Can melatonin help you sleep?

Although Aaron Lerner first characterised melatonin in 1958, it was not until the publication of the book ‘The Melatonin Miracle: Nature’s Age-Reversing, Disease-Fighting, Sex-Enhancing Hormone’ in 1995 that melatonin caught the public imagination.

While the title of the book makes pretty grand claims, it makes no mention of the fact that melatonin is beneficial for sleep.

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone which is naturally produced by the pineal gland in the brain. It is secreted in response to darkness falling which results in a natural rise of levels of melatonin 1-3 hours before we transition from wakefulness into sleep.

Although often thought of as the ‘sleep hormone’, melatonin does not put us to sleep. Rather, it is the signal that initiates a cascade of processes that lead us to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Think of melatonin as the factory whistle at the end of the day that signals that all the machines need to be turned off and then, when everyone has left, the lights are turned off.

Melatonin levels drop across the night and in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before our wake-up time, our body clock starts a series of changes (increasing body temperature, production of the hormone cortisol etc.) that result in our awaking.

A sun setting at sea

Clinical uses of melatonin

In the UK, melatonin may be used as a short-term treatment for insomnia for patients over the age of 55. Melatonin is only available on prescription from a GP in the UK. It cannot be purchased without a prescription in the UK.

Melatonin has been shown to be beneficial for the blind, those with no perception of light, and also for children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism1.

Although melatonin has often been claimed to help people get to sleep, or keep you asleep, there is little evidence to support this; it only has relatively small effects in helping you fall asleep more quickly and increasing your sleep time2. Larger studies are needed to confirm whether melatonin really does improve sleep.

Melatonin is, in fact, a chronobiotic, meaning that it can regulate your body clock[^3], hence why it can have some benefits in helping improve the symptoms of jet-lag3. Importantly, it must be taken at the right time and at the correct dosage to be at all effective.

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Are melatonin supplements safe?

Although they are unavailable in the UK, melatonin supplements are widely promoted as sleep aids, but as mentioned, there’s little scientific evidence that melatonin improves sleep patterns.

The long-term safety of melatonin is unclear4 and, because these supplements are not regulated in any way, it has been found that many melatonin products, particularly those available online, contain little if any active compound5.

Melatonin-boosting foods

Any food that contains protein will provide the body with the building blocks needed for the production of melatonin, so you do not have to eat anything specific to help you sleep.

Although many people advise eating food high in tryptophan, such as bananas, there is actually very little scientific data showing that dietary tryptophan has any direct effect on levels of melatonin, or any beneficial effects on sleep in normal sleepers.

The same can be said of food reported to contain high levels of melatonin such as Montmorency tart cherry juice.

What you can do to naturally boost melatonin

Getting adequate exposure to daylight during the day can help keep your body clock and melatonin levels in check.

Try to schedule in some time outdoors every day. Just going for a walk will help improve sleep two-fold: it can help regulate your body clock and exercising also leads to deeper and more restful sleep.

A girl with a backpack watches the sun rise behind some hills

As mentioned earlier, your melatonin levels should begin to rise roughly two hours before bedtime, so this is the ideal time to begin a wind-down routine. Keep house lights low and limit use of tablets, smart phones and other screens.

Making sure that your bedroom is as dark as possible can also help to signal to your brain to produce melatonin, so dark blinds or even black-out curtains can be helpful.

If you’re still struggling to sleep, speak to us at Sleepstation and we will work with you to identify ways to get you a good night’s sleep.

Summary of key points:

  • In the UK melatonin is only licensed for the short-term treatment of insomnia in people over 55 years old.
  • As a sleep aid, melatonin is not particularly useful, showing to produce only a small reduction in the time taken to fall asleep and a modest increase in the time asleep.
  • Melatonin supplements are available in other countries, particularly the US where it is not controlled in the same way as the UK.
  • The content of these supplements can vary massively from what is indicated on the label and so they should be used with caution.
  • The dose and timing of melatonin are critical to its effectiveness.


  • Kostoglou-Athanassiou, I., 2013. Therapeutic applications of melatonin. Therapeutic advances in endocrinology and metabolism, 4(1), pp.13-24.

  • Ferracioli-Oda, E., Qawasmi, A. and Bloch, M.H., 2013. Meta-analysis: melatonin for the treatment of primary sleep disorders. PloS one, 8(5).

  • Arendt, J. and Skene, D.J., 2005. Melatonin as a chronobiotic. Sleep medicine reviews, 9(1), pp.25-39.

  • Herxheimer, A. and Petrie, K.J., 2002. Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2).

  • Andersen, L.P.H., Gögenur, I., Rosenberg, J. and Reiter, R.J., 2016. The safety of melatonin in humans. Clinical drug investigation, 36(3), pp.169-175.

  • Grigg-Damberger, M.M. and Ianakieva, D., 2017. Poor quality control of over-the-counter melatonin: what they say is often not what you get. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 13(02), pp.163-165.

Further information