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The Misinformation Behind Melatonin

“People think of it as a vitamin, but in reality melatonin is a hormone. Amid the mania for ‘natural treatments,’ that gets overlooked.”

– Craig Canapari, MD, Director of The Pediatric Sleep Center at the Yale School of Medicine

Melatonin is a Hormone
The hormone melatonin is an important tool for physicians, and it’s been proven effective for treating advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS), shift-work sleep disorder, and jetlag—all of which relate to the body’s circadian rhythm. In a clinical setting, melatonin is taken on a strict schedule for a short period of time, and it can people regain their healthy circadian rhythms.

There is also a darker side to the “darkness hormone.” Numerous studies over more than 30 years have shown that, when given melatonin, rats experience delays in the onset of puberty. In people, the potential harmful effects of melatonin supplements include amenorrhea—the absence of menstruation—which is likely due to suppression of gonadotropin-releasing hormone. While this effect is readily reversible with cessation of the medication, we doubt most who pick up this “natural” supplement are expecting to

Melatonin Can Be Habit-Forming
While melatonin is thought to be safe for short-term use, we simply don’t know if it’s safe taken nightly for years on end. There is evidence that melatonin is habit forming, and may prevent your body from producing its own naturally-occurring supply.

According to Dr. Richard Wurtman, the neuroscientist who popularized the use of melatonin as a supplement, “Melatonin supplements work at first, but soon you’ll stop responding because you desensitize the brain. And as a consequence, not only won’t you respond to the stuff you take, you won’t respond to the stuff you make, so it can actually promote insomnia after a period of time.”

Melatonin and Children
On a recent trip to Target, we spotted half a dozen different melatonin gummy products, marketed specifically for children. We also know a number of parents who have given melatonin gummies to their children nightly, with the misunderstanding that melatonin is a natural dietary supplement that’s as harmless as fiber or a probiotic. Melatonin is the second most popular natural product used by children in the United States (fish oil takes first place.), increasing from 0.1% in 2007 to 0.7% (419,000) in 2012. (United States: National Health Interview Survey, 2007-2012)

According to the National Institutes of Health, Melatonin appears to be safe when used short-term. But to date, there are no long-term studies that prove melatonin’s long term safety for children. And given the fact that most children easily produce the hormone without interference, there’s little benefit to gain from taking it as a supplement. According to David Kennaway, head of the Circadian Physiology Laboratory at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute, “Considering the small advances melatonin provides to the timing of sleep, and considering what we know about how melatonin works in the body, it is not worth the risk to child and adolescent safety.”

The Takeaway
While melatonin can be a useful therapy for treating certain circadian rhythm disorders, we don’t believe it should be used over the counter, for children, or as an everyday sleep solution.

We do believe that the amazing benefits of healthy, high quality sleep should be accessible to everyone! Want alternative ideas on how to get a better night’s sleep for you and your family? Check out The Simple Guide to Civilized Sleep*.

Author: Matthew Rader
Photography: Creative Commons

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