Making Sense of Melatonin Dosing

12/01/2016 | 5 min. read

Dr. Richard Wurtman

Dr. Richard Wurtman

The question I get asked most often about melatonin is what dose to take to help with sleep problems.

Seems like a simple question, but the answer…and melatonin’s intriguing back story…is anything but simple.

Let’s start with a little history on the discovery of melatonin, the master sleep hormone…

Years of Research Revealed the Melatonin-Sleep Connection

I’ve participated personally in cutting-edge research on melatonin since I was a medical student at Harvard. In the early 1960s I worked on a research team at the National Institutes of Health, along with Nobel Prize winning scientist, Julius Axelrod, that first proposed that melatonin is a hormone, and that its production by the pineal gland is controlled by light and darkness

By the mid-1970s, further research performed in my laboratory at MIT showed that the secretion of melatonin follows a circadian rhythm, and, in turn, helps control other circadian rhythms in the body. At this time, my research group also was the first to connect blood melatonin levels with the onset and maintenance of sleep.

We also found that, contrary to what you might expect, smaller doses of melatonin—1 mg or less-- worked best for helping people get to sleep and stay asleep.

Patenting Melatonin Took an Unintended Toll

MIT was so excited about our research team’s melatonin-sleep connection discovery that they decided to patent the use of reasonable doses of melatonin—up to 1 mg—for promoting sleep.

But they made a big mistake. They assumed that the FDA would want to regulate the hormone and its use as a sleep therapy. They also thought the FDA wouldn’t allow companies to sell melatonin in doses 3-times, 10-times, even 15-times more than what’s necessary to promote sound sleep.

Much to MIT’s surprise, however, the FDA took a pass on melatonin. At that time, the FDA was focusing on other issues, like nicotine addiction, and they may have felt they had bigger fish to fry.

Also, the FDA knew that the research on melatonin showed it to be non-toxic, even at extremely high doses, so they probably weren’t too worried about how consumers might use it. In the end, and as a way of getting melatonin on to the market, the FDA chose to label it a dietary supplement, which does not require FDA regulation. Clearly, this was wrong because melatonin is a hormone, not a dietary supplement.

Supplement Manufacturers Made the “Bigger is Better” Mistake

Quickly, supplement manufacturers saw the huge potential in selling melatonin to promote good sleep. After all, millions of Americans struggled to get to sleep and stay asleep, and were desperate for safe alternatives to anti-anxiety medicines and sleeping pills that rarely worked well and came with plenty of side effects.

Also, manufacturers must have realized that they could avoid paying royalties to MIT for melatonin doses over the 1 mg measure. So, they produced doses of 3 mg, 5 mg, 10 mg and more! Their thinking--like so much else in our American society--was likely, “bigger is better!” But, they couldn’t be more wrong.

The Problem with Melatonin Mega-dosing

Taking too much melatonin is not toxic, but it does have side effects. One is that melatonin mega-dosing can cause blood levels of the hormone to remain elevated into daylight hours, which confuses your body’s natural circadian rhythm and can lead to grogginess and a general “hung over” feeling.

But even more alarming is that regularly taking mega-doses of melatonin can actually make your sleeping problems worse!

This is because your brain uses special receptor proteins to interact with melatonin. And if these proteins are constantly bombarded with excess amounts of the hormone, they become overwhelmed. Eventually, your brain receptors get desensitized to melatonin and become progressively less responsive until they stop working altogether.

Reset Your Brain Receptors with a Washout Period

Now you can see that most people who have tried melatonin and said it worked at first, but not for long, were probably taking TOO MUCH!

Maybe you’re one of these people. If so, you’ll be happy to know that melatonin really can improve your sleep…you just need to take it in the right dose and in the right way. (More on this in a minute.)

And if you’re still taking much more than 1 mg of melatonin at night to help with your sleep, I strongly suggest you stop altogether for one week. This “wash-out” period will allow the receptors in your brain, which are being desensitized to melatonin, to reset themselves.

The reset process occurs naturally when the mega-doses of supplemental melatonin are metabolized out of your body. And once your receptors are working normally again, you should be more responsive to the lower, healthier melatonin dosage level that I recommend, allowing you to experience more sound, restorative sleep.

Start Taking the Right Dose of Melatonin to Get the Rest You Need

Melatonin supplementation should be used to restore your levels of this important sleep hormone to the peak levels of your youth—nothing more and nothing less. Extensive research shows that this dosage is actually quite small…just 1 mg each evening.

But, because your body quickly metabolizes melatonin, it’s best to take the 1 mg in divided doses, with an initial 0.3 mg dose to fall asleep quickly and then a second 0.6 mg dose about four hours later to keep you asleep for the rest of the night.

How is this possible? Obviously, you don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to take a second dose of melatonin. That would completely defeat the goal of getting a good night’s sleep!

The answer to the divided dose question comes from cutting-edge supplement capsule technology. Ingenious nutritional scientists actually engineered a unique capsule within a capsule. The outer capsule has a fast-dissolving shell that releases 0.3 mg of liquid melatonin to help you fall asleep easily and stay asleep for about 4 hours. Then the inner capsule releases 0.6 mg of melatonin in slow-dissolving microbeads to help keep you in a sound sleep for the rest of the night.

It’s a truly revolutionary solution that makes getting the correct doses of melatonin at the right times each night both simple and effective.

Dr. Richard Wurtman

Meet Dr. Richard Wurtman

Richard Wurtman, M.D. is a noted Harvard doctor and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher specializing in sleep and cognitive sciences. He is widely recognized for his groundbreaking research on melatonin over the past 40 years. He has done research for the NIH and with NASA, and is the author and editor of 18 books, holder of more than 50 patents, and author or co-author of over 1,000 scientific papers.

More About Dr. Richard Wurtman