Health and Wellness

This is the optimal time to take melatonin before bed, according to a neurologist who specializes in sleep medicine

Melatonin in pill form is popular, but sublingual dissolvable wafers can be taken without water.
Sarawut Doungwana / EyeEm

If you, like many Americans, are struggling to get a good night's sleep, you're probably considering melatonin supplements.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain in response to darkness, according to the National Institutes of Health. The hormone can be helpful for your circadian rhythms, your 24-hour internal clock, and sleep, as stated by the NIH. 

Melatonin supplements can be found in the form of drops, gummies, liquids and tablets and are available at pharmacies like CVS, big-box stores like Target and online via DTC brands that offer supplements for just about anything.

But like with most vitamins and supplements, the directions for taking melatonin can be pretty vague. And you may be wondering if there is an optimal time to take your dose before bed. You may also want a better sense of how the supplements work or what melatonin does for the body. 

Yo-El Ju is a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. We asked her to help answer three key questions about using melatonin to get better sleep.

When's the best time to take melatonin before bed?

Before deciding the best time to take melatonin, you should make one clear distinction, says Ju.

Knowing whether or not you have a circadian rhythm disorder will dictate how close to bedtime you should take a supplement. Folks with a delayed circadian phase are commonly referred to as night owls.

"For people who have a problem with their internal clocks, if they have a circadian disorder, like a night owl type, we will recommend that those individuals take melatonin about an hour or two before their desired bedtime," she says.

But, most people don't have a circadian disorder and those who are taking the supplements solely to get to sleep, "can take it at bed time or just 15 minutes prior," Ju says.

Which type of melatonin supplement should I take?

Time isn't the only factor to help determine how melatonin supplements will affect your sleep. Both the dosage and type of supplement you take can lead to vastly different experiences, Ju says.

Consider, too, that nutritional supplements like melatonin aren't subject to the same regulations as medications, she says. With this in mind, researchers conducted a study in 2017, comparing different brands of melatonin supplements including tablets, gummies, liquids and more.

"They found that the dosage that's present inside the actual melatonin pills doesn't always match what's on the label," Ju says. And some supplements even included serotonin which may interfere with a person's sleep, according to the study.

"When I counsel my patients, I recommend to them that they get at least a three-milligram-sized tablet," Ju says. "And if they're trying it for the first time to actually cut it in half and try 1.5 milligrams."

Melatonin, when dosed correctly, will not make you feel groggy or lead to deep sleep that makes it difficult for you to wake up, she says. In general, a dose between one to six milligrams is typically used for adults, and anything above that doesn't usually provide additional benefits.

What else is important to know about melatonin?

In order for natural melatonin to be truly effective, it's best to be in a dark setting and limit light exposure because light prevents the hormone from doing its job, according to Ju.

"The effect of light on suppressing the melatonin that people have already in their brains is very strong, meaning the effect of light is probably 10 times that of melatonin," says Ju. "Before someone takes melatonin, I would recommend that they actually work on their light exposure in the hour or so before bed time."

Though taking a melatonin additive every day doesn't generally lead to adverse effects, sometimes extra melatonin isn't needed, says Ju. Here's what she recommends doing before reaching for a supplement:

  • Limit light exposure, especially blue light exposure from the screens of electronics, an hour before bed
  • Stick to a regular bed time and wake time
  • Follow a peaceful bedtime routine that helps calm your senses

"I think it's very effective when people build in time to relax, journal, meditate, stretch, whatever it is that works for each individual to help them calm down the stresses of the day, so that they're getting into bed calm and peaceful," says Ju.

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