If you or anyone in your household suffers from occasional insomnia or jet lag, chances are you’ve heard of melatonin (via Bustle). Many people use the natural sleep aid to drive into dreamland. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, more than three million adults in the United States took melatonin at least once in 30 days. A natural hormone, melatonin production typically increases at night, helping regulate your sleep cycle. For people who have trouble sleeping, sometimes a dietary melatonin supplement can lead to falling asleep. “Millions of people use melatonin for a variety of purposes, including as a sleep aid,” said study author, Lauren A.E. Erland. “It is important that clinicians and patients have confidence in the quality of supplements used in the treatment of sleep disorders.”
Although you might get more sleep when using the supplement, there’s something strange that can happen as a result of popping one of the pills or gummies — your dreams might get really weird, according to Refinery29.
Here's how melatonin works
Your body usually naturally produces melatonin throughout the night, which helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. “Melatonin essentially provides a signal to your body that it is time to sleep,” Dr. Kimberly Fenn, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab, told Bustle. Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center, went even further and called melatonin the “hormone of darkness. It comes out a few hours before we routinely go to sleep, helping induce sleepiness, then peaks throughout the night and drops off a few hours before we naturally awaken in the morning” via (Refinery29).
Unfortunately, because of exposure to artificial light, your body might not get the signal to produce the sleep-inducing hormone. “Light can suppress melatonin production,” Dr. Fenn explained, “particularly blue light which is emitted by most devices.” If you experience jet lag or insomnia, you might decide to find a high-quality melatonin supplement to help yourself catch some Zs. However, Dr. Fenn said most people probably shouldn’t regularly need a supplement (via Bustle).
Here's why melatonin might affect your dreams
Some people who take melatonin report having bizarre dreams and nightmares, according to HuffPost. While doctors aren’t entirely sure why some people experience increased dreaming, they believe it could have something to do with REM sleep cycles, which feature higher levels of brain-wave activity. Dr. Sanjeev Kothare, a sleep scientist at the New York University Langone Medical Center, said, “Melatonin invariably causes more REM sleep, a normal circadian phenomenon that is used to consolidate some forms of memory. One way this happens is through dreams, which is why people who start taking melatonin experience more dreams.”
A study from 2000 revealed that taking the supplement increases REM sleep (via Refinery29). Typically you cycle through REM sleep cycles every 90 to 120 minutes, which means the rapid eye movement stage typically accounts for 20 to 25 percent of your nightly rest. “REM sleep is a stage of sleep where your brain is very awake, but the rest of your body has low muscle tone,” Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center, told the publication. “It’s an active stage of sleep where you process memories, regulate emotions, dream more, and encode what you’ve learned throughout the day.”
Here's what you can do about strange melatonin dreams
The best way to avoid bizarre melatonin-related dreams is to start with a small amount of the supplement to see how your body handles it, according to Bustle. Certified holistic nutrition consultant and founder of Gut of Integrity, Stephanie Papadakis, advised that you start with a small dose, like .5 milligrams. If you seem to tolerate that well but feel you could still use more help falling asleep, you could slowly move up to a higher dose one small amount at a time.
Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a Stanford University professor of sleep medicine, said that the strangeness could also wear off over time (via HuffPost). “I suspect that the incidence of bizarre dreams would probably decrease over time, as someone’s sleep schedule becomes normalized. However, he also noted that you shouldn’t use melatonin as a general sleep aid. Instead, it should be used as a tool to help you reset your sleeping habits, in which case, you probably wouldn’t experience a decrease in strange dreams.
Here's what to look for in a melatonin supplement
Not all melatonin supplements are created equal. Researchers found that sometimes the sleep aid, which isn’t regulated due to its supplement status, didn’t contain what the label said it had. “Millions of people use melatonin for a variety of purposes, including as a sleep aid,” said study lead author, Lauren A.E. Erland (via American Academy of Sleep Medicine). “It is important that clinicians and patients have confidence in the quality of supplements used in the treatment of sleep disorders.”
Dr. Kimberly Fenn told Bustle that taking melatonin in high doses could lead to crazy dreams. “You may purchase a low dose melatonin (potentially to reduce possible side effects), and your dose may be even lower than advertised and have no effect. Even worse, it may be much larger than advertised and cause serious nightmares.” She suggested that you search for brands that have verified doses. Failing that, only use supplements from well-known brands that you trust.
Here are a few melatonin alternatives
You might not need to use the supplement to achieve optimal sleep. “Most individuals should not need melatonin (unless they are traveling or are experiencing insomnia),” Dr. Kimberly Fenn told Bustle. She suggested that instead of resorting to the supplement, you should practice good sleep hygiene. Certified holistic nutrition consultant and founder of Gut of Integrity, Stephanie Papadakis, told the publication that you can help yourself get some quality sleep by “waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day, reducing the use of bright screens two hours before bed, eating foods high in tryptophan, and taking an Epsom salt bath before bed.” Even something like eating peanut butter before bed or wearing a sleep mask might help.
Dr. Shelby Harris suggested that you do things to increase your melatonin production naturally before heading to bed. “It is best, in my opinion, to just go old school and stay away from screens. Read a book, listen to music, or find a quiet, calm and relaxing hobby to wind down that’s done in dim light” (via Refinery29).
Here's when you should consider contacting your doctor
Melatonin isn’t for everyone. In fact, it might not work for you, according to Parsley Health. You should always discuss supplementation with your doctor before you start taking something new, including melatonin. If you’ve taken it for a while and it isn’t working for you, you might want to schedule an appointment to discuss alternative sleep aids. If something else like stress or other hormone imbalances causes your sleep issues, then melatonin may be a waste of money, while possibly causing you bad dreams (via Bustle).
If you’re incredibly unlucky, the unregulated supplement could make your sleep disturbance even worse. If you take a small dose of melatonin before bed and you find that it’s not helping, your doctor may want to investigate other reasons for your insomnia (via Parsley Health). If you’re unsure, it is best to contact your physician for guidance to determine the best long-term solution for your sleep health.
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