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Melatonin can help some people sleep better

One o’clock, two o’clock, 3 a.m. You’re miserable when you can’t sleep. If counting sheep isn’t working for you, melatonin might help.

“My sleep schedule was totally out of whack,” said Anthony A., a morning TV anchor in Syracuse, NY for four years. “I was up at 2:30 am and in bed by 7:30 pm. My coworkers on the morning shift had success with melatonin, so I tried it. It seemed to help regulate my body’s internal «sleep clock» and I settled into my sleep pattern.”

Melatonin can help people sleep, but it has a sleep effect only on about one in three people, says Alfred J. Lewy, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University.

Melatonin is a neurohormone secreted by the pineal gland, which is in the middle of your brain. It’s important in the regulation of the body’s circadian rhythms, one of which is your sleep-wake cycle. It’s made in the body only at night and is regulated by light striking the eyes.

Melatonin is also made in a lab and taken as a pill.

Some people are “morning larks,” says Dr. Lewy. They wake very early and tire early in the evening. Others are “night owls.” They have trouble getting to sleep at night and getting up in the morning. If you’re one of the people sensitive to melatonin, it can change that rhythm.

Most people who take chemically synthesized melatonin take high doses, up to 10mg, at bedtime. But Dr. Lewy recommends that to regulate a body clock that‘s out of whack, it’s best to take low doses, 3.5-5mg, during the day.

Larks, who wake too early, should take it in late morning, to shift the body clock later. That makes them stay awake later in the evening and sleep later in the morning.

Owls who can’t get to sleep at night should take it in the late afternoon. Then the body think it’s dusk and it produces the chemical when it gets dark, making owls begin to feel sleepy earlier. When it becomes light in the morning, it signals that it’s time to be awake. But, cautions Dr. Lewy, it only works for some people.

If melatonin makes you too sleepy in the afternoon, Dr. Lewy recommends you take a lower dose. It may take some experimenting to find the right dose and time.

Melatonin is available without a prescription at most supermarkets and natural food stores and it’s very inexpensive. The FDA classifies it as a nutritional supplement. It’s safe, has no side effects or interactions with other drugs.

It hasn’t been studied extensively and is not regulated. That’s why Dr. Lewy says he wouldn’t begin with melatonin for a patient with sleeping problems. But if other treatments aren’t working, he would recommend it. If you have regular insomnia and think you are a morning lark or a night owl, you might consider giving it a try.

Talk to your caregiver before taking melatonin.

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