More people are turning to melatonin to sleep. But experts say it’s not a panacea for everyone

More adults are turning to melatonin supplements and taking larger amounts of the sleep aid to get a good night’s rest, according to a new study from the United States.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this month, found that melatonin use “significantly increased” from 1999 to 2018 across all demographic groups.

The research was carried out before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, a time when sleep disruption has been on the rise.

Although considered to be relatively safe, Canadian sleep experts and pharmacists say the supplement may not be beneficial for everyone.

“The problem is that sleep is a very complicated issue, and it’s sometimes correlated with other clinical factors,” said Mina Tadrous, a drug safety expert and assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan faculty of pharmacy.

“So one of the concerns is that if people are just using melatonin as a Band-Aid, they might not be addressing an underlying issue.”

What we know about melatonin use

Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the brain’s pineal gland, mainly at nighttime, and it helps to synchronize our sleep-wake cycle with night and day.

It is also sold in many Canadian pharmacies as an over-the-counter sleep aid supplement.

A 2017 study by University of Guelph researchers in Ontario found that some supplements had nearly three to five times more melatonin than what was listed on the label, while others contained up to 83 per cent less of the hormone than what was listed on the label. (CBC)

The supplement is gaining popularity in the U.S., according to the study published in JAMA, which found that overall melatonin use over the study period grew from 0.4 per cent of those surveyed in 1999-2000 to 2.1 per cent in 2017-2018.

Based on data from 55,021 Americans aged 20 and older, melatonin use really kicked off in 2009, the study found.

It didn’t say why, but one Canadian psychiatrist says people may have started making the switch to melatonin that year.

“There might have been a decrease, for example, in the use of prescription sleeping pills, which would be a good reason to switch to more natural-sounding alternatives or to use non-prescription medications to try to get healthier sleep without pills at all,” said Dr. Ramandeep Randhawa, an assistant professor and a psychiatrist in the University of British Columbia’s sleep disorders program in Vancouver.

Canadian experts say that based on what they’re hearing from patients and consumers, melatonin use is common.

“Although we don’t have the same evaluation, many of my colleagues and myself have noticed the same thing where people are speaking about melatonin and using melatonin more often,” Tadrous said.

Sleep experts say it’s important for people to address why they’re having trouble falling asleep, because they could have underlying health issues. (Shutterstock)

There was also a slight uptick in the number of people relying on larger amounts of the sleep aid to fall asleep, according to the U.S. study.

The study’s researchers found that the number of Americans using the sleeping aid in amounts greater than the recommended maximum of five milligrams per day grew from 0.08 per cent in 2005-06 to 0.28 per cent in 2017-18. Dosage amounts weren’t tracked prior to 2005.

Melatonin is considered a dietary supplement in the U.S., where it’s regulated by the Food and Drug Administration but less strictly than a prescription or over-the-counter drug.

Higher doses can cause side-effects

Melatonin is considered to be relatively safe for most people, but it’s important to know that the long-term effects of using it at higher doses are still unclear, Randhawa said.

“There’s some evidence that the higher the doses, the less effective it might be,” he said.

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Randhawa said higher doses could cause such side-effects as dizziness, nausea, headaches and muscle aches.

Experts also warned that all melatonin supplements are not the same and that the product on the pharmacy shelf could have higher-than-listed levels of melatonin.

A 2017 study by University of Guelph researchers in Ontario found that some supplements had nearly three to five times more melatonin than what was listed on the label.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, also found that some supplements contained up to 83 per cent less of the hormone than what was listed on the label.

The supplement is currently not regulated in Canada, but one sleep medicine specialist said it should be, considering its popularity.

“There should be oversight to ensure that if people are buying melatonin that they’re actually getting what they thought they’re getting on the label,” said Dr. Michael Mak, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and a sleep medicine specialist.

Is melatonin right for all adults?

Mak said melatonin can be beneficial for people who do shift work or are dealing with jet lag.

The supplement also works “very well” for people who struggle to fall asleep before 2 or 3 a.m. during the workweek, he said.

“But if you’re a person with an insomnia disorder, a person who has problems falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early — and it’s not related to internal body-clock issues — then melatonin doesn’t seem to help very much at all,” Mak said.

Experts say exposure to light at night suppresses levels of the hormone melatonin. (Getty Images)

Randhawa said it’s important for people to address why they’re having trouble falling asleep because they could have underlying health issues.

“Those underlying issues can range from being overly stressed, having a lot of other pressures, trouble with anxiety or depression, or just bad sleep habits,” he said. “Certainly taking a pill is no substitute for addressing those problems.”

Mak said although melatonin can be good for some people, he recommends also using other ways to fall asleep, such as waking up every day at the same time.

He also recommends looking at bright light first thing in the morning and avoiding bright lights — especially those from screens — closer to bedtime.

Randhawa said that if you are someone who struggles with sleep, don’t despair because you’re not alone.

“If you’re having trouble with your sleep, you’re in good company — and keep working at it and it will get better.”

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