Does Melatonin Cause Weird Dreams? The Answer + Other Melatonin Myths Debunked
Have you had any trouble sleeping lately?
Maybe you’ve been tossing and turning, waking up throughout the night, and then crashing the next day... before half the workday is even over!
If that’s you, well, bad news: Your circadian rhythm may be out of balance.
The circadian rhythm, also known as the sleep/wake cycle, is a 24-hour internal clock that cycles the body between sleepiness and alertness.1
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that plays a role in regulating your circadian rhythm. The pineal gland is inactive during the day. When the sun goes down, the pineal gland “turns on” and releases melatonin to alert the body that it’s time to sleep.
Your sleep/wake cycle is easily interrupted by sleep deprivation. Other factors, such as your age and lifestyle, play a role. Also, as you get older, your circadian rhythm changes. You go from staying up late to feeling sleepy earlier, waking earlier, and needing less sleep.
The light from the sun and darkness of the nighttime also affect your ability to fall asleep. When it becomes dark outside, your brain releases melatonin to make you feel tired. However, this signal may get interrupted by the light emitted from cell phones, television, and other electronic devices.
Research reveals that blue light emission from technological devices suppresses your body’s release of melatonin, interrupting natural sleep cycles.2
However, the good news is that you can use melatonin as a supplement to help get your sleep/wake cycle back in balance.
Studies show that melatonin is beneficial for sleep troubles in those experiencing jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorders (when the sleep cycle is delayed by three to six hours), and disrupted sleep due to night shift work. It also may be helpful for insomnia in adults.
Surprisingly, melatonin is the only hormone sold in the United States that is available without a prescription from a doctor.
Because the hormone is naturally present in some foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy, the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 makes it legal to be sold as a dietary supplement and not as an over-the-counter medication. Its administration does not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or controlled in the same way as a drug.3
And surprisingly, melatonin may have wider applications than just improving your sleep. In fact, melatonin has a wide range of health benefits due to its antioxidant and neuroprotective properties.
However, there are a few common misconceptions about this incredible compound. For instance, an urban legend holds that taking melatonin will give you bad dreams.
Is that true?
Not even close.
But it isn’t the only misconception floating around about this incredible compound.
Melatonin: Not a Sleeping Pill
Although melatonin is used for sleep disorders, it is not a sleeping pill. Melatonin works differently.
Melatonin is a hormone released when your body’s internal clock is preparing for nighttime. It is not a sleep aid like a sleeping pill.
Melatonin alone does not make you sleep. It resets your internal clock so you feel tired when it’s time for bed. It can help rebalance the circadian rhythms of healthy individuals without a serious sleep disorder during a jetlag period, after a late night out, or during times of high stress.
The results are mixed on the effectiveness of melatonin for clinically diagnosed insomnia in adults.
Insomnia is defined as a consistent difficulty falling and staying asleep, which can cause daytime fatigue, impaired concentration, impaired performance in work or school, and mood dysregulation.
An analysis in 2013 of 19 different studies on the utility of melatonin supplements for primary sleep disorders, such as insomnia, revealed that melatonin slightly shortened the amount of time it took to fall asleep. It also improved total sleep time and overall sleep quality.4 More research is necessary to determine the full effects of melatonin on acute sleep disorders, but the results are promising.
The Dangers of Prescription Sleeping Pills: Is Melatonin a Safer Option?
Prescription sleeping pills, on the other hand, pose significant risk to those who take them.
The most common sleeping pills are classified as selective gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) medications, also known as Zolpidem, which include Ambien, Lunesta, and more. These medications work on the GABA receptors in the brain, which regulate levels of alertness or relaxation.5
The most popular sleeping pills are prescribed because they have sedation as a side effect. Their prescription use for sleep is off-label. These medications do not heal your natural sleep cycle like melatonin does.
At the same time, these prescription medications often come with disturbing side effects such as memory loss, behavior changes before falling asleep, hallucinations, nocturnal eating, and sleepwalking.
Even more terrifying are the cases of violence associated with these medications. In one case study from 2012, a previously healthy 45-year-old man murdered his wife while in an Ambien-induced slumber:
Mr. A reported having only fragmentary memory of the hours before the killing. He recalled that his wife gave him his usual nighttime medications, including zolpidem 10 mg...
He was unable to fall asleep, and she gave him an extra pill, presumably zolpidem, around 1:30 AM. “The next thing I remember,” he said, “was awaking in a wheelchair. I didn’t know where I was. I asked the doctor why I was handcuffed.”6
Although melatonin is available over the counter and does not require a doctor’s prescription, it is arguably a safer choice for your first line of defense when experiencing sleep troubles.
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Side effects from melatonin are uncommon. Although rare, you may experience dizziness, drowsiness, and nausea.
However, there is not currently a scientific consensus on the accurate dosage of melatonin. Research reveals that 0.3 mg of the supplement is sufficient for improvement of your sleep cycle, but some supplements sell tablets at 5 mg.
Taking a typical over-the-counter dose of 1 to 3 mg may elevate your blood level of melatonin from 1 to 20 times the normal amount. This means it is more likely you will experience a “hangover” or daytime sleepiness from melatonin at higher doses.7
Other concerns about melatonin include its lack of regulation. Because melatonin is not categorized as a drug, the synthetic supplement is manufactured in factories that are not regulated by the FDA. This also means that because the listed doses are not required to be accurate, the dosage you receive in a melatonin pill may not be the amount stated on the label.8
The good news is, although there are concerns about the manufacturing of melatonin supplements, there have not been any verified cases of toxicity or overdose.
Melatonin has by far a better reputation than the sleeping pills on the market.
If you want to try melatonin, ask your doctor what dose is appropriate for you.
Melatonin Myths Debunked
#1: Melatonin Causes Weird Dreams
False. Melatonin induces sleep, and dreams are a side effect of sleeping.
Everyone dreams. Dreams are images, stories, and immersive experiences created by our minds while we sleep. They can be funny, scary, romantic, disturbing, and... strange.
There are many theories about why we dream and what causes weird dreams, from the psychoanalytic perspective that we are processing unconscious desires to neuroscience, which theorizes that the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep is the cause of dreaming.
Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a sleep medicine professor at Stanford University, explains his perspective on melatonin and dreaming:
Who takes melatonin? Someone who’s having trouble sleeping. And once you take anything for your sleep, once you start sleeping more or better, you have what's called “REM rebound.”
REM rebound is when your body essentially catches up on the REM phase of sleep.
“Normal subjects who take melatonin supplements in the controlled setting of a sleep lab do not spend more time dreaming or in REM sleep,” Pelayo adds. “This suggests that there is no inherent property of melatonin that leads to more or weirder dreams.”9
#2: My Body Will Become Dependent on Melatonin and Will No Longer Make It
False. Melatonin is not addictive, and melatonin supplements do not negatively disrupt your body’s production of the hormone.
On the other hand, the body becomes dependent and builds up a tolerance to prescription sedative sleep medications. In fact, these types of prescriptions are only recommended for the treatment of insomnia on a short-term basis.10
The only risk with taking melatonin is taking too high of a dose consistently. Some experts believe taking melatonin regularly at very large doses may desensitize the receptors in the brain.
To date, there have been no documented cases of melatonin addiction or negative side effects from stopping the supplement.11
#3: Melatonin Is Only Useful for Sleep
False! Melatonin may have more benefits than we ever imagined.
Along with stimulating your body’s circadian rhythm, melatonin is also a very strong antioxidant.
One fascinating study in 2017 examined the effects of a daily high dose of melatonin in healthy athletes undergoing resistance training. Results revealed that the consumption of melatonin greatly improved the body’s antioxidant defense by protecting muscle from the oxidative stress of exercise. These results are exciting for the future of sports medicine.12
Another little-known application for melatonin supplementation is for its cardiovascular benefits. There is solid evidence supporting the beneficial effects of melatonin on a number of cardiovascular diseases. Several studies have shown that a nighttime administration of melatonin at 2-5 mg daily reduces the blood pressure reading of hypertensive men and women.13
More research is necessary in the administration of melatonin for therapeutic purposes other than sleep. Researchers believe that increasing your level of melatonin by eating melatonin-rich foods such as walnuts, tropical fruits, grape juice, wine, and cereals may increase its antioxidant capacity.14
#4: All Melatonin Supplements Are Safe Because They’re Sold Over the Counter
False! Just because you can find melatonin supplements at the pharmacy does not mean they are sourced reliably and safely.
As mentioned above, melatonin supplements are not held to the same standard as medications because they are considered dietary supplements. This means melatonin is not approved and regulated by the FDA.
Along with the varying in dosages and strength, some melatonin supplements have been found to be contaminated with drugs and toxic metals. It is important to make sure you are getting your melatonin from a responsible source.
Make sure you to talk to your doctor before you begin taking any supplements. Melatonin may interact with other medications. There is never no risk when taking a supplement, but research shows taking melatonin from a reliable source at a low dose can be incredibly beneficial for your sleep cycle.
Wrap Up: Debunking Melatonin Myths
- Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that plays a role in regulating your circadian rhythm.
- When it becomes dark outside, your brain releases melatonin to make you feel tired. However, this signal can be interrupted by the light emitted from cell phones, television, and other electronic devices.
- Melatonin is beneficial for sleep troubles in those experiencing jet lag, a delayed sleep phase disorder, and those with disrupted sleep due to night shift work, and it may be helpful for insomnia in adults.
- Research reveals that 0.3 mg of melatonin is sufficient for improvement of your sleep cycle, but some supplements sell tablets at 5 mg.
- Melatonin causes weird dreams
- False: Melatonin causes sleep. Dreams are a side effect of sleeping, not the supplement.
- You will become dependent on melatonin
- False: Melatonin is not addictive. There are no documented cases of melatonin dependence.
- Melatonin is only good for sleep
- False: Exciting research reveals the benefits of melatonin are wide reaching, from protecting the body from oxidative stress to preventing cardiovascular problems.
- All melatonin supplements are safe because they’re sold over the counter
- False: Make sure to get your melatonin from a reliable source. Some supplements have been found to contain heavy metals and chemicals not listed on the label.
To your health, Annalise May
Contributing Editor, Clear Health Now
To your health,