The pandemic continues to change sleep patterns and compound problems that can disrupt sleep. This has helped make melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep aid, more popular.
Melatonin sales soared to nearly $1 billion in 2020, up 43% year over year.
Melatonin is a dietary supplement, so there isn’t much oversight and research. But sleep medicine experts say it has a low-risk profile, meaning it’s generally safe and has few side effects.
“We’ve been able to show with many studies that we can switch to the body’s melatonin curve to adapt it to our ideas,” said Dr. Katherine Green, the medical director of the Sleep Medicine Clinic at UCHealth in Colorado.
Green says because a person’s brain naturally produces melatonin, users aren’t likely to build up a tolerance. This is not always the case with other sleep aids. But she says taking melatonin at night may be more important than the drug itself.
“That actually becomes one of the behavioral and environmental cues in your sleep routine, so it’s difficult to figure out whether it’s a tolerance or an addiction to the medication, or just a behavioral cue that becomes part of your sleep routine,” she said.
Some things can disrupt the body’s natural production of melatonin, such as stress, smoking, and hormones. According to Green, women in general tend to have more trouble sleeping, especially during pregnancy and menopause.
But the biggest controllable factor in melatonin disorders for everyone is blue light from electronic screens.
“This blue light actually directly inhibits the production of melatonin in the brain from night to night, and so we know that if you have a lot of screen time, if you’re exposed to a lot of blue light within about an hour of bedtime, that’s the whole.” your body’s melatonin production throughout the night is actually blunted, making it not only harder to fall asleep, but harder to stay asleep,” Green said.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and don’t feel rested when you wake up, you should talk to your family doctor first. She says doctors can often correct these problems with sleep hygiene techniques and behavior changes.