Produced naturally in the body, melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles and various hormones in the body. It is made from the amino acid tryptophan.

The body produces melatonin during darkness (to prepare for sleep) and inhibits production during light. According to some proponents, taking melatonin in the form of synthetic melatonin supplements may help to improve sleep.

In the 1970s and 1980s, research on the effects of melatonin on sleep led to the rising use of melatonin supplements as an alternative treatment for sleep disorders. In the mid-1990s, the popularity of melatonin supplements for jet lag and certain age-related disorders grew dramatically.

Uses for Melatonin

In alternative medicine, melatonin supplements are used to adjust the body’s sleep-wake cycle and are said to help with the following health concerns:

  • Jet lag
  • Insomnia
  • Sleeping disorders due to shift work
  • Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
  • Insomnia associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, cerebral palsy, and blindness.
  • Sleep aid after discontinuing benzodiazepine medications
  • To reduce the side effects of quitting smoking
  • Insomnia due to medication use (e.g. beta-blockers)

Some proponents claim that melatonin may fight some forms of cancer and also reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy. In addition, melatonin is said to help with insomnia associated with certain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia.

Health Benefits of Melatonin

Here’s a closer look at the use of melatonin in alternative medicine and the possible health benefits:

1) Jet Lag

Travel across time zones disrupts the circadian rhythm. Preliminary evidence suggests that melatonin supplements can reduce certain jet-lag symptoms, particularly in people traveling eastward and/or crossing five or more time zones.1

Melatonin may improve alertness during the day, movement coordination, and to a lesser extent, daytime tiredness.

The best results seem to occur when melatonin supplements are started on the day of travel and taken at the desired bedtime at the destination. It is usually taken for several days.

2) Insomnia

Melatonin appears to lessen the time it takes to fall asleep, but only by about 12 minutes (according to one study).1 A number of studies suggest that the optimal time to take melatonin supplements is between half an hour and two hours prior to the desired bedtime. There is some evidence that suggests that melatonin may be more helpful for older adults, possibly because they may have less melatonin in their bodies. Most studies have been small and short in duration, so further research is needed.

3) Shift Work

Although night shift work disrupts the circadian rhythm, there is little evidence supporting the notion that melatonin can adjust the sleep schedule in people who work at night and sleep during the day. It doesn’t appear to improve sleep after shift work or improve alertness during shift work. 2

4) Sleeping Problems Associated With Blindness

Melatonin may improve sleep disorders in people who are blind.3

5) Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Melatonin has been explored for people with delayed sleep phase syndrome. Research suggests that daily intake for up to four weeks may improve sleep, by reducing the amount of time needed to fall asleep and advancing the sleep onset time1. However, within one year of discontinuing the supplements, a return to pre-treatment sleeping patterns have been noted.

6) Sleep Problems Associated With Developmental Disorders

There have been a number of preliminary studies and case reports on the use of melatonin in children with disorders that result in sleep difficulties, such as autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, or epilepsy. The studies conducted so far suggest that melatonin can shorten the time to fall asleep and lengthen sleep duration.4 However, the side effects and safety of long-term or regular melatonin use in children aren’t known.