Raise your hand if you’ve ever wished for a magical pill to help you fall sleep faster. Everyone? We thought so. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three American adults don’t get enough sleep, which means one-third of us are walking around like zombies on the regular. (One survey even found that 68% of Americans have trouble falling asleep!) That’s why it’s no surprise that melatonin supplement use doubled in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012—we’re all dying for help. But melatonin’s side effects exist, and they’re worth thinking about if you’re considering taking a supplement.
Poor sleep or too little sleep (fewer than seven hours) can have serious health consequences: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even anxiety and depression all have ties to sleep deprivation. And taking melatonin, which is a naturally occurring hormone that aids in the wake-sleep cycle, makes sense, since’s it’s a non-addictive sleep aid. It can, however, become less effective with repeated use, and it might make you feel gross the next day.
“Like any supplement or medication, there is always the potential for side effects,” said Dr. Jennifer Wider, a women’s health expert. “The more common [melatonin side effects] include: headache, day-time sleepiness, dizziness, stomachache, irritability, and short-term depression.”
Dr. Wider added that “you can’t just pop these like Skittles,” noting that melatonin supplements are dosed and should be taken as directed. Plus—as with any new supplement or drug—you should talk to your doctor before adding melatonin to your bedtime routine. “Melatonin can interact with other medications, so it’s important to let your health care provider know if you are taking it,” she said. A report from Johns Hopkins Medicine added that melatonin should not be used it you are “pregnant or breastfeeding or have an autoimmune disorder, a seizure disorder, or depression.”
Here’s another thing to consider: A 2017 study found that the melatonin content in 71% of supplements did not meet the claims on the supplement packaging, with some brands coming in at 83% less and up to 478% higher than the listed concentration; the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends looking for products with a “USP Verified” label on the packaging (which means it meets the requirements of the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention).
Melatonin’s not all bad news and side effects, though. Melatonin can work for people who aren’t secreting the hormone on their own because of age (young children and people over 70 produce less melatonin), and for those who work overnight shifts and must sleep during the day or are dealing with major jet lag (melatonin production is triggered in the brain by darkness). It’s also fairly safe to take for a month or two (aside from the side effects we’ve already noted), but try taking just one to three milligrams before bedtime. As far as kids are concerned, there’s no definitive research on the minimum age for melatonin use, so if your child is struggling to get enough sleep, talk to your pediatrician about your options. And talk to your own doctor, too, before starting a new supplement—there may be better ways to get to sleep faster and stay asleep, like turning off your phone an hour before bed and sleeping in a dark, cool room.