Experts warn about increased use of melatonin in the US

More of us are taking the over-the-counter sleep aid, but it can be harmful, study says

Jade Bremner
Thursday 03 February 2022 11:10 GMT
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More people than ever are using melatonin to help them get to sleep and some are taking more than the recommended dose, which could be causing them harm, warn experts.

The sleep aid is supposed to be used short-term, to treat insomnia in the case of things like jet lag or shift work. Considered a dietary supplement, melatonin is a hormone that the brain produces in response to darkness. Due to its categorisation, it’s not as regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Usage among the US population is relatively low, but experts have documented “a significant many-fold increase in melatonin use in the past few years,” said Dr Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in medicine at Harvard, to CNN.

Over a decade, up to 2018, usage of the sleep aid doubled, according to the study published in the medical journal JAMA, and conducted by Dr Jingen Li, from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine.

Under federal law, companies are not required to test pills to confirm the dosage in each pill is correct. The study found that many adults were taking more than 5mg a day of the treatment.

“Previous research has found that that melatonin content in these unregulated, commercially available melatonin supplements ranged from 83 per cent to more than 478 per cent of the labelled content,” said sleep specialist Robbins.

“Taking sleep aids has been linked in prospective studies with the development of dementia and early mortality, melatonin is one such aid,” continued Dr Robbins.

“Although melatonin is generally regarded as safe, adverse effects have been reported”, state the report’s findings. The hormone has been linked to nausea, stomach cramps, drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, confusion or disorientation, irritability, mild anxiety, depression, tremors and abnormally low blood pressure. But no real studies have been done on the long-term effects of taking melatonin.

According to the Sleep Foundation, millions of Americans suffer from insomnia, the organisation offers non-hormone or drug-based techniques to get to sleep that include reducing stress levels and anxiety and promoting relaxation. They profess that a “quiet environment, focus of attention, passive attitude, comfortable position,” and a “comfortable mattress” are key to getting a good night’s sleep.

Breathing exercises can also help, along with progressive muscle relaxation – which involves “gradually tightening and releasing muscles throughout the body in conjunction with controlled breathing.” Do this while, “visualising a peaceful image from your past”, states the foundation.

If you are going to use melatonin, purchase pharmaceutical grade pills, states Dr Robbins. The bottle should have a US Pharmacopoeial Convention Dietary Supplement Verification Program stamp on it.

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