I first heard of melatonin in the mid-1990s after complaining to a friend that I wasn’t a morning person. “Take melatonin,” she said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. At the time, a Newsweek cover was touting the supplement as a magic sleep bullet, and prominent signs in windows of health food stores proclaimed, “We have melatonin.” Excited that I might become one of those people who savors watching the rising sun, I started taking it—but not for long.
I did fall asleep and wake up earlier, but after a few days, I was living in a mental fog, something I’d never experienced before. When I stopped taking the supplement, the fog lifted and I decided that sunrises are overrated after all.
Fast-forward to my interview with Michael Grandner, PhD, sleep expert at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and I understand what happened in my personal melatonin experiment. With no clue about how to use it, I took too much, and I took it at the wrong time of day.
How Melatonin Works
“The body has many different 24-hour or daily cycles that regulate everything from cellular metabolism to insulin function and hormone secretion,” says Grandner. “The main function of melatonin, from a circadian perspective, is to signal the body that it’s nighttime.”
“The main function of melatonin, from a circadian perspective, is to signal the body that it’s nighttime.”
Unlike many other sleep aids, melatonin is not a sedative. It’s a hormone that our bodies produce at night. Supplements can boost our natural levels and help get our body clock on track.
Best Way to Take Melatonin
“Melatonin isn’t like a drug, where a higher dose is more effective,” says Grandner. “If anything, lower doses tend to be more effective.” He recommends 0.5–3 mg per day, although some people may benefit from larger amounts.
Timing is equally important. “If you take melatonin as your body is starting to naturally produce it, you can potentially jumpstart the system and get it to start producing melatonin a little faster,” Grandner says. “Your whole clock is going to shift.” Melatonin generally starts to rise about two hours before you go to sleep, although the exact time varies from person to person. When taking a melatonin supplement:
- Start with 0.5 to 3 mg. If you experience side effects, such as grogginess or a headache, reduce the dose.
- Take melatonin about two hours before you want to go to sleep. If it doesn’t work as you hoped, try taking it a bit earlier or later.
- If you tend to wake up during the night, try a sustained-release melatonin supplement.
- Enhance your own nighttime melatonin production by getting morning light, which has a more beneficial effect on your body clock than daylight later in the day.
- For about two hours before bedtime, stay away from digital screens and other bright lights, which suppress melatonin production.
Food Sources of Melatonin
You can also increase your body’s melatonin levels by adding a few key foods to your diet. Montmorency tart cherries are the richest food source of melatonin, according to an analysis of various plants at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. A British study of 20 people found that drinking tart cherry juice significantly raised melatonin levels and improved sleep, compared to a placebo.
At Louisiana State University, scientists found that drinking 8 oz. of Montmorency tart cherry juice in the morning, and again 1–2 hours before bedtime, increased sleep time by 84 minutes among people with insomnia. Although juices contain much smaller amounts of melatonin than supplements, they can exert beneficial effects on sleep.
Melatonin is also found in tiny quantities in other plant foods, including coffee, although caffeine counteracts its sleep-inducing effects. Finnish researchers who examined how nutrition affects melatonin noted, “It has been demonstrated that some nutritional factors, such as intake of vegetables, caffeine, and some vitamins and minerals, could modify melatonin production but with less intensity than light, the most dominant synchronizer of melatonin production.” They identified B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fats as nutrients that support naturally healthy melatonin levels.
Tryptophan is a precursor to melatonin production, and is used as a natural remedy for sleep. Food sources of tryptophan include fish, poultry, eggs, whole grains, potatoes, bananas, dairy, and legumes.
3 Sleep-Disrupting Deficiencies
- Magnesium: A lack of this mineral can disturb natural circadian rhythms and interfere with the natural function of melatonin.
- Vitamin D: Low levels can lead to insomnia and interfere with the quantity and quality of sleep.
- Iron: Most common in pregnancy, an iron deficiency can underlie restless leg syndrome—uncomfortable sensations in the legs or other body parts that disturb sleep.