Richmond, VA—Melatonin: It is one of the most misused and misunderstood sleep aids on the market. After hearing rumors about how safe it is, and conflicting opinions on if it is safe for kids to use, we investigated.
Many college students are all too familiar with pulling all nighters, but student Mathilda Nassar's sleeping troubles began in high school.
"Yeah, just laying in the bed and staring at the ceiling for hours, and like hoping you'd go to sleep type thing," Mathilda explained.
During her senior year of high school, Mathilda's insomnia became severe. Sleepless nights left her irritable and struggling with back problems.
As a remedy to these problems, her pediatrician, Dr. Gray Snowden of Capitol Pediatrics, recommended she try melatonin. The effect of the supplement on Mathilda's sleep cycles was undeniable.
"The first time I took it, I went to sleep in like 15 minutes," she said.
Dr. Snowden often prescribes melatonin for patients who have trouble falling asleep. He also recommends it for use in children.
"Probably the most common situation which we would use it is a child with ADHD," said Dr. Snowden.
Despite Mathilda's positive experience with melatonin, we heard several rumors about dangers associated with the supplement. We talked with medical experts to sort fact from fiction.
The first misunderstanding we cleared up with doctors: melatonin is not a drug.
"Melatonin is a natural hormone that your body produces to help set your circadian rhythm or internal clock," explained Dr. Suleman Iqbal, a sleep specialist.
Dr. Iqbal told us that melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. Sunlight stops the release of melatonin to help you wake up. Darkness releases it into the bloodstream to help your body fall asleep.
Some people who have a harder time falling asleep may not be releasing enough melatonin.
"Teenagers, people that travel a lot and get jet lag, people that have night shift schedules or rotating shifts," said Dr. Iqbal.
In these cases, doctors usually recommend a supplement. Artificial melatonin comes in a variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, lozenges and liquids.
Another question we heard about melatonin: how and where can you get it?
Melatonin is not regulated by the FDA; that means you don't need a prescription to get it. You can find it in grocery stores, vitamin shops, or health food stores.
Although it is easy to get, check with your doctor before giving melatonin to your child.
Another fact about melatonin: it is not one dosage fits all. Doctors we spoke with agreed children should start out with the lowest amount, one milligram. At the same time, parents should work with kids to set up a healthy bedtime routine, including turning off gadgets at least an hour or two before sleep.
Dr. Iqbal said, "Computers, tv's smart phones, iPads [should be turned off], because that artificial light from these sources kind of tricks your brain into thinking it's sunrise."
We also heard concerns about users developing a dependency on the supplement. Doctors says that melatonin is not habit-forming, but there are side effect. Users may experience vivid dreams, headaches, nausea and daytime grogginess. Mathilda began to experience the grogginess after taking melatonin.
"When I try to wake up in the morning, it's just harder to wake up, but I think I would take that over not being able to sleep," she said.
In extremely rare cases, melatonin can cause more serious problems, as Dr. Snowdern explained to us.
"There can be blood pressure effects, typically lowering blood pressure, not raising blood pressure. And there have been rare reported cases of what's called gynocomastia, which is breast development in boys."
But Dr. Snowden says that during his 20 years as a pediatrician, he has never seen any of these rare side effects in his patients.
Mathilda used melatonin for a year and a half, until she could fall asleep on her own. She says it is a good option for those suffering from sleep problems.
"It just depends on your own body and your own sleeping habits, but I have definitely recommended it to a lot of people."
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