Melatonin is a very popular and widely used sleep supplement, but how much does it actually benefit your sleep? We break down its effects on WHOOP sleep and recovery data, as well as discuss the basics of what melatonin is, how it works, when to take it, and its potential side effects.
Often referred to as the “sleep hormone,” melatonin is produced naturally in a part of the brain called the pineal gland. Its purpose is to aid the regulation of your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm. Your melatonin levels are normally linked to the amount of light around you. When the sun goes down, the pineal gland begins releasing more melatonin to let your body know it’s time to go to sleep. In the morning melatonin production slows down, helping you to wake up.
Melatonin is generally available as an over-the-counter supplement, typically a tablet or capsule that you take orally. The majority of melatonin supplements are made synthetically in a lab.
Studies estimate that about 33% of adults worldwide may suffer from insomnia. And while most people’s bodies generate sufficient amounts of the hormone on their own, taking additional melatonin supplements can be useful for many of us who struggle to fall asleep.
As noted on Episode 14 of the WHOOP Podcast, although taking melatonin before bed won’t help you stay asleep, it is often beneficial in enabling you to fall asleep faster in the first place.
Melatonin itself does not actually put you to sleep, it simply alerts your body to the fact that it’s nighttime so it can get to sleep more easily. It does this by binding with receptors in your body and brain to better allow you to relax, and decrease nerve activity. Melatonin may also reduce your levels of dopamine, a hormone associated with wakefulness.
To better quantify the benefits of melatonin, we examined WHOOP members’ sleep and recovery data when they report taking it. What we discovered makes a fairly convincing case that it can have a positive effect on your sleep.
On average, WHOOP members get 34 more minutes of sleep each night when they take melatonin. They also average 2% more REM sleep (the mentally restorative stage of sleep) and wake up the next day with an 11% higher recovery.
Potential confounding factors were taken into account as well, meaning our analysis controlled for other sleep-promoting behaviors (like blue-light blocking glasses, an eye mask, or reading before bed, for example) that you might also try when taking melatonin.
Overall we found these numbers were consistent for both men and women, however the benefits of melatonin on both sleep time and recovery diminished with age.
A standard recommendation for the best time to take melatonin is about 1-2 hours before you plan to go to sleep. Melatonin can often be useful in remedying the following common situations:
For the most part, it is generally considered safe to take melatonin on a nightly basis in the short term. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is unclear what side effects long-term use of melatonin may have. As with any drug or supplement, you may also find melatonin to be less effective for you if you come to rely on it too heavily.
Recommended doses for melatonin are quite low, often 1 milligram or less. Potential side effects of too much melatonin include dizziness, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, joint pain, anxiety, and irritability. You may want to consult your doctor about how melatonin can interact with any medications you are taking or medical conditions you might have.
The WHOOP Journal feature allows you to track when you take melatonin before bed (and the dosage), as well as a great variety of other choices and behaviors that can impact your sleep. Combined with gold-standard sleep tracking, WHOOP uses this data to provide you with actionable insights regarding which behaviors are most beneficial to your sleep and recovery.
Learn More: 5 Easy Ways to Sleep Better
Related: How Eating Before Bed Affects Your Sleep and Recovery