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Sleeping Peacefully- Melatonin's Benefits and Limitations

I get a quite a few clients that discuss sleep problems with me; they often state that they have “insomnia” and have the misconception that popping a few melatonin pills can cure this. When the melatonin doesn’t work for them, they come to the conclusion that melatonin is ineffective - when actually they don’t fully understand the purpose and uses of melatonin, as well as it’s limitations. The purpose of this brief article is to help explain the benefits and uses of melatonin, in a very simplified manner, and it’s use in conjunction with proper “sleep hygiene”.

First, it is important to understand sleep hygiene and how that effects melatonin use. No, sleep hygiene isn’t about brushing your teeth before bed, it’s about the proper way to prepare your mind and body for sleep. Sleep hygiene encompasses many areas, from eating, reading, exercise, and light exposure hours before it’s time to hit the sack. In relation to melatonin, we will just be discussing the area of sleep hygiene that relates to exposure to light. For a complete list of proper sleep hygiene, visit

Melatonin is a natural “sleep drug” that your brain produces on its own that helps your internal body clock know it’s time for bed. Melatonin in particular helps your body regulate light cycles only- so drinking 3 cups of coffee and taking melatonin won’t help you. If you have anxiety, and have trouble “quieting” your mind for sleep, melatonin probably won’t have the effect you want either. What melatonin can help you with is if you have been exposed to irregular light cycles- such as working a graveyard shift or traveling across time zones and “being confused” with what time of day it is because you haven’t adjusted to the time differences. It’s not just for long-distance travelers and daytime-sleepers though, we are often exposed to many different types and wavelengths of light that disrupt our natural light/dark sleep rhythms (when days are longer in summer, being exposed to daylight until 8:30pm can mess with this too if you plan to go to bed early). Computer screens, digital clocks, cell phones, and TV all transmit a ‘blue light’ that tells your brain it’s time to wake up instead of it’s time for sleep (warning-using devices when you have trouble sleeping will actually just keep you up longer as it stops natural melatonin production!). It’s hard to completely nix these things in the evening, so taking melatonin can help induce sleep if you have been exposed to any of these things within 2 hours of sleep. However, taking melatonin and continuing to watch TV or use the computer, etc. will just cancel each other out. You can take melatonin an hour before you need to crash out, and during this time cut off your exposure to artificial lights. Dim, incandescent lighting that mimics natural light will not have as strong as an effect on your sleep cycle as florescent lights or devices that transmit blue light.

The bottom line- Melatonin can be helpful for those with occasional sleep problems due to light exposure, but proper sleep hygiene is what will really help you get those restful zzzzzz’s.

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