. Even with all these dangers aside, the hormone is simply not designed to induce sleep. Again, it simply happens to correlate with sleep cycles because it’s produced in response to the stress of darkness. You can’t eliminate the production of melatonin entirely—your body will naturally produce a small amount no matter how healthy your metabolism is and your stress system kept under control. And that is okay—but we certainly don’t want to burden ourselves even further by increasing melatonin, or popping it as a “sleep aid!”
Don’t believe the hype
If you take just one thing away from this post, please let it be this: when you take melatonin supplements, you are ingesting a synthetic hormone and therefore disrupting your body’s own natural hormonal balance.
I’ll repeat that. Melatonin is a HORMONE. Not a vitamin, not a mineral, not an amino acid. Melatonin supplements are a synthetic hormone. Should we really be carelessly throwing back hormone therapy pills just because they’re based on “natural” hormones?
Are hormonal birth control pills “all-natural?” Or do you need to go to a physician who will determine whether or not hormonal pharmaceuticals are appropriate for your body, in order to get a prescription for them?
As you can see by now, the only reason why we’ve all been duped into taking synthetic melatonin hormone supplements is pure and simple marketing tactics.
You won’t be able to cure your sleep problems by taking pills. That’s because what’s really at the root of sleep disturbances and insomnia is blood sugar regulation—your body’s glucose metabolism that produces cellular energy and balances all the hormones in your body that regulate your sleep-wake cycles.
After years of struggling with abnormal sleep cycles and researching the biology of sleep, I’ve written a brand NEW ebook to help others finally achieve healthy sleep like I did.
I did recover from insomnia, and you can, too. Without pills, without synthetic hormones, without the stress of trying one failed remedy after another. The solution is simple—fix your blood sugar regulation, and the balance of hormones which govern your sleep-wake cycles will be restored. The Sleep Solution is a simple guide to show you exactly how to do that.
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And if you want to learn some easy ways to improve your sleep without potentially dangerous melatonin supplement, check out these posts for a couple of tried-and-true insomnia remedies many of my readers and I swear by:
Sources and additional references:
Jacobs, Gregg D, PhD. (2009) Say Goodnight to Insomnia.
“Melatonin: Not a Magic Bullet for Sleep,” Dr. Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM