Is melatonin the answer to sleep issues?

When you’re stuck in a pattern of poor sleep, life can feel much harder than it should. So could melatonin help you get back on track?

If you or your child struggle to nod off, you’ll be familiar with the nightly frustrations and anxieties of failing to get enough sleep – and the resulting fatigue the next day.

Many sleep-deprived people consider melatonin as a way to escape the cycle.

But does this supplement really work, and what are the potential downsides?

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced in response to darkness – effectively telling you when to wake up and when to sleep.

Manse Medical director and respiratory and sleep medicine specialist Dr Andrew Bradbeer says when your melatonin ebbs, you should feel awake and alert.

“Your brain makes this little chemical all the time, but it ebbs and flows on a 24/7 cycle,”

Dr Bradbeer says.

“When the brain starts to make more melatonin is when the lights go down, ideally.”

What can cause melatonin to be disrupted?

Shift work, jetlag, having young kids, poor sleep habits, anxiety, sickness or adolescence are some of the things that can play havoc with your sleep.

And of course, there’s mobile phones and screens.

“If you get exposed to a lot of bright light at the end of the day, when melatonin is surging, that can really disrupt melatonin secretion,” Dr Bradbeer says.

How melatonin supplements work

Melatonin is also available synthetically.

“When you take melatonin as a supplement, you’re trying to imitate what the brain is supposed to be doing naturally,” Dr Bradbeer says.

He says the most popular melatonin supplement a slow-release form that mimics what the body should naturally be doing overnight.

“It causes your body to respond as if it was getting ready for sleep, but it doesn’t bomb you out or put you to sleep like some of the other sleeping tablets do,” he says.

How to take melatonin safely

Dr Bradbeer says melatonin should be prescribed by your GP, and will ideally only be used intermittently or for a short period.

“So people who are working shifts, for example, might use it to help them switch between shifts,” he says.

GPs are also usually cautious about prescribing to people who are going through puberty, are pregnant or have immune disorders.

“But the evidence of harm in those situations is not particularly strong … it’s a very safe medication,” Dr Bradbeer says.

Melatonin and other sleep strategies

Melatonin is usually just one part of a sleep overhaul, says child psychologist Deirdre Brandner.

“Melatonin definitely works and it’s been a lifesaver for families who have children with significant challenges,” she says.

“But it’s really important that other interventions and therapies are supported to help manage sleep routines.”

Along with getting exposure to natural light as early as possible in the day, Deirdre recommends leaving your phone out of arm’s reach.

She says meditation apps can be effective, as well as listening to podcasts or audio books, which can be switched off via a sleep timer.

Sleep advice for parents

Deirdre says it’s common for teenagers to feel sluggish, because their melatonin production has been disrupted.

She wouldn’t recommend long-term use of melatonin for most kids, but notes people on the autism spectrum may need it more regularly.

Deirdre says a paediatrician or a psychologist is often the best first step for families struggling with sleep issues.

“It’s really important we don’t just rely on melatonin,” she says.

“There’s so many more strategies and behavioural changes we can put in place that get positive results.”

Written by Larissa Ham.