Problems Sleeping? Properly Using Melatonin Can Help You Get the Rest You Want

02/06/2014 | 2 min. read

Dr. Richard Wurtman

Dr. Richard Wurtman

Learn the best way to take supplemental melatonin to help you fall asleep and stay asleep

Because it plays a crucial role in regulating our internal body clocks, melatonin is a popular supplement among people who have problems sleeping. Unfortunately, many people who take melatonin never realize its maximum benefit because they use it incorrectly.

Taken properly, however, supplemental melatonin can be an excellent way to minimize restless nights and reduce troublesome sleep problems. Here are the rules you should follow when using this supplement:

  • Take the correct dose
  • Observe a washout period
  • Take it at the right time
  • Don’t evaluate effectiveness too soon

Take the Correct Dose

The most common misstep people make when using melatonin to address problems sleeping is overuse.

Research shows that the most effective dose of melatonin is just 0.3 mg, or enough to boost the blood plasma level to that of a young adult. No more, no less. (Learn more about why people have more sleep problems as they age.) However, most melatonin products on the market are available only in doses ranging from 1 mg to 10 mg. That means virtually everyone using the supplement is flooding their brains with way too much of it.

Taking too much melatonin is not dangerous, but it does have side effects. One is that melatonin levels tend to remain elevated into daylight hours, possibly causing grogginess and a general “hung over” feeling. A worse side effect is that regularly taking melatonin in doses of 1 mg or greater can actually make your problems sleeping worse. This occurs when the receptor proteins in the brain that melatonin interacts with are consistently overwhelmed by an excess of it. This causes the receptors to become progressively less responsive to the effect of melatonin, until they stop working altogether. 

Observe a Washout Period

This rule applies to anyone who has been taking doses of melatonin exceeding 0.3 mg per day. Before adjusting your dosage level, you must observe a one-week washout period during which you abstain from taking any melatonin at all. 

The purpose of a washout period is to allow the receptors in your brain—which may have become desensitized to the higher doses—to reset themselves. (This happens naturally after all of the supplemental melatonin has been metabolized out of the body.) Once the receptors are working normally again, most people become more responsive to the lower, healthier dosage level and experience fewer problems sleeping.

If you have not previously taken melatonin as a way to solve problems sleeping, the washout rule does not apply. 

Take It at the Right Time

To get to sleep and stay asleep, take supplemental melatonin 30–60 minutes before bedtime.

Give It Time to Work

Some people will have fewer problems sleeping within a day or two of taking supplemental melatonin. However, it often takes up to a week to completely reset your body clock. Therefore, be sure you take melatonin daily for 6–7 days before evaluating its effectiveness.

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