Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
21 Nov

Why Melatonin Is a Dangerous Supplement

Melatonin is a popular supplement for the sleep-deprived, namely because it carries rather innocent associations. Melatonin is “natural” and “safe” and “herbal”, right?

Wrong. I’ve been arguing with the melatonin prophets for years because I believe the image melatonin has, and what melatonin really is, are vastly different. Like so many things that we trust in, consume or think we understand, the truth may not be what we want to believe.

My caution with melatonin is simple: melatonin is a hormone.

That’s right – a hormone. Like estrogen. Like testosterone. And just like taking estrogen (whether it’s Hormone Replacement Therapy or the Pill) or testosterone therapy, melatonin comes with risks. Frequent melatonin use – especially in the typical dosage of 3-6 milligrams – can trigger a bit of a vicious cycle in the brain. Supplement with melatonin regularly to get to sleep, and your body is going to produce even less, creating even greater need for the hormone. It’s not that you can’t ever take melatonin; but I think it’s important that people understand the facts.

A caveat: While I am generally against using hormones (it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature), I am in favor of using the natural version of the hormone melatonin to “reset” the diurnal clock when traveling across time zones. Because, after all, you got there by fooling Mother Nature in the first place! Humans did not evolve a mechanism to adapt to changing time zones. Jet travel can be some of the most destructive stress you can encounter, especially the older you get.

In fact, a recent article in ScienceNow Daily News reported on the growing concern in the scientific community over the dangers of jet lag. Turns out it’s more serious than we previously realized. Jet lag increases risk of cancer, ulcers, and sleep disorders, as well as weakening the immune system. Now, this isn’t reason to stop traveling; simply be aware of the risks and take some smart precautions (drinking alcohol on the plane: not a good idea).

I travel frequently, and I don’t suffer from jet lag, because I use melatonin judiciously in these instances. I also have a few rules about travel (feel free to crib my notes):

– Once you’ve landed and checked in to your lodgings, immediately get an aerobic workout. This will help stimulate circulation, hormones and serotonin production – it’ll just be that much easier adjusting to the new time zone. Don’t tuck into a glass of wine or take a nap. Spend 30 minutes getting your heart racing instead.

Eat a small, protein-rich meal that also includes some fiber. But keep it light so your body isn’t further stressed.

– Reset your watch and then… lie to yourself. Don’t think about it; just immediately adapt to the new time zone.

– Of course, the goal is to adjust as soon as possible to your new time zone. If you’re flying overnight or flying to a place where everyone else will have just finished sleeping, by all means, do what you can to nap on the plane or otherwise refresh yourself.

Drink at least a quart of water your first day there (4 glasses).

Go to bed when everyone else in your new time zone goes to bed, and take 3-6 milligrams of melatonin an hour before you plan to fall asleep to make that possible.

Here’s the ScienceNow clickativity.

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  1. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland which tells your body when it should go to sleep by regulating several functions in the body and affecting other hormone systems. Relevant to the weight gain issue, it affects the levels of leptin, a hormone secreted by adipose (fat) tissue that helps to control appetite. The function has been studied in mammals extensively but I do not know if it has been studied much in humans or not. I do know that if melatonin has the same effect in humans as it does in mammals, then it can cause weight gain by suppressing leptin production since leptin signals your body to tell you when you’re hungry and how much you want to eat. That being said, it is completely safe and some weight fluctuations are natural in most people especially with age. The effects can be mitigated by portion control when eating and/or increased exercise levels. The hormone is not going to kill you though as long as you watch your weight and make an effort to maintain a healthy weight. The effects of melatonin can be compared to that of increased stress levels which also suppress leptin production.

    Sam Fisher wrote on October 24th, 2012
  2. Read up guys… I’ve read this from several different sources. Get your facts right and exercise and eat PROPERLY. Melatonin isn’t bad if you use it properly

    Turin wrote on October 25th, 2012
  3. I used melatonin heavily for 5 months (8 mg per night). I did not gain weight.

    I see a lot of people saying things like “I exercise! I lift weights! I do yoga! …but I still gained weight on melatonin!”

    Melatonin may slow down metabolism, so that your body uses less calories. That means keeping the same diet and exercise habits as you did before taking melatonin will cause weight gain.

    But even then, it’s NOT THE MELATONIN that is causing weight gain. It’s you not adjusting your diet to match your lower metabolism.

    I use a scale that measures my body fat (sometimes called a “body composition scale”). I check my fat levels every week – if it’s increasing, I eat a little less the next week. I recommend this approach for anyone watching their weight (regardless of melatonin use).

    In any case, I agree with the author about the danger of long-term melatonin use. I became very dependent on it, and it took a long time for my body to be able to sleep well after quitting the supplement. Unfortunately, all the “natural” (non-hormonal) supplements I’ve tried do not seem to work for me. L-theanine, chamomile, hops, etc. What helps me is exercise in the morning, low carbs in the evening, and sex at night.

    Richard wrote on November 3rd, 2012
  4. Since melatonin is a peptide hormone, it doesn’t have the (same) propensity for negative feedback inhibition as a steroid hormone such as testosterone. Now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic. It is. Various research papers have shown that melatonin (and serotonin/tryptophan) are closely involved in inflammation, high blood pressure, brain degeneration, muscle pain, accelerated aging, cancer, and so on (review http://www.supplements-and-health.com/tryptophan-side-effects.html ). It appears it shouldn’t be used on a continuous basis.

    Rolf Hefti wrote on November 4th, 2012
  5. I love this site, especially the humor, most of which was not intended. Now I understand my new weight gain. I have been sleep deprived for probably a decade. I’ve tried a lot. I’m stopping Melatonin today. I was taking 9 mg. I doesn’t work for me and my head. My sleep deprivation is in my head. I can’t turn it off, but my ass gets really tired.

    Mary Johnson wrote on November 9th, 2012
  6. For anybody who is concerned about their melatonin intake… This is purely anecdotal information, but it may help.
    Skimming through the comments it seems people who take higher doses are gaining weight. You may want to check for yourself, I could be mistaken.
    I take 1 mg at night and fall asleep within an hour. If I didn’t have two kittens I’d probably sleep all the way through the night. I do dream a lot, but they’re not nightmares which is typically what I had when I dreamed. And I don’t feel exhausted when I wake up.
    I have not gained any weight that I can tell – I don’t weigh myself, but my clothes still fit the same.
    I came across this article while trying to read if SAMe and melatonin are safe to take together, and while this article does not address that, I have learned that the two go hand in hand. It makes me wonder if the people who are suffering poor side effects of melatonin are related to lack of SAMe production. If there’s a problem with one, couldn’t there be a problem with the other?
    However, after reading this I may reduce my dose to .5mg since that seems to work for many people. I prefer to take the lowest dose possible to avoid tolerance build up or any side effects.

    Kaitlyn wrote on November 14th, 2012
  7. Well I cant sleep and im desperate to gain weight which is almost impossible for me so after what everyone says Melatonin seems the answer. If I gain weight it will be a miracle and have to be the result of taking the Melatonin – will let you know.

    Linda wrote on November 18th, 2012
  8. Can melatoinon cause you to stay up most of the night because I took melatonion and I am still awake

    noelle wrote on November 19th, 2012
  9. I’m with Desiree, what the hell is with people’s attitude about another persons sleep habits and patterns, (Or lack thereof). Lol

    Rex wrote on November 20th, 2012
  10. Goodness…While I found some of the comments here to be informative, and others to be not really worth reading, I am discouraged at how many mean-spirited people took the time to use this forum as an opportunity to be so ugly. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinions, but is it necessary to attack others here because of theirs? My take on this supplement is simple: If you feel you may benefit from using it, try it and see for yourself, without letting other people tell you what you should or should not do. The concern over weight gain should be a common sense issue, because anytime you take something that may make you feel tired, you are likely to be as active and probably not burn calories as you normally would. I want to believe common sense still exists…some just need to practice using it.

    Judi wrote on November 30th, 2012
  11. I can’t stand ignorant people who make such outrageous claims such as melatonin should he banned cuz it caused weight gain without any kind of proof or other info such as diet and excersize change or any other changes. It’s a natural chemical ur brAin makes already in ur body only some ppl have chemical imbalances such as myself and this is a much better alternative then Rx pills safer surely sure hormone risk but WTF do u think the drugs do? Cause these chems to be released so just as if not more dangerous. Nobody has died from it. So making such a statement that it should be banned just cuz one person gained 20lbs wow who cares I’d love to gain weight everyones so damn worried about loosing it when I’m only 99lbs used to bs 125 but now lost so much lbs cuz of chemical induced anorexia treating arthritis with chemo therapy something seems wrong with the medical community practice or malpractice I should say and mostly due to some arrogant comment by someone like this making unproven statements that a substance should be banned based on gaining weight is just retarded and it’s retards like u that get harmless or at least more safe then Rx that’s also more expensive as well so please don’t cause the situation to be worse and give big pharma more of a reason to ban this and sell more expensive n dangerous drug x to fill the space this used to cover so kindly stfu and never make the statement this should be banned just cuz u didn’t like the way it worked for u! To take our freedoms even more

    L33Tswim wrote on December 1st, 2012
  12. I have had insomnia for many years now, about 30. I FINALLY have found something that works like a charm. At least, for me. However I have to do the same thing every single night. It’s become a ritual. Before going to bed, I turn out all the lights, making sure the blinds/curtains are closed. Then I roll over to one side or the other. That part doesn’t really matter. Either side will do. Then I close my eyes and BAM!!! Before I know it, it’s morning. I have found that I don’t gain any weight from doing this either. I don’t get up in the middle of the night to eat, so thumbs up to that!

    B-case wrote on December 3rd, 2012
  13. I have a quick story to share with you all about melatonin. Once I was given melatonin in a soft drink. It was just cola I was having, no alcohol. I started feeling very drousy and my “date” said it was nothing to worry about, that I might be allergic to his cat. Well, I’ve never been allergic to cats before. I got very, very sleepy and my “date” turned down the lights and I felt very cold. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so cold and so “out of it.” It turns out, he had taken my clothes off so I was, you guessed it, cold. He carried me to what I’m pretty sure was his bedroom and well, you know the rest of the story. I was DATE-RAPED WITH MELATONIN! Please, be safe out there.

    B-case wrote on December 3rd, 2012
    • Yeah right

      Sceptic wrote on December 8th, 2012
  14. Good article. If only more people would take heed and not just reach for the pill.

    Tereza Ullinovich wrote on December 23rd, 2012
  15. This is complete misinformation. Melatonin is not a harmful product and is essential for the body’s defences against various issues by promoting self-repair during sleep. Women who have breast cancer only have 1/10th of the required melatonin as do men with prostrate cancer have only half the required. The UK have banned melatonin supplements for an entirely different esoteric agenda.

    Anthony Hady wrote on January 3rd, 2013
  16. I’m only 16 years old and i have insomnia, so recently i have had to start taking this each night and it actually does work. But now i am worried about these side affects…thanks for posting this!

    Alexis wrote on January 4th, 2013
  17. I would just like to say that the vast majority of you are idiots XD. Your fighting about a supliment. If you dont think its good dont take it. If you think ots great then by all means jam that thing in your mouth and go on with your life. I take melatonin because i cant sleep without it, at all, so stop acting like fools.

    Jim wrote on January 6th, 2013
  18. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been taking melatonin for about 3 months now, I don’t take it on the days that I don’t have to work, because I don’t want my body to adjust to it. But I have not had any bad side effects, no strange dreams (well stranger than normal, I have them strange dreams all the time), no weight gain *thank goodness*, no hangover feeling. Best of all instead of laying in bed staring at the ceiling or getting up 4-6 times a night and staying away for 30 minutes at a time, I usually go to sleep within 2 hours of taking it, I might wake up 2-3 times and I fall right back to sleep. I’m a lifelong insomniac that has tried everything else, usually with horrible side effects, like doing things I don’t remember, mood changes. So I’m on the pro-melatonin camp on this.

    Ginger wrote on January 9th, 2013
  19. While doing my own research on melatonin, I only found doctors & other medical/sleep specialist say that the synthetic melatonin is actually better for you because it is closer to the molecular makeup of melatonin and made with pharmaceutics grade ingredients. While the “all natural” can be made with animal parts, and without regulated.
    Also lower levels of melatonin seems to impede and disrupts sleep. And it should be taken 20-40 prior to bed, because your body made melatonin is at it’s highest around 2AM

    EA Lee wrote on January 20th, 2013
  20. I WAS TAKING schiff’s Melatonin with THEANINE IN IT, AND IT WAS MUCH BETTER FOR ME 3MG.IN THE BOOK, IT SAYS TO GO BY YOUR AGE AS TO HOW MUCH TO TAKE.ACCORDING TO MY AGE I SHOULD BE TAKING 5MGS, i don’t notice much difference even when I do and I NEVER HAVE GAINED WEIGHT.I WISH I COULD.

    Patricia Gragg wrote on February 2nd, 2013
  21. I live in Spain and have been taking serenotte, a melatonin supplement on and off for about 8 months now and boy does it help me sleep! I love the fact that I can take 2x 1.9mg tablets and within an hour while light reading in bed I can doze off into a comfy night’s sleep and wake up feeling like I’ve slept. My friend is very concerned about me taking them and that is why I am here today. I am shocked at the range of negative comments as I have experienced no weight gain atall. I do, however, exercise regularly and always have. I also am a very anxious person who runs on adrenaline most of the time which is why I take the supplement in the first place cause I struggle to ‘switch off’ sometimes.
    I’m a bit concerned about the comments about depression etc as I do actually feel that I have been really anxious and stressed out and also a bit depressed at times and hoped it wasn’t related to the supplement. Is my friend right? Are they bad for me? My circumstances aren’t good at the moment as I just am not settling in Spain and have had a few problems over the last year. Am I just stuck in a vicious cycle and should I stop taking them? The chemist who sold me them says they are not dangerous and there is nothing in the pack to suggest and bad side effects? Surely if there were, by law, it must state any side effects?

    Louise wrote on February 3rd, 2013
  22. Wow. Didn’t realize I was walking into such a storm of controversy here, and, that this topic would bring out the rudest, most judgmental among the MDA faithful!
    I am a 55 year old man and as most of you know, our bodies tend to produce less of several key hormones as we age, melatonin being one of them. I have found a small 3mg supplement of melatonin each night to be the key to solving the continued disruptions to my sleep in a noisy, hectic, small house. Also. I have lost 20lbs. while taking the supplement so no issues for me with weight gain, or, dreams, emotional issues, etc.
    It seems logical that the supplement affects different people differently depending on their own individual situation and hormone makeup.

    David wrote on February 11th, 2013
  23. Lack of sleep can cause weight gain. Presumably you are taking melatonin because you are having problems sleeping. It could be the sleeping problems & not the melatonin causing weight gain.

    For those experiencing bad side effects, I agree with the poster who said your dosage may be too high. A natural dosage in the brain is .3 mg, but most of the commercial products are 3 or 5 mg. I found 1 mg tablets at GNC & my local health food store & I take those. The health food store also has .3 mg tablets, which would be more appropriate to take if you need it on a daily basis.

    Fleafly wrote on February 17th, 2013
  24. I been taking that pill already for about 1yr and I gained so much weight..I’m stoping now,

    Maria wrote on February 18th, 2013
  25. I just finished watching Resonance: Beings of Frequency, a documentary exposing some negative effects of the microwave radiation produced by cell phone towers, cell phones, wifi, and cordless phones. See the film here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vb9R0x_0NQ

    The mechanism by which microwave radiation causes damage is that it depresses our bodies’ production of melatonin and, thus, prevents our bodies from being able to heal themselves. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals. Free radicals are products of CELLULAR DIVISION, which our bodies do to the tune of a billion a night. This cellular breakdown/build session happens at night, while we sleep. Research suggests that our pineal glands “see” microwave radiation as light…which effects sleep cycles and circadian rhythm…which depresses melatonin production…

    The film made absolutely no suggestion of melatonin supplementation, but since exposure to this type of radiation is universal in 2013, I thought perhaps someone had tried to hedge against the loss with melatonin supplementation.

    I didn’t find the answers I was looking for in Mark’s article or in this comment thread.

    Jen wrote on February 28th, 2013
  26. Is it possible….that maybe those who have gained weight, you have enough Melatonin naturally in your body already? And adding to it is causing the weight gain! IDK I’ve am reading conflicting stories. I am going to start Melatonin 1mg tonight! I go the gym 3-4 days a week and have quit smoking! I have a hard time going and staying asleep, terrible memory, depression, and lack of energy! My pharmacist recommended Melatonin! He said it has been know to improve all those symptoms! Here’s to hopin……

    vicki wrote on March 4th, 2013
  27. Thanks…I have been taking Melatonin (5mg) each night for years and since the death of my husband in Jan, I sometimes wake up about 3 am and take another dose. Now I am sleeping 12 hrs a night and I know this is not right. I also take an antidepressant. My weight has started to pile on too, because I am so UNmotivated. I will now go cold turkey and not take it anymore. Three yrs ago I had a lumpectomy that was diagnosed as a “hormonal receptive” cancer. Now I understand that I must not take this. It will be interesting to see the results…. Thank you.

    Angela Whitney wrote on March 14th, 2013
  28. I’ve had a really bad experience with melatonin, it got really worse after 2 months. It has made me really depressed, gave me headaches, poor blood flow, poor brain function and can barely sleep now, sweating and other side effects. I never really noticed it was the melatonin. Trying to recover from it now, even people are treating me differently.

    Somebody wrote on March 15th, 2013
  29. I have been taking Melatonin on and off for about 3-4 months now and I love it! I had trouble falling asleep due to anxiety but after taking Melatonin I am snoring by 11:00PM! I try not to take it every night, and this past week I haven’t taken it once and I still slept fine! It actually improved me sleep cycle and now I am able to fall asleep on my own without it.

    Oh, I usually took about half of a 3mg pill, sometimes less.

    Sleepyhead wrote on March 17th, 2013
  30. I love how this is the only website that has anyone saying that they gained weight. Livestrong even linked to an article that showed melatonin treated rats lost body fat.

    Mack wrote on March 18th, 2013
  31. http://www.livestrong.com/article/533642-melatonin-thyroid-disorders/

    It can have a detrimental effect on someone with low thyroid function which would make you gain weight. I have been taking some off and on for the last few weeks and I am so tired even with more sleep. I am hypothyroid so I have to wonder if it is messing with my thyroid levels. If it causing you to gain weight have your thyroid checked as well.

    Kerry wrote on March 28th, 2013
  32. Just wanted to add my two cents, in case it helps anyone. I am a 37-year old woman who started having severe, crippling insomnia in November 2012. My doctor recommended 6mg of melatonin before bed each night. I started sleeping great again.

    Otherwise I am perfectly healthy — I walk 2 hours a day, have always had BMI of 23, eat a balanced diet with minimal processed food, don’t drink or smoke. I do have a stressful job, but I don’t often feel stressed out about it. After Christmas I noticed that I had gained 5 pounds, and figured it was due to the holidays. Unusual for me, but I know it gets easier to gain weight with age. I cut out all sweets for two months and upped my daily exercise to get back on track. By the time early March rolled around I had gained 5 more pounds, so I booked another appointment with my doctor — something was wrong.

    Fasting blood sugar came back at 121 mg/dl — that’s in the pre-diabetic range. How the hell did I become pre-diabetic over the course of 4-5 months? The melatonin was the only thing I had changed about my life. I stopped taking it immediately, bought a blood sugar monitor, and drastically reduced all other carbs (bread, pasta, rice) as well as sweets. I have been measuring my blood sugar multiple times daily for a month now, and the fasting levels have crept down from 110+ to the low 90s (ideally they should be under 80). Blood sugar spikes have also been drastically reduced, as they were 160+ after low-carb meals at the beginning, and now they are about 120. I’ve lost about 3 pounds. I am convinced that melatonin made me insulin resistant, temporarily. I am not convinced that would be the case for everyone, but something about the way my body works didn’t tolerate it. Maybe I was taking too much — it hardly matters now, as I will never take it again. I have not had trouble sleeping since I stopped taking it, thankfully — I’ll cross that bridge if/when I come to it again.

    dangerouspenguin wrote on April 12th, 2013
  33. All of you people are stupid.

    Mark wrote on April 15th, 2013
  34. At 41, after a bout of meningitis, I developed hydrocephalus.

    However due to the active suppression by the government of what should have been standard diagnostic technique, my condition was misdiagnosed for 15 years and then still left untreated for another several years. More simply put, to save the government from having to reimburse half the price of an MRI, my life was ruined.

    Of course, that wasn’t explained to me at the time. I was naive enough to think that the doctors were doing their best, but the truth is that in a socialized medical system doctors are rewarded for minimizing their diagnostic efforts and punished for being conscientious.

    Anyway, as the hydrocephalus developed, I had a whole constellation of symptoms that grew worse and worse as the ventricles of my brain grew larger and larger, squeezing the brain tissue into an ever-decreasing volume of space within my skull and putting ever increasing pressure on the various brain systems.

    One symptom that appeared immediately after the meningitis first and never went away was SEVERE insomnia.

    Between the physical pain of other symptoms, the stress of the situation, and the fact that my brain chemistry was all out of whack due to the altered dynamics within my skull, my natural sleep cycles weren’t working at all. The nearest thing I had to “sleep” was a sort of catatonic state I would sink into as the result of total exhaustion. I simply did not have any really “sleep” at all.

    I tried various sleep aids and had some limited success, alternating Valerian, Passion Flower, Kava-Kava, St. John’s Wort, and other natural products. But then, on a trip back home to the states I was able to buy some Melatonin. I had heard of it before but it isn’t available in France, due to the very sort of restrictions you advocate.

    Once I found Melatonin I was immediately able to sleep naturally, day after day, year after year. Even though my other symptoms continued to worsen for many years thereafter until my condition was treated by surgery, the sleep problem had been solved once and for all, as long as i could keep getting Melatonin.

    When (after 17 years of suffering) I finally had shunt surgery to reduce the pressure on my brain, my ability to sleep without any sort of sleep-aid returned very quickly. I had no dependence on the Melatonin at all

    So I reject you claim that Melatonin creates dependence or interferes with the body’s natural processes.

    Melatonin is (as you claim) a hormone, secreted primarily by the pineal gland. However, it is also present in every part of every plant in the world. So it’s not just a hormone. It is an essential compound necessary to all life.

    It’s properties and functions are not limited to brain chemistry but also include such basic life functions as neutralizing the damage done by free-radicals. It is one of the most effective anti-oxidant compounds known to man. And it is present in every plant and animal.

    It’s half-life is very short. From the time someone takes melatonin its sleep-inducing effects take effect very quickly and an hour later the serum level of melatonin has returned to normal. It’s only involved in the onset of sleep. It isn’t needed to “keep” the person asleep. It doesn’t build up in the blood, nor in the tissues and it doesn’t leave behind any sort of toxic residue. Like water, protein, carbohydrates and other essential food ingredients it passes through the body, doing its essential job, and then exits in a totally natural way.

    I reject the right of the government and of the pharmaceutical industry to try to limit access to Melatonin.

    I would rather have no government and no drug companies at all than to allow them to control the public’s access to natural God-given remedies such as Melatonin.

    The relationship between the drug industry and the government has more to do with profits and bribes than it does with the health of the public.

    Ray Mason wrote on April 17th, 2013
  35. You know, if people ARE experiencing more sleep with the Melatonin, maybe they are gaining weight because of the additional sleep. PLEASE don’t tell me this is HOKUM – in my experience, when I go through periods where I sleep 5 hrs a night for a couple of months (projects at work, etc.) my weight drops AUTOMATICALLY. When I have been getting MORE sleep (> 8 hrs/night) my weight increases. Pretty basic stuff, really… The amount you sleep affects your metabolism, and I would say that is true at any age. My mom had weighed 125 all her life, getting an average of 6 hrs sleep per night. When she retired, she started sleeping about 9 hrs average per night. Within 6 months her weight was up 15 lbs. Maybe it is heredity, but I am the same way, which could explain the Melatonin connection too.

    Kathie wrote on April 29th, 2013
  36. Thank you so much! I thought I had some really bad dreams with headaches for no reason but now I see why! Thank you for saving my life!

    Bob wrote on May 3rd, 2013

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