The Surprising Truth About Melatonin

I’ve suffered from insomnia my whole life.  Horrifying, life-ruining insomnia- it used to be that on many nights, I would go to bed at midnight, fall asleep somewhere around 3 AM- and then wake up around 6, and find myself unable to get back to sleep.  Insomnia sucks.

For a long time, I used melatonin on and off- it’s probably the most popular insomnia treatment around, but I found the results inconsistent- some nights melatonin really seemed to help me, but most nights it did nothing.  CureTogether seems to agree with me, ranking melatonin as one of the least consistently effective popular treatments for insomnia. 

So is melatonin a load of baloney?

Well, no.  Melatonin is the main hormone responsible for initiating sleep.  That much is beyond dispute.  It’s powerful enough that it’s actually a prescription drug in some countries.  And the issue isn’t that the body has trouble absorbing it either- remember, it does work sometimes.  The truth is rather counterintuitive, and it is this:

With melatonin, less is more. In other words, lower doses are actually more effective than higher doses.  In fact, this has been well-established for over a decade, but few people seem to be aware of it. 

To understand why this is, we need to look at your brain’s melatonin levels during sleep.  The brain starts to produce melatonin about an hour before you sleep.  Melatonin levels rise gradually during sleep, peaking one or two hours before waking, then falling rapidly. 

Higher doses of melatonin actually fast-forward that process, causing you to wake up earlier and have trouble getting back to sleep.  And predictably enough, they cause tolerance- after a few days, the melatonin stops working, and even your body’s own hormone production is thrown off. 

So what’s the ideal dose?  Amazingly, it’s only .3 mg. But that’s a problem- because most commercially available melatonin pills range from 3 to 10 mg. 

You have two options here.  First, you can buy 1 mg tablets and break them in half, or 3 mg tablets and break them into quarters.  No need to hit that .3 mg target on the dot– as long as you’re between .3 and 1 mg, you’re fine.

The second option in my opinion liquid melatonin- it comes in a bottle and you measure it with a dropper.  The best deal I’ve found is this bottle by NOW Foods, which gives you a two year supply at just under a penny per night. 

Note that the serving size is STILL 3 mg- I have never seen a liquid melatonin supplement that actually recommended the proper dose.  It’s just easy to ignore that and give yourself the proper dose, which amounts to a tenth of a dropper.   To be clear, that’s a tenth of the dropper, not the bottle.

As a final note, there is one circumstance where I do believe going for higher dosages, around 3-5 mg, is helpful: when you’re jet-lagged and need to reset your circadian rhythm.  In that case, I’d take the high-dose melatonin an hour before your desired bedtime, and only on that first night.

Bottom line: If you want to use melatonin as a sleep aid, take .3 to 1 mg about an hour before bed. 

Also published on Medium.