Counting sheep? Melatonin deficiency may be to blame

For many people who struggle to get a good night’s sleep, melatonin supplements bring relief that counting sheep can’t match. We answer your questions about this popular supplement.

  • What is melatonin?
  • How does it work as a supplement?
  • Is it safe?


Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best gifts you can give yourself this holiday season. Quality sleep is as essential to your overall well-being as food and water. Without it, your brain can’t work effectively and your risk of developing a sleep disorder or serious health condition increases.

If you struggle to fall asleep, you’re not alone. Nearly 80 percent of the adults in the U.S. have difficulty falling asleep at least once a week, according to a study by Consumer Reports.  About 20 percent report using a natural remedy to boost their efforts and melatonin is the supplement they choose most often.

But does it work? Is it safe?

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is the hormone that regulates your biological clock and maintains your sleep-wake cycle. It’s produced by your pineal gland—a small gland located in the middle of your brain.

How does melatonin work naturally in your body?

Your pineal gland is inactive during the day. It “turns on” as the sunlight fades each evening and signals to your brain that it’s time to go to sleep. Your melatonin levels stay elevated throughout the night and fade back again with each sunrise.

What are the symptoms of melatonin deficiency?

Everyone’s “normal” is different, but some of the symptoms of low melatonin levels include:

  • Remaining alert well past 10 p.m. instead of becoming sleepier as it gets later
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking repeatedly throughout the night
  • Feeling sluggish and tired throughout the day
  • Chronic insomnia

If you experience one or more of these symptoms, you may want to have a conversation with your doctor about melatonin and whether it could be affecting your sleep habits. Simple saliva testing can help determine your melatonin levels and whether supplements can help.

What sleep issues does melatonin improve?

Melatonin supplements may help improve several sleep-related conditions, including:

  • Jet lag—a temporary sleep disturbance caused by air travel across multiple time zones
  • Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD)—staying up well-past conventional bedtimes and sleeping until late morning or early afternoon
  • Shift work—disrupts your sleep patterns if your job requires you to work hours that go against your body’s natural circadian rhythms
  • Non-24—a sleep disorder that occurs when you can’t recognize differences in light experienced most often by people with total blindness
  • Occasional insomnia—interrupts your sleep cycle and prevents you from falling or staying asleep

Is melatonin safe for adults?

Melatonin is generally safe for short-term use by healthy adults. 

Women who are nursing or pregnant should talk to their doctor before taking melatonin.

Some medications can interact badly with melatonin. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to ensure your prescription is not on the “do not mix” list.

The long-term safety of melatonin has not been established. Consult your doctor before taking it for an extended period of time.

You will also want to be sure that you take the proper recommended dosage. Too much or too little could produce unintended effects.

Is melatonin safe for children?

Melatonin appears to be safe for short-term use by children. However, few studies exist about its long-term effects and whether it’s safe for extended use. Talk to your child’s pediatrician before starting them on a melatonin regimen.

Does melatonin have any side effects?

Most people taking melatonin experience only mild side effects, if they experience any at all.  When present, side effects include:

  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • Feeling hung over

Is melatonin habit-forming?

Melatonin does not appear to be habit-forming but few studies exist that examine its long-term effects on your sleep patterns or health overall. Talk to your doctor about what’s safe when it comes to dosage and duration.

What will melatonin supplements do for you?

Although they’re not a cure-all, when used as part of a healthy sleep routine, melatonin supplements can help re-set your body’s biological clock and improve your sleep patterns. Give it a better chance of success by turning down the lights and turning off your devices as bedtime approaches.

How much melatonin should I take for the best results?

A typical dose of melatonin can range from two-tenths of a milligram to five milligrams at a time. Higher doses do not necessarily bring better results. Start with the smallest dose and increase it as needed.

Find a doctor

If you can’t remember the last time you had a good night’s sleep, the sleep specialists at Swedish can help you determine what’s keeping you awake and devise a plan that gets you the rest you need. Find a doctor you can trust in our provider directory.

What tips and tricks do you use when #countingsheep just isn’t enough? Has #melatonin made a difference in getting the rest you need? Share your story with readers @swedish.

Related resources

Is it sleep deprivation or sleep deficiency?

Are you Sleepless in Seattle? The Guide to Getting Restful Sleep

Three ways sleep affects your blood sugar levels

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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