Does Melatonin Really Help Us Fall Asleep?

Melatonin supplements may be commonly touted as a sleep aid, but there’s limited evidence to show that the extra melatonin does anything more than cause a placebo effect on our sleep.

Shocked? We were too, so we dug a little deeper into how melatonin works, and what we can actually do to use it to our advantage.

About melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland in the brain around sunset, sending a signal to our bodies to be ready for sleep a few hours after the sun goes down. Upon the release of melatonin, our bodies prepare for rest in a few ways — such as lowering our brain temperature and increasing our sleepiness.

Our brain continues to secrete melatonin throughout the night, peaking around 2 to 4am. When morning comes, melatonin production stops. Cortisol gets released instead, which boosts our bodies’ wakefulness. This rise and fall of our melatonin and cortisol levels is part of our circadian rhythm, and helps us regulate our sleep-wake cycle.

Takeaway: Melatonin tells our bodies when to fall asleep based on daylight hours, but it won’t make us sleepier, or make sleep come any faster.

Melatonin for general insomnia or sleep quality

Most people already produce enough melatonin to prime our bodies for sleep after sunset. For those of us struggling with falling asleep or getting quality sleep at night, any extra in the form of supplements is unlikely to be of help.

Although some use it to moderate their sleep cycles while working night shifts or adjusting to jet lag, the science is still out on how much supplements help in these cases.

Here's how we can work with our body’s natural levels of melatonin to get better sleep instead.

Fall asleep faster with a routine

Be consistent with when you sleep and wake up. If you happen to get less sleep than usual, resist the urge to get some extra hours of shut-eye in the morning. It’s what many researchers recommend for jet lag as well.

Rather than compensating for those hours lost, sleeping more can throw off our sleep cycle and hurt our ability to fall asleep the next night. Staying awake while the sun is up helps us build the drive to fall asleep in the evening. The next day, our bodies will be cued by the sunlight to sleep and wake more easily.

Work with your natural melatonin levels by getting up around the same time each day, even on the weekends! Image c/o @manda.olivia.

Before bed, quiet your mind with something that relaxes you — it doesn't have to look like what everyone else is doing. Image c/o @bellazahirzain.

Wind down your way

There’s no point in tossing and turning about how well you’re sleeping either. In fact, the quest to fine-tune our bodies’ capacity for good sleep may increase our stress around sleep and keep us awake instead.

There’s no right or wrong way to unwind. We’re told we should do many things before bed —staying away from blue light, putting away our devices, sleeping or showering at the right temperature, taking or avoiding certain food and drink, to name a few — but the best way to unwind is by doing something that helps you quiet your mind and feel more relaxed.

You may also find these resources useful:

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