Supplemental Melatonin For Improved Sleep Quality

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For years, my sleep has been hit or miss. Stress and projects are the big drivers that impact my sleep. If I have a lot on my mind, it’s hard to settle into steady sleep. If I wake up in the middle of the night, it’s hard to get back to sleep.

For me, quality sleep is the difference between a productive day where I move projects ahead and a terrible day where I take power naps around lethargic staring at my inbox while feeling guilty about what I’m not getting done.

Enter melatonin.

Melatonin, “is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in animals and regulates sleep and wakefulness,” according to Wikipedia. In other words, we make melatonin in our bodies, and it prompts us to sleep.

As I understand it, the body’s natural inclination is to release melatonin in response to night/day cycles. For instance, I have noticed that I fall into a sleep/wake cycle matching sunset/sunrise when I am on long-distance backpacking trips. When indoors with artificial light, screens holding my attention, and a work schedule that doesn’t care about what the sun is doing, melatonin production, in theory, isn’t as consistent.

Technologies like Apple’s Night Shift for iOS are supposed to help avoid sleep disruption when viewing screens after dark. I find that I can’t stand the look of the screen when the colors have been altered by Night Shift and related applications. That’s a personal preference.

In an attempt to bring sleep regularity to my electronic world, I’ve begun experimenting with a melatonin supplement, taking 3mg about 30 minutes before I want to be asleep. I couple this with a reduction in screen time. A disciplined evening looks like this.

  • 8:30pm. No more Mac, iPad, or TV.
  • 8:30pm – 9:30pm. Reading, probably on my Kindle. The Kindle is backlit, so is that hurting my melatonin production? I’m not sure.
  • 9:30pm. Take 3mg of melatonin.
  • 10:00pm. I’m starting to feel very sleepy, so I shut down the Kindle and drift off.
  • 3:30a – 5:00a. I might wake up to answer the call of nature or to hurl a cat across the room that opted to walk on my head. When on supplemental melatonin, I will fall back asleep. Without melatonin, I rarely fall back asleep.
  • 6:00a – 7:30a. Somewhere in here, I’ll wake back up naturally.

How long I actually sleep depends in part on my workout routine. I find that the gym puts a load on my body that I need extra sleep to fully recover from. I work from home with a flexible schedule and mostly grown-up kids, so it’s rare that I have to be out of bed or at my desk at a specific time. Therefore, I can afford to be flexible with my wake up routine.

How much melatonin is effective?

There is debate in the scientific community about whether melatonin as a sleep aid is effective or not. As a sporadic melatonin user for a few weeks now, the anecdotal evidence I offer is that yes, melatonin supplementation is effective. While this could be due to the placebo effect, I have three data points that clinch the efficaciousness question for me. When supplementing with melatonin…

  1. I get sleepy within 30 minutes of taking the pill every single time.
  2. I fall asleep directly after getting sleepy.
  3. I can fall back asleep if my sleep is disrupted in the middle of the night.

I started with a 10mg supplement, using the American perspective that if some is good, more is better. But upon further consumption of Internet wisdom, I have dropped back to a 3mg supplement instead.

On 3mg, I wake up more easily with less of that oppressed “I’m still sleepy” feeling. 10mg is, for me, too heavy of a dose. This correlates with the Internet wisdom that suggests 0.5mg – 3mg should be effective for most people.

There is some discussion about “pharmaceutical grade” melatonin. I have no opinion here about whether pharmaceutical grade is necessary or not, but the issue seems to be tied to whether or not your body can actually made use of the dose. As there isn’t a meaningful increase in costs, I went for the so-called pharmaceutical grade melatonin in the hopes that such a designation is important.

In the US, melatonin is available on Amazon for short money. I understand that melatonin is regulated in some other places, where it is not available without a prescription. I am currently using this Douglas Laboratories brand of melatonin. 180 tablets is $34.20 as of this writing. That’s a six month supply, even if you use it every single night.

Is melatonin addictive?

My understanding is that, no, melatonin is not addictive. Melatonin is not a drug. Rather, melatonin is a hormone your body produces naturally. In theory, there’s no way that it could be addictive.

In my admittedly short-term experience, melatonin does not create a dependency where I can’t fall asleep without it. I don’t take melatonin every night, and I do indeed fall asleep without it. I just revert back to my lousier levels of sleep when I have not supplemented.


Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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