Melatonin - A Hormone, A Scam, and Why You’re Taking Too Much
It’s tricky stuff, melatonin.
Most think it’s just a basic sleeping pill. There it sits on the shelves of every Walmart and grocery store in America, after all.
Yet nobody really likes it, do they? Have you ever met anyone who says “Wow, melatonin helps me sleep so well!” No, you haven’t, despite it being a nearly billion-dollar industry. Yet it does do something. Maybe it works for a day or two. Maybe it gives you crazy dreams, and maybe you wake up every three hours, but that’s better than not sleeping, right?
Well, it’s not so clear.
The effects of melatonin are far more complex than the sleep supplement industry would have you believe. Yet since every dose of Hibernate contains a tiny amount of melatonin, we feel it’s our duty to explain this unique hormone to you. It’s important stuff. It could change your life. If only an entire billion-dollar industry wasn’t hell bent on scamming you and making you overdose on it every night.
What is Melatonin and How Does it Work?
Melatonin, or N-acetyl-5-methoxy tryptamine, is a hormone produced in the pineal gland. After sunset, when your optic nerve registers that night is falling, the pineal gland starts pumping melatonin into the blood. This signals to your body that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin, thus, is the trigger that starts your sleep cycle. It does NOT make you sleepy. Other processes in your body do that. Melatonin only tells those processes that it’s time to get started.
This process was wonderfully described by Dr. Matthew Walker, Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC-Berkeley, in his 2017 NPR interview:
“…one way to think of melatonin is a little bit like the starting official in the 100-meter race at the Olympics, that official with the gun. The official melatonin actually organizes the great sleep race and then begins the race. But that official does not participate in the race itself. And that's the case for melatonin and sleep.
There are a whole set of different chemicals and brain mechanisms that actually generate sleep and get you into sleep. Melatonin simply times when sleep is going to occur, not the generation of sleep itself.”
Melatonin isn’t unique to humans, however. We’ve found it in virtually all vertebrates, and it’s also produced in plants like St. John’s Wort (AKA the most useless supplement in the world), as well as common foods such as bananas, grapes, rice, wheat, barley, and oats (though not enough to help you sleep). It’s this little quirk (it comes from plants) that makes melatonin one of the only human hormones legally allowed to be sold over-the-counter. It’s cheap to synthesize, and it’s wholly unregulated by the FDA. Thus, the ten thousand brands you see at the store.
Why Melatonin is Useful
Synthetic melatonin can be extremely useful for people who have sleeping trouble. To understand why, however, you first need to understand what causes most sleeping troubles.
Like every other characteristic expressed in the human genome, melatonin production occurs along a spectrum. Some people are tall, others are short. Some sweat a lot, others not so much. Some produce tons of melatonin and fall asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow. Others, well, you know how it goes.
Then there is the issue with light. Perhaps your brain produces enough melatonin, but your eyes are uniquely sensitive to nocturnal light. This is a problem for melatonin production, because the pineal gland pretty much shuts down when you expose your eyes to artificial light after sundown. So even if you’re otherwise healthy, staring at your phone all evening may signal to your pineal gland: “No melatonin, thanks. It’s still daytime! We don’t need to go to sleep yet.”
It’s these overly light-sensitive people, or those who naturally produce too little melatonin, who seem to benefit the most from exogenous supplementation. A proper dose (0.2-0.3mg) can help these people fall asleep like nature intended.
The Problem with OTC Melatonin Supplements
Here’s a fun game: go to any store where melatonin is sold, and try to find a single bottle with 0.2-0.3mg doses.
Because that’s the ideal dose: 0.3mg or less.
Want proof? Research has proven it over and over again:
- Elderly people taking 0.3mg sleep better and have less side effects than those taking 3mg
- Dose-response effects plateau at 0.3mg
- Doses of 0.3mg to 0.5mg cause blood Melatonin levels most similar to those seen in healthy young people
Our experience has also shown that this is approximately the ideal dose - one that helps you fall asleep naturally, but doesn’t cause any of the side effects associated with high dosages.
Why then do supplement manufacturers seem hell-bent on making you take 3, 5, or even 10mg? 0.3mg provides the absolute maximum amount of melatonin that your body would ever produce on its own. Why take 30 times that much?
That’s a very good question, and we don’t know the answer. Surely there are economies of scale involved. Regardless, most manufacturers either don’t know that they’re selling too much for a healthy human, or something far more insidious: they simply don’t care. Unfortunately, this is the case for most of the common, cheap sleep aids on the market. Examine the labels and you’ll find what amounts to little more than a multivitamin with a humongous 5mg dose of melatonin.
But are huge doses so bad?
What Happens When You Take Too Much Melatonin
Remember Dr. Walker’s analogy? About melatonin acting like the starting gun in a race?
Well, what happens in the Olympic 100m sprint when a runner starts a little early? They fire the gun twice. And what happens then?
Everyone stops, and starts over.
It’s much the same with sleep and melatonin. With 30 times the natural amount of melatonin floating around in your bloodstream, your brain keeps receiving the same signal: “Hey, it’s time to start sleep!” Even if you’re already sleeping, the ignition key gets turned once again: “Hey, it’s time to start sleep!”
Pretty annoying, right? It’s this repetitive signal which (we suggest) causes many people to wake up every few hours when they take high doses of melatonin. It may even be what causes those “crazy melatonin dreams,” and probably explains why most who take melatonin supplements continue to have sleeping problems: the high doses utterly decimate their natural circadian rhythms.
What happens in a race when the starting official keeps firing the gun?
What happens when you turn your car’s ignition key after the engine’s already started?
That’s what happens when you take high doses of melatonin.
If only there were a healthy supplement which could give you a proper, low dose. A dose small enough to avoid side effects, but just high enough to kickstart your descent into natural, healthy sleep. If only, right?
Hibernate’s Balanced, Heathy Dose of Melatonin
Each nightly dose of Hibernate offers 0.25mg of melatonin. Experience has taught us that this is enough to assist the hormonal cascade which leads to sleep, but not enough to continue to disturb your sleep once it starts. Because we only want healthy, natural sleep. We don’t want to wake up at 4AM. We don’t want to stagger up in bed, sweating buckets, after dreams of being attacked by cactus people.
After all, it’s what your body was designed for: tiny amounts of melatonin, and hours of glorious sleep. Let your body do what it wants. Try a tiny dose of melatonin, and see if doesn’t help you achieve the restful, nocturnal sleep state your mind so desperately wants and needs.