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Is Melatonin Sabotaging Your Health?

Affiliate Disclosure | in Everything Else | by | with 37 Comments


What Do Home-Cured Maple Pepper Bacon

9665986215_b7ac543116_n . . . scented jelly jars and the polio vaccine have in common? They’re all the subjects of half-written posts sitting in my drafts folder, of course! Some – like the jelly jars which sprouted alien mold and sent colonies to mars – will never see the light of day. Others, like the post I am sharing with you today, were just waiting for a few more pieces to fall into place.

Earlier this week I found just the piece I needed – The Sleep Solution by Emily Benfit.

Even if you don’t suffer from insomnia – which is clinically defined as lying awake for a half-hour or more before being able to fall asleep – this book contains insights anyone who has ever suffered from a sleepless night should know.

Thank you, Emily, for the research, dedication and humor you put into this book. Now let’s get on to the post!

It’s Not An Herb

Or even a fancy amino acid, yet it flew off natural food store shelves to the tune of $260 million dollars last year. For many, it’s considered a safe alternative to addictive benzodiazepine-based sleeping pills, which have been shown to reduce the amount of deep, restorative sleep you get AND impair alertness, coordination and cognition during the day.

I’m talking about melatonin, of course. But is it really safe? To answer that I think we need to look at just what melatonin is.

Like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, melatonin is a powerful hormone – the only one that can be legally obtained without a prescription in the United States.¹ “While melatonin could be considered natural,” writes sleep expert Dr.Michael J. Breus, “in most cases it doesn’t come from the earth. There are exceptions of foods that contain melatonin in them, but this is a different type of melatonin than what is produced in your brain.” (source)

So what does melatonin do in the body? A lot of things – but none of them induce sleep.

#1: Melatonin Raises Cortisol Levels

Cortisol – aka the “stress” hormone – is basically the siamese twin of melatonin. The two ebb and flow like the tide – cortisol is highest in the morning and melatonin is highest at night. Unfortunately, increasing melatonin intake “stimulates increased adrenaline, cortisol, and aldosterone—three of the primary stress hormones. It slows the metabolism, and causes the release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream, which further stimulate the stress response.” (Source: The Sleep Solution)

High cortisol levels impair memory, lower immune function and interfere with sugar metabolism, which ironically leads to frequent night wakings. In other words, raising melatonin levels can actually induce a stress response that makes the situation worse over time.

#2: Melatonin Atrophies The Pineal Gland

Use it or lose it – that’s how the saying goes, right? When it comes to glands that produce hormones that old adage has definitely turned out to be true. By now I’m sure you’ve heard that anabolic steroids – which mimic testosterone – cause testicles to shrink. Here’s why:

Every hormonal system in the body has a feedback loop. “The testicles receive a signal from the brain, in the form of hormones called LH and FSH, that tell them to make testosterone and sperm, as well as grow and develop. If you add a bunch of testosterone (steroids), then these steroids will send a message to your brain saying, ‘Hey, we’re good here, you don’t need to send more signals to make testosterone.’

It’s a negative feedback loop, and over a long period of time this lack of LH and FSH can cause the testicles to just atrophy from lack of activity.It’s kind of like if you had to walk to work every day to make money, but all of a sudden you win the lottery and never have to leave your couch. You still have just as much money, but your muscles will atrophy from lack of use.” (source)

The pineal gland – which produces melatonin – functions the exact same way, says Dr. David Clark. That’s why most melatonin supplements come with a warning not to use them more than 2-3 weeks. Though I have not been able to find any definitive studies on whether pineal gland atrophy is permanent, it appears that in other cases – such as the testes – it sometimes can be.

#3: Melatonin May Affect Your Fertility

Got baby fever? It may be worth noting, then, that melatonin doesn’t just help set our circadian rhythm – it also helps govern reproductive function. In fact, in Europe high doses of melatonin have been used as a contraceptive. (Source 1, Source 2)

So what exactly is a “high dose”? I wasn’t able to find any numbers, but according to “The Sleep Doctor” Michael J. Breus, many commercially available forms contain three to ten times the dosage determined to be effective by MIT researchers. (Source)

Personally, I think subsequent research on melatonin indicates that it’s probably not “effective” in the way that MIT researchers first thought, but the details are a bit too much to go into here. (Emily’s book covers them, though!) For our purposes, I think it’s just important to note that individuals are currently self-prescribing melatonin at far higher doses than we have solid research on.

#4: Melatonin May Affect Sexual Development In Children

Though it now comes in cherry flavored chewable capsules, melatonin is not recommended for children by the Mayo Clinic. It “plays a role in the way a person’s body matures sexually,” writes the clinic, noting that melatonin “levels have an impact on how the ovaries and testes function. Further study is needed to determine if taking melatonin during childhood or the teen years can have an impact on a person’s sexual development.”

The National Institutes of Health agrees, saying that “Melatonin should not be used in most children. It is possibly unsafe. Because of its effects on other hormones, melatonin might interfere with development.” (Source)

In other words, we have no idea yet how supplementing this hormone in children might affect their development.

#5: Other Side Effects

According to the Mayo Clinic, melatonin supplementation can also cause daytime sleepiness, dizziness, headaches, abdominal pain, mild anxiety, irritability, confusion and feelings of depression. (Source) In rats, high melatonin levels have also been shown to decrease T3 & T4 (thyroid hormone) uptake. (Source)

So Why Does It Seem To Work?

Here’s the thing: Melatonin is more like a clock than a bedtime story. If you’ve ever suffered from a sleepless night, you know that staring at the clock does not make you sleepy! It simply tells you (or in this case your body) what time it is.

So why does it seem to work for some people? Because it is a powerful hormone, melatonin can create feelings similar to sleepiness, but it does not actually promote deep, restful sleep. (Source) Considering that this surge is likely to increase cortisol levels the next day and possibly lead to impaired memory and work performance, pineal gland atrophy and other problems the tradeoff just doesn’t seem worth it to me.

Fortunately, there IS a way to get amazing, restorative sleep. Though I wish I could cover it all here, the truth is Emily has already done a better job than I ever could in The Sleep Solution. It’s funny, well-researched and practical. Highly recommend!

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37 Responses to Is Melatonin Sabotaging Your Health?

  1. B says:

    Wow, this is very interesting. I struggle with falling asleep quite a bit. Several months ago I bought a melatonin supplement that also contained things like valerian (which is gross to drink as a tea!). I took it for maybe 4 days before it started giving me nightmares. I took a break, then several weeks later I tried to take it again. Nightmares on the second day. So I had already decided this was not for me, but I’m very glad to know why – thanks!

  2. Kira says:

    I’m sorry if I already posted a comment. I can’t tell if the previous one went through.
    Anyhow, I just wanted to say that this is the second time I’ve read a fear-mongering post by a blogger I respected, that turned out to be an infomercial for this ebook bundle. It’s disappointing.

    • Emily says:

      Hi Kira,
      I get annoyed and overwhelmed with VGN’s promotional tactics, but I think it’s unfair to say that Heather is fear-mongering.

    • Heather says:

      Kira, I’m sorry that you feel that way. However, I can honestly say that I’ve had this post sitting in my draft folder for months – way before there was a book or a bundle on the horizon. I hadn’t published it because there were still some things I hadn’t worked out about the relationship between melatonin and cortisol, but after reading Emily’s book I felt I had a better understanding.

      I receive a lot of requests to review books/products on this site. For the most part I find that they are not aligned with the message of this blog, so I decline. When I do feature something it does not necessarily mean a 100% endorsement, but it does mean I found the resource valuable and/or unique enough to want to share. I’m sorry that the message of this post did not resonate with you, but I personally feel a bit relieved to have finally published this post. I think it’s important info worth considering!

      • Kira says:

        We may disagree on the marketing approach of VGN in general, but I have to agree with the person below who remarked on how graciously you respond to negative comments. I did not intend to be unkind, and I’m sorry if I came across that way.

    • Susan says:

      I’m with ya, Kira! I subscribe to many of the bloggers affiliated with VGN and look forward to their posts. But all this week, every time I opened a post, it was about this book bundle. Then today I had 4 of them about melatonin and this book bundle. I feel like I can’t escape this book bundle because all my favorite bloggers have it posted on their sites, their FB pages and have sent out emails. Enough already! I appreciate that they are trying to make some money from their blogging work, but I’m beginning to feel hounded!

      • Lisa says:

        Agreed. I would love to get SOME of the books…but I don’t have $39 to “waste” right now on things, not with a baby on the way in 6 weeks and regular bills, plus trying to figure out maternity leave and all that comes with having a child. I find it frustrating, too, that even if I DID have that $39…the sale ends JUST before I get paid. So really, why can’t we just pick & choose a FEW books….at the same price…since they’re E-BOOKS?

        And not all melatonin is the same, as noted. The melatonin from is far superior (as are their other supplements) to the garbage bought in stores.

  3. Leah says:

    It’s about time someone wrote about this. Just like you…I have a list of things I have wanted to write about, but have also been on a blogging hiatus until I can get really focused. This is one of the topics on the back burner!
    My daughter and son, as well as me, deals with sleep issues-(I have fibro. and I learned that my children also have a 50% chance of having it too.)
    So i tried Melatonin, my daughter did, as well as my son.
    All of us experienced the same things:
    The first night, it helped us sleep, but after that it disturbed our sleep even more!
    The fact is, how can something that increases your cortisol levels, (which in normally why we can’t sleep in the first place) help us sleep deeply?!

    Thank you for shedding some light on this issue!

  4. Sari says:

    Very interesting, and although I thought I’d be interested in hearing more, I was extremely disappointed to find out that this was just a post saying ‘Don’t use Melatonin’ but if you want to hear recommendations you have to pay $$$. Not a blog post, but a sales pitch!

    • Heather says:

      Sari, I’m sorry you feel that way. Honestly, there is no way I could write a post that encapsulates all the information Emily covers in her book. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have wanted to cover my concerns about melatonin for awhile but didn’t quite have all the pieces. I decided to write this post now in hopes that people will take advantage of this sale and find answers that go beyond pills, whether they be natural or pharmaceutical. Emily has put a lot of research and effort into putting The Sleep Solution together, and even if I could clearly outline what she covers over 130+ pages in one blog post I wouldn’t because it is her work. However, with her permission I did share this angle, and I hope you found it helpful in some way even if it didn’t provide all the answers you desire.

  5. Jenn says:

    Thank you for your post. I think it is both informative and so true. I am a tragic insomniac and have gone weeks with little to no sleep so I have been on both the pharmaceutical and naturopathic roller coaster. My doctor explained to me everything you have said here and cautioned long term use. I think people flock to Melatonin because insomnia can be so debilitating but difficult to treat. We feel so much better if we think its ‘natural’ when in fact some of these natural remedies have just as many side effects as their pharmaceutical counterpart. I think people need to be informed and educated before making any choice. Thank you for offering this.

  6. Mary says:

    After dealing with night-terrors, nightmares, many sleepless nights and several high-powered prescriptions with my son, we were introduced to Melatonin. My sons pediatrician recommended it and it has been a life-saver in our case! It has been more than 5 years and he still takes Melatonin most nights. We relocated to another state and his new pediatrician also recommended it. I cannot imagine what we would do without it. I hate to think that it could possibly be causing harm in other ways.

    • Cara says:

      I use it for my daughter too, 1/2 mg chewables from Trader Joes. She has sensory issues and other special needs and I came to the conclusion that I *know* that her inability to sleep affects her ability to learn and her daily quality of life, where there might or might not be potential hormonal risks down the line so I choose to use it with her.

      We do epsom salt baths as well, and a good bedtime routine, but that wasn’t enough for her. It’s still good to be informed that there are risks and to keep an open mind to other solutions.

      • Noreen says:

        We love it here. My son also has Sensory Issues and a brain that won’t quit. LoL We only use it when we change up routines and he can not get the “let down”. It works wonders for us and we use the smallest of quantities. We love it and recommend it. Better than other drugs and things out there and I think the worst case scenario, a vivid dream.

    • Gina says:

      I have not had the experience of giving my child melatonin but when they have had trouble sleeping I give them the homeopathic calms forte. But the one major thing you can do to end kids’ nightmares and terrors is totally natural. Cut out the TV. Period. When my children were young i found they would get night terrors after watching tv. It’s filled with all sorts of violence but even if you censor what they watch it can still happen. I found that even what we as adults consider benign children consider very scary. Once we cut out the tv the nightmares were gone! And i won’t even get into the whole scientific reason for limiting screentime, fight or flight response, and child development. It also has a negative impact on imagination and creativity. It amazes me at the amount of people that use tv as a tool to put their kids to sleep rather than read a book, setup a bedtime routine and encourage them to go to bed.
      Anyway as they’ve gotten older we very sparingly introduce new things on tv. They tend to watch musicals and carefully screened documentaries. Very little disney movies. They all tend to have some scary antagonist. We maybe watch 1-2 things per month during the school year and more frequently watch during the summer. As a result they love classical music, are voracious readers, and have lots of valuable playtime full of imagination.

  7. H says:

    Thank you for this post! I have a six year old daughter who has trouble sleeping (though she would never admit it!). My sister-in-law suggested trying melatonin because it has helped her and her boys with sleeplessness. I have been giving it for about a week and a half, but I haven’t really noticed any improvement. I would so love to get this ebook bundle, but I can’t right now. I will definitely be doing some more research, though!

  8. Wireless emissions from cell phones, WiFi, laptops, cordless phones, and wireless video game systems all affect melatonin levels and production.

  9. Julie says:

    Timing was perfect! I literally was just on another website looking at different brands of melatonin, reading the reviews and considering buying some. I’m so glad I didn’t. I have a “new” understanding of how powerful hormones can be when taking them supplementally. A little more than a year ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was a narrow escape from a worse form of it. It was both progesterone and estrogen positive, which, I was told, is quite unusual. I had been taking natural plant based estrogen and progesterone for several years…. When I read in the article that melatonin is also a hormone, it really made me “step back” and take it much more seriously than I had been. Thank you soooo much for an important and informative article!

  10. Diane says:

    Way to go Heather. I love how you graciously tackle negative responders. Blessings to you and your family

  11. Roxanne says:

    What’s disappointing to me is that these “sleep doctors” and people who write these books like the Sleep Solution NEVER address shift work and working graveyards. Not everyone can live the perfect 9-5 lifestyle. Melatonin was recommended to me by several doctors (including my acupuncturist and a naturalpath) to help regulate my sleep schedule since I work graveyard shifts. Dr. Andrew Weil also recommends the use of melatonin for shift and graveyard workers, and I think these workers get the most benefit from it. I’m not taking it as a sleep aid, but as a tool that helps my brain to tell my body it’s time to go to sleep when it’s bright daylight outside.

    • Brandi says:

      Right on! I work rotating 8-hour shifts, so I move through the whole clock in a month. I sleep pretty well considering, but I simply cannot take a chance of not sleeping well when I’m on graveyard shifts. It’s hard enough to get through them with 9-10 hours of restful sleep, and it pretty much messes the whole string up when I have an off-day of sleep. Soooo, I’ve been taking Melatonin. It really stinks to find out that I could be compromising my health by doing so! Heather, is there anything to address the shift-work issue in The Sleep Solution? I had already written it off becuase I rarely come across anything/anyone that considers the plight of the shift-worker. :(

      • Heather says:

        I think shift work is one of the hardest situations to manage when it comes to healthy sleep. There is evidence to support melatonin as helpful for resetting the biological clock due to jet lag, and I would assume the same would be the same for shift work. Obviously, the other concerns are still worth weighing, but I think there may be some validity to using it judiciously in this instance.

  12. Mary says:

    Okay, so this is not at all meant to be a complaint. This post kind of reminds me of a local radio station. Every day they tell a joke, however they never finish it! What they do is tell this big back story and get you all into it, and then they say “but you’ll have to go to our website to see the punchline.” Haha! Again, this is not a complaint, it just reminds me of that. The difference is that their only purpose is to try to get us to the website, while you are informing us on an issue. I completely understand you not wanting to try to take her entire book and put it into your post. You provide research and information about an issue, which I am thankful for. So even if other people call it a “sales pitch,” I say there’s nothing wrong with it and it is a very informative post, as yours usually are. :)

  13. G. says:

    I had absolutely no idea that melatonin supplements could be so harmful! But really, enough about the book bundle already!

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I also can’t afford the book bundle, but would love to get the book individually! Oh well. :)

  15. Mindy says:

    As an aspiring biochemist, I can say that alot of this information is false. Sorry to disappoint. Can’t believe everything you read, but you can believe published studies and raw facts. NOT interpretation that are often time skewed.

    • Heather says:

      Mindy, would you like to elaborate? Differing opinions are welcome here, but saying that what I’ve written is incorrect in a general way does not provide a path forward for clarification. I am always open to learning more, though I must say I did actually refer to peer-reviewed studies while working on this post.

      • Mindy says:

        Oh Heather, I am sorry I did not mean to come off rude. I was not at all trying to say that what you said was incorrect. I should have elaborated In my initial post. What you do here is amazing and I have nothing but respect for you and your blog. My point about melatonin is that it is a hormone and like all hormones it serves its purpose in the body. Melatonin is a hormone released in the evening that signals to the body it is tired and ready for bed. It is actually the hormone that allows us to get fall asleep when we are tired. As young healthy people and of course children, our bodies naturally produce ample amounts of melatonin. Under times of stress or extreme anxiety levels of melatonin drop and that is a good reason to take a supplement if it is difficult to sleep. Sleep is always a healthier option. At those times in our life it is important to not establish a routine with melatonin because it can cause our body to reduce its natural production.
        As we age our bodies produce less and less of this hormone making sleep problems even more prevalent, but more interestingly, low levels of melatonin are directly related to the likelihood of a person to develop Alzheimer’s and/or other forms of dementia. Taking this hormone supplement greatly reduces this chance. More sleep is also related to more serotonin being released. You know the hormone that makes us happy :)
        So you see what I am saying is it is a good supplement for the right reasons, but it seems this book and post amplified the negative side by discussing improper use of the hormone.

  16. Carol says:

    Not the only hormone you can get over the counter without a prescription. You can get progesterone and DHEA at most health food stores. Vitamin D is also a hormone.

  17. Connie says:

    I have been taking both melatonin and cortisol supplements for over a year now, after having a baby. I don’t know how I will sleep without them, but I do really want to wean myself off them. But I think there has to be other things I can do / increase while I wean off of them so that I don’t go without sleep. I can’t find the book, The sleep solution. The links all lead to The Real Food Guide. Is it available by itself? Thank you for this post. It may be God speaking to me today through you.

  18. Judith says:

    I took melatonin for about 4 -5 weeks and had very unusual mental stress that I could only attribute to the use of it. I stopped taking melatonin and the strange thoughts vanished along with it. It’s strong maybe dangerous stuff, and I can’t imagine why it is so often recommended. I take a few sips of Sleepytime tea before bed and it easily has me out for the night sleeping like a baby. Love my tea.

  19. Michael says:

    Thanks for your info. For me melatonin doesn’t work, I have to take prescription sleep aids.
    Which I hate. For some of you, especially for little kids, hypnosis might be a help, not a cure. I think this would be great for kids, as it uses there imagination to help them quite there mind. It has been one tool that has been helpful, but doesn’t always work for me. It teaches you to relax your body and your mind, and you can use your creative imagination and go to a special place in your mind, the beach, a stream, a water fall, up in the mountain, disney land,, what ever kids enjoy, you can use that to help them relax, and quite there minds down.
    Hormones scare me, I have to take testosterone because I am not making enough and I hate to think my body is shutting down making it, but sometimes you just can’t not do it, as it helps me feel more energized and stronger. It as caused by a tumor in my pituatary gland, and we have search for years why I have been feeling so bad.
    I would like to know what other sleep remedies do you use? what has helped you , what hasn’t.


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