Ah, melatonin, the talk of the carpool line. That’s because more and more parents are giving it to their children to help them fall asleep. So what is melatonin, anyway?

Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the body’s pineal gland, which is in the middle section of our brains. Interestingly, melatonin is sometimes called the “Dracula of hormones” because the pineal gland will produce melatonin only if a person is in a dimly lit environment. Bright lights will prevent the release of this sensitive hormone, which helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

These days, more people have started to take melatonin in its synthetic form. You just pop a pill 90 minutes before bedtime, and you begin to feel sleepy a little while later. Sounds perfect, right? But not so fast.

The problem with synthetic melatonin is that because it is not technically a drug, it is not regulated by the FDA, meaning that the amount of melatonin listed on the package isn’t guaranteed to be the amount inside the pill. And most synthetic melatonin pills cause melatonin levels in the blood to rise much higher than they would naturally — as much as 20 times higher, in fact. Too much melatonin can actually make falling asleep difficult.

Further, studies have shown melatonin to cause changes in blood pressure and affect the fertility of certain animals. Transferred to humans, this means that melatonin might be risky for someone with a heart condition or a woman who wants to have a child.

All that being said, there hasn’t been much negative evidence regarding melatonin use in humans. The National Sleep Foundation recommends, however, that if you think you have a sleep issue severe enough to warrant treatment, you should see a doctor or sleep expert to help you figure out the underlying issue.

Melatonin is not meant to serve as a long-term treatment, but some evidence does point to its effectiveness in helping with short-term sleep issues, such as jet lag.

Jet lag occurs when you travel between time zones and your body has trouble adjusting to the sleep-wake schedule of your new time zone. In some instances, melatonin has been shown to be effective when taken just before bedtime in the new time zone, helping the body get to sleep faster even when it might not be quite ready.

What about when it comes to children? Melatonin has been found helpful for kids with autism. But even then, melatonin should not be used for more than two to four weeks at a time and only under physician supervision. For children outside that group, other things exist that you can try first to help them fall asleep and stay asleep.

For adults, if you’ve got a real problem falling asleep, try some of these tips to help you sleep better and fall asleep faster. If those don’t help, definitely consider a visit to your physician to try to get to the root of the issue. Remember, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you.

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