Sleep is a critical part of maintaining your overall health. However, it’s not always easy to get the rest you need. In fact, research surveys have found that about half of older adults have trouble sleeping. If you’ve ever struggled with ongoing restless nights, then you’ve probably heard of melatonin – a popular supplement used for better sleep. But what exactly is melatonin? And even though it’s available over the counter, is it safe to take every night?
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that signals your body and brain to prepare for sleep. Your body’s natural levels of melatonin vary depending on a variety of factors – but the most influential factor is exposure to light. The pineal gland’s melatonin production is inactive during daylight hours but ramps up after nightfall or when staying in dark environments for prolonged periods of time. That’s why we sleep with the lights out – and why sleep experts recommend avoiding bright TV and computer screens close to bedtime.
In short, melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that makes you sleepy. However, studies have shown that although melatonin helps people get to sleep faster, it doesn’t necessarily increase sleep duration or sleep quality. If you have other conditions that keep you from sleeping soundly such as chronic pain, sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome, melatonin may not be very helpful.
How to take melatonin
Since melatonin promotes the onset of sleep, it’s excellent for adjusting to a new sleep schedule or getting back to your normal sleep schedule after a bout of restless nights.
The effective amount of supplemental melatonin varies from person to person, but most experts advise taking between 0.5 to 2 milligrams about an hour before bedtime. Taking more than 2 milligrams of melatonin will not help you fall asleep faster, but may increase the severity of side effects such as
- Daytime sleepiness
Melatonin is generally regarded as safe for seniors by physicians and pharmacists because its side effects are mild, it’s not habit forming, and it does not cause withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking it suddenly.
However, some of the side effects listed above may present additional challenges for older adults. For example, daytime sleepiness and dizziness can both increase one’s risk of falling. One study on the effects of melatonin and environmental lighting in older adults with dementia found that melatonin helped with sleep and decreased nighttime restlessness, agitation, and aggression. Unfortunately, it also increased withdrawn and depressive dementia-related behavior. But when combined with bright light therapy, these negative side effects were counteracted.
Overall, more research needs to be done to fully understand melatonin’s effects in older adults over prolonged periods. We recommend checking with your health care provider before taking melatonin supplements – especially if you have any health conditions or are taking medications that may affect your sleep or alertness.
Also, keep in mind that melatonin shouldn’t be the first or only remedy you use to try to improve your sleep. Try implementing these lifestyle tips for helping you sleep better as you age.