Does Melatonin Really Help You Sleep?

moonrise of 3/4 moonIn a prior post, I mentioned using melatonin to help you fall asleep. I decided to do an experiment to see if melatonin really works. The results of that experiment are below, but first a few words about melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone made in the brain that helps regulate the body’s sleep cycle. Darkness stimulates the production of melatonin while light decreases the production of melatonin. Certain studies have shown that melatonin is effective in decreasing the time required to fall asleep, increasing the number of hours one stays asleep, and improving one’s alertness.

Melatonin is recommended to help alleviate symptoms of jet lag. Melatonin is generally considered safe and non-addictive.  However, if you decide to try melatonin, be sure to consult with your own healthcare provider.  I am not a doctor; this post is just about my own experience with melatonin.

For my experiment, I used liquid melatonin made by a company called Natrol. (Melatonin is also available in tablet form.) The recommended dose is four droppers (4mL) taken 20 minutes before bedtime. Since I had never taken melatonin before, I opted for half the dosage. I took melatonin for three nights in a row in order to replicate the number of nights before test days during the California bar exam.

Baseline sleeping habits

I can generally fall asleep fairly easily, but if I wake up early in the morning (i.e., two or three hours before my normal waking time) I tend to have great difficulty falling back to sleep. Unfortunately, this tends to happen several nights per week. I was interested to see whether the melatonin would effect the speed at which I fall asleep and whether it would help me fall back asleep if I woke up early in the morning.

Night 1

The first night I took melatonin I was amazed at its effect. About 20 to 25 minutes after I took the melatonin, I felt a wave of warmth pass over my body and my muscles seemed to relax. I felt instantly groggy, and a couple minutes later I basically passed out. The next thing I knew, I woke up eight hours later. When I awoke, I felt fully rested without any grogginess that is usually associated with over-the-counter pharmaceutical-based sleep medications.

Night 2

The second night I took melatonin, I did not experience the wave of warmth that I had felt the first night. After about 15 minutes, I felt groggy but did not fall asleep instantly like I did the first night. It is possible that the first night I was exceptionally tired and so the melatonin had a more dramatic effect on me. Still, I fell asleep within 30 to 35 minutes of taking the melatonin, and I had a generally restful sleep.

I did wake up once at about 3 a.m., but was able to fall asleep very quickly, without my mind starting to churn through various thoughts. The next time I woke up was about 20 minutes before my alarm clock would’ve gone off. I had slept for about seven hours. Again, I had no grogginess in the morning and no ill effects that I could note.

Night 3

The third night I took melatonin, was essentially a repeat of the second night, though I slept through the entire night without waking up until my alarm clock rang.

Conclusion

Based on my experiment with my own sleeping habits, I believe melatonin does have a beneficial effect on the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. More importantly for me, I believe using melatonin helps keep the mind calm at night, enabling more restful sleep.

If melatonin sounds like something you might want to use to help you sleep during the bar exam, I suggest you talk to your health care provider about whether it is right for you. If you decide to try it, you might want to buy some in advance of the bar exam and experiment with it make sure that your mind and body do not have any adverse reaction to it.

Note that well-known doctors like Andrew Weil (in his book Natural Health, Natural Medicine) endorse the use of melatonin for short-term use to reset the body’s sleep cycles (such as with jet lag), but do not recommend it for regular use to cure insomnia.

Melatonin is available in liquid or pill form.

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[Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/97214206/]

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