Melatonin and other sleeping aids

October 28, 2020

Taken by millions to lull them off to sleep, melatonin is one of the most popular supplements in the US but does it work?

A hormone made by the pea-sized pineal gland in the middle of the brain, melatonin helps control our sleep patterns.

Nicknamed the Dracula hormone because levels start to rise just after it gets dark, a synthetic version can be used sleeping aid. Sold as a dietary supplement in health food stores in the US and available on prescription in the UK, it is also taken for jet lag.

Is melatonin the secret of a good night’s sleep?

Opinion on how well it works is mixed.

In the UK, the NHS says: ‘Taking melatonin tablets adds to your body’s natural supply of the hormone. This can help you get to sleep and improve the quality of your sleep.’

The National Sleep Foundation in the US states: ‘For some people, melatonin seems to help improve sleep. However, when scientists conduct tests to compare melatonin as a “sleeping pill” to a placebo (sugar pill) most studies show no benefit of melatonin.’

And, in a landmark report on sleep and brain health, the Global Council for Brain Health (GCBH), an independent panel of scientists, doctors, academics and policy experts which provides trusted information on how to maintain and improve brain health, concludes: ‘Dietary supplements for sleep such as melatonin may have benefits for some but the scientific evidence on its effectiveness is inconclusive.’

It adds that people with dementia should be particularly cautious about taking the hormone, explaining that ‘because older people with dementia metabolise melatonin more slowly, it is likely to have long lasting effects that can worsen daytime functioning’.

What about other sleeping pills?

Many over-the-counter sleeping tablets use antihistamines found in hay fever pills and cough mixture to make us drowsy. While they can help with the occasional sleepless night, they can leave you feeling groggy and hungover the next day.

We can also quickly become tolerant to them, making them less effective the longer we use them.

Prescription pills can help you fall asleep and or stay asleep longer but concerns about dependency, as well as side-effects including dizziness, drowsiness and diarrhoea mean most doctors will only prescribe them for a few weeks at the most.

The GCBH’s panel of experts, which compiled a list of tips to help over-50s get a good night’s sleep, advises against ‘over-medicalising’ sleep problems, saying that changes to a person’s lifestyle can often be more beneficial than prescription pills.

The good news that it is never too late to change your habits to improve your sleep.