Research shows that about 60% of postsecondary students experience poor sleep quality. This can have adverse effects, such as daytime sleepiness, impaired academic performance, worsened mood, and more. In order to fall and stay asleep, some students turn to over-the-counter melatonin. When people see that melatonin is classified as a “natural” product, they might think that melatonin is a totally safe solution for poor sleep. However, we do not have enough evidence to recognize melatonin as totally safe and effective, at least not in the long term.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the human brain. It helps maintain the circadian rhythm, which is a 24-hour internal clock that regulates a person’s sleep and wake-up times, among other things. When a person’s environment gets dark (signalling nighttime), their brain’s pineal gland begins to produce melatonin. When melatonin is released, it puts the person in a state of relaxation that helps facilitate sleep.
What does melatonin have to do with the high rates of poor sleep among students?
Aspects of student life can make it hard for our bodies to make the right amount of melatonin at the right time. For example, we might be up late doing homework and the blue light from our screens can delay melatonin production, meaning that we may fall asleep later. As a result, some students turn to over-the-counter melatonin to fall asleep at a desired time. However, because of the limited evidence supporting prolonged melatonin use, it is important to be mindful when taking this drug.
Contrary to popular belief, melatonin does not put people to sleep. Rather, it puts us in a state of relaxation that enables us to fall asleep. Creating an environment which facilitates the production and effects of melatonin can help maximize its benefits. Specifically, it helps to get exposure to daylight during the day and avoid the use of electronic devices 1-2 hours before bed.
Scientists recommend using a small dose of melatonin for a maximum of 1-2 weeks. This kind of short-term use seems to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, in a way ‘resetting’ their circadian rhythms. If sleep problems continue past two weeks, it is best to stop melatonin use and see a clinician for their advice.
Common side effects of melatonin use include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and sleepiness. Although its possible long-term effects are less known, it has been found to affect people who have hypertension, diabetes, or seizure disorders like epilepsy. As such, folks with these conditions should consult their healthcare providers before opting to use melatonin for improved sleep.
Ultimately, melatonin is a hormone produced by the human brain; however, some students consume it to relieve sleep problems. Since there is limited evidence around the safety and effectiveness of melatonin, it is best to seek the advice of healthcare professionals for prolonged sleep problems.
To learn about the steps that you can take to enhance your sleep, visit wellness.mcmaster.ca/topics/sleep.