Not Getting Your Zs? Melatonin Can Help
June 23, 2000 -- The results of a new study could put millions of people to
sleep -- in a good way. Canadian researchers have found an important connection
between levels of the hormone melatonin in the brain and the inability to get a
good night's sleep. Their findings may be the key to restful nights for the one
in 10 people who suffer from insomnia.
The human body naturally secretes melatonin at nighttime. But as people age,
natural melatonin levels decrease, sometimes causing interrupted sleep. When
this happens, dietary supplements of melatonin -- purchased at pharmacies or
health food stores -- can restore normal sleep patterns, the researchers found.
Their first-of-its kind study was presented recently at the annual meeting of
The Endocrine Society in Toronto.
"Most older people have [below-normal] melatonin levels at nighttime in
their blood, and many of these people have insomnia -- which means they awaken
and have trouble falling back asleep," researcher Richard J. Wurtman, PhD,
tells WebMD. "For these people, low doses of melatonin are highly effective
in restoring normal sleep efficiency." Wurtman is a professor in the brain
and cognitive science department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in
Wurtman and colleagues looked at 30 people age 50 and over, half of whom had
insomnia. They found that all 30 participants experienced low blood melatonin
levels at night, which shows that melatonin deficiency does not always cause
insomnia. The study participants were given either a placebo or one of three
doses of melatonin, ranging from 0.1 to 3.0 mg. "All three doses of
melatonin improved sleep in the insomniacs, but only the middle dose of 0.3 mg
restored sleep to normal," Wurtman says.
That's the ideal dose, he says. But the researchers found that insomniacs
often take doses that are 10 times higher than their body requires, making the
melatonin less effective.
"This demonstrates the need for doctors to work with their patients to
find the correct dose of melatonin that raises the blood melatonin level to its
normal range, but does not raise the level above [that] range," Wurtman
Lorraine A. Fitzpatrick, MD, a Mayo Clinic physician, tells WebMD that the
news is exciting, but cautions patients about proper doses. "Unfortunately,
if you went to the health food store, you might get 10 to 100 times the amount
used in this study," she says. "Frequently, we see people taking
melatonin and getting side effects or hangovers. They may think they're taking
the right dose, but they wake up groggy and not able to function. I encourage
all of my patients to talk to their doctors about all of the medications
they're taking. Interactions can occur with prescription medications that
change the affects of drugs."