In my neighborhood, melatonin is 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. In most people, the body produces enough of this hormone to make supplements unnecessary. Interestingly, melatonin is sometimes called the "Dracula hormone" because the pineal gland will only produce melatonin if a person is in a dark environment. Bright lights can prevent the release of this sensitive hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
Melatonin is usually taken in its synthetic form. You take a pill 90 minutes before bedtime, and you begin to feel sleepy a little while later. Sounds perfect, right? But that's not the whole story.
Synthetic melatonin mimics a natural hormone that can be found in food, so it's considered a dietary supplement, meaning it isn't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way over-the-counter drugs are. 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, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Ironically, too much melatonin can make falling asleep difficult. So if you use this supplement, follow the correct dosage.
Melatonin use is generally safe for short-term use, according to the Mayo Clinic. It has been deemed helpful for specific situations which we'll go into in a moment. However, NSF recommends 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 understand the underlying issue first.
There haven't been as many studies on melatonin's long-term use, and as a result, it's not recommended for use by pregnant women, women who are trying to get pregenant, or anyone who has depression or an autoimmune disease. Side effects can include headache, dizziness, nausea and drowsiness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Again, melatonin isn't meant to serve as a long-term treatment, but it can be effective in helping with short-term sleep issues, such as jet lag or anyone who has trouble resetting their internal clock. For example, many blind people (adults and children) have circadian rhythm sleep disorders, and the supplement is safe and effective for them.
Melatonin has also been found helpful for kids with problems with their sleep-wake cycles, including developmental disorders autism, according to WebMD. 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 should try first to help kids fall asleep and stay asleep.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in September 2014.