We hear a lot about Melatonin these days—but how do we separate the hype from the facts? Melatonin has been promoted as a mood enhancer, as a powerful anti-oxidant, as a longevity miracle drug, and—last but not least—as a sleep aid.

Of the four qualities listed above, only one has earned significant scientific concensus: melatonin is a remarkable sleep aid, whose uses only are beginning to be appreciated. But let’s start with the facts.

Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, whose presence in the body helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycles. The secretion of melatonin is cued by light; as our eyes register the onset of darkness, the amount of melatonin produced by the pineal grand steadily increases. As we get older, however, the amount of melatonin secreted by our brains tends to decrease. Scientists believe this is one reason why young people have less problems sleeping than older people.

When melatonin first became popular in the mid-1990’s, it was promoted as a useful tool primarily for frequent travelers, who wanted to re-set their circadian rhythms to new time zones as quickly as possible. As the popularity of melatonin increased, it was soon popularized as an “all natural” sleep aid—free of the “hang-overs” that characterize many sleeping pills. Over time, of course, melatonin became hyped as a cure for cancer, as a prop for sagging sex lives, and as a newly discovered fountain of youth.

Within medical circles today, the use of melatonin generally is recommended with caution. Because the production and distribution of melatonin is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (like most herbal and alternative remedies for medical problems) valid concerns exist about the quality of melatonin available in the marketplace. Similarly, the effective dose of melatonin can vary enormously from person to person.

Despite these cautions, the fact remains that melatonin is a clinically proven, highly successful aid in inducing sleep—with little to no toxic side effects. Insomnia sufferers new to melatonin are encouraged to begin treatment at a low dose of approximately 1 mg approximately 30 minutes prior to bedtime, and to increase the dose by .5 mg on successive nights if indicated. Increased ability to fall asleep is reported with doses as low as .03 mg, so new users are encouraged to give their melatonin a chance to work. Also, melatonin is popularly reported to be more effective if taken “under the tongue.” Sub-lingual melatonin is absorbed more efficiently into the bloodstream than regular oral doses, which are absorbed through the stomach.

Melatonin may not be a cure for cancer—or keep you looking twenty for the rest of your life—but odds are very good that, if you suffer from occasional insomnia, this wonder drug can give you back a restful night’s sleep. For most insomnia sufferers, that is miracle enough!

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