Is melatonin bad for you? Usage is on the rise despite health risks, study says

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As sleep has become a hallmark of a healthy lifestyle, it is no surprise that many individuals are turning to melatonin supplements to fix their broken sleep schedule. Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the body, regulating the body’s sleep and wake cycles. While common in the US, particularly among shift workers, travelers, and people who struggle to fall and stay asleep, there has been recent speculation about the benefits and risks of melatonin supplements.

Melatonin is sold over-the-counter as a dietary supplement in the US. Unlike prescription drugs, dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While many individuals view dietary supplements as natural remedies with few side effects, the reality is that it’s challenging to determine their safety without oversight. With that said, many studies have concluded that melatonin supplements may not be as healthy as thought.

One of the major risks associated with melatonin supplements is a shift in hormonal balance. Taking too much melatonin can cause the body to overproduce melatonin or its antagonist, serotonin, which can result in adverse effects ranging from anxiety and depression to skin rashes and increased risk of seizures. Further, the lack of regulation over the content and dosage of melatonin supplements has caused concern in the medical community. In 2017, researchers from the University of Guelph in Canada studied melatonin supplements and found that 71% exceeded the dose on their label. The researchers also discovered that there were variances in labeling accuracy, which can be dangerous to users who rely on an accurate dosage for their particular circumstances.

Another issue that researchers have found is that melatonin supplements’ impacts differ between users. Research has found that adults over 60 years of age need a lower dosage of melatonin than younger adults to achieve the same effect. So for older adults, taking the pill may exacerbate sleep issues instead of fixing them.

Additionally, many users supplementing with melatonin are potentially unaware of the side effects of its long-term use. As previously mentioned, melatonin regulates the body’s circadian rhythm, and by supplementing with it, the body’s natural production of the hormone can be depleted. This can result in dependence on the supplement and, therefore, an adverse impact on the body’s natural production. It can also interfere with other hormonal balances in the body, since it affects other hormonal systems such as estrogen and cortisol. This renders melatonin supplements not only ineffective for some, but it also could create new health risks.

Despite these risks, the usage of melatonin supplements is rising throughout the world. In the US alone, over three million adults used melatonin supplements in 2012. In earlier work performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found a 15% increase in the usage of melatonin supplements among individuals between the ages of 18-24 between 2012 and 2015. This spike in usage among the young adult demographic is an unmistakable indication of the potential dangers of these supplements.

It is not surprising that consumers are turning to supplements without knowing all the facts, as they are readily available and easily purchasable. The problem is that the features associated with increased usage of melatonin supplements are a catalyst for dangerous side effects, particularly among those who don’t need the supplements or aren’t fully aware of the potential health risks of their use.

The dangers of melatonin supplements must be addressed, and regulatory solutions need to be reviewed. Individuals considering the use of melatonin supplements should consult with their healthcare professional, discuss any prior medical diagnoses, consult with their pharmacist, adhere to dosage guidelines recommended on the packaging, and avoid using them for a longer period. They should also be careful when purchasing melatonin supplements, taking care to purchase from reputable and well-respected retailers.

The uncontrollable rise in the use of melatonin supplements is raising understandable concerns in the medical community. The notion that a naturally available hormone can be added to bottle form and then sold as a dietary supplement without following rigorous regulatory procedures, and without warning customers about the possible side effects, is concerning. We should all ensure that we are informed of the potential dangers of supplements before resorting to them for a better sleep cycle. As consumers, we must enact protective measures and call on regulatory bodies to do the same to ensure those taking melatonin supplements understand the potential risks in their use.