Melatonin vs. Sleeping Pills: Exploring the Differences

Trouble sleeping affects nearly half of all Australian adults, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In the quest for better sleep, many turn to melatonin, often assuming it works like a sleeping pill. However, they are quite different. Let’s delve into this topic.

How Does Melatonin Work?   

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the pineal gland in our brains. Despite its minute presence, hormones can exert significant effects on the body. Melatonin’s primary role is regulating our circadian rhythm, the body’s internal 24-hour clock. It’s released as darkness falls, signaling the body that it’s time to transition into the sleep phase.

Unlike a sleeping pill that can be likened to a simple “lights out” switch, melatonin acts more like a dimmer switch. It doesn’t directly put you to sleep; instead, it gently encourages your body to embrace a nighttime mindset.

There are two main ways to use melatonin. The first is to take them when you want to feel drowsy and fall asleep more easily. Typically, it takes about 20 minutes for melatonin to start making you feel sleepy. It’s advisable to discuss the best approach with your doctor.

The other application is resetting your body clock, which can be useful for travelers crossing multiple time zones. Taking melatonin around bedtime in your destination’s time zone, coupled with exposure to bright morning light, can help align your internal clock with the new time zone. It’s crucial to consult your doctor about the safe use of melatonin, as it is prescription-only in Australia.

What About Sleeping Pills?

Sleeping pills, in contrast, are medications specifically designed to facilitate falling asleep or staying asleep. They are occasionally prescribed to alleviate insomnia, but it’s important to note that they do not address the underlying causes of sleep issues.

Melatonin’s Impact on Sleep Quality

Both too much and too little melatonin can disrupt sleep patterns. Low melatonin levels are linked to sleep problems and mental health issues, while excessive levels can lead to headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea. Melatonin levels can be influenced by factors such as age, lack of sleep, travel across time zones, shift work, certain medications, and even substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.

Research has shown that melatonin can enhance sleep quality, even in individuals grappling with insomnia. A 2013 meta-analysis of 19 studies involving 1,683 participants revealed that melatonin reduced the time it takes to fall asleep by seven minutes and increased sleep continuity by eight minutes. While these gains may seem modest, the overall benefit of waking up feeling refreshed is substantial.

Melatonin may be especially helpful for chronic insomnia when used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT aims to identify and address the underlying causes of sleep disturbances that may be inhibiting the body’s natural melatonin production.

Potential Side Effects

Short-term use of melatonin, according to the NCCIH (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health), is generally safe. However, a 2014 systematic review of melatonin studies did identify some mild adverse effects in some patients, including headaches, nausea, drowsiness, dizziness, and palpitations. Nightmares are also possible due to melatonin’s tendency to increase REM sleep, a phase known for vivid dreams. However, these side effects, including night terrors, are more likely to occur with higher dosages.

It’s essential to use melatonin as prescribed by your doctor, typically for temporary sleep problems. If you have a chronic sleep disorder, consider adopting healthy sleep habits and making lifestyle changes. If these approaches don’t yield results, consult with your healthcare provider to explore suitable medications and develop a comprehensive plan to address all aspects of quality sleep.

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates. 

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