Melatonin and More: What You Need to Know About Sleep Aids

Melatonin+and+More%3A+What+You+Need+to+Know+About+Sleep+Aids

Katherine Lee and Asaka Park

“Melatonin and More: What You Need to Know About Sleep Aids” first appeared in the spring 2020 print edition of The Communiqué. To view the edition in full, please click here.

Sleeping pills can be lifesavers in a pinch, but what about those of us who would prefer a more natural option? There are now dozens of homeopathic remedies on the shelves of supermarkets, pharmacies, and even convenience stores, but sometimes it can be a bit confusing when it comes to which one to choose. We investigated a few popular alternatives to prescribed medications, and here’s what we’ve found.

Chances are, you’ve probably heard of melatonin. A common sleep aid among the public, we suspected that some of our friends have used it as well. 

Junior Stephanie Kim first tried melatonin supplements when she was traveling with her family. Taking melatonin helped her fall asleep when she needed to overcome the dreaded jet lag, a familiar indisposition for those traveling between time zones. 

“I try not to take it too often because I’m pretty good at falling asleep right when I get in bed, but there are times where I just can’t fall asleep,” she said. Case in point, the night before her SAT, feeling “nervous” and “panicked,” Kim recalled tossing and turning in bed. Then, melatonin came to the rescue.

For some people, melatonin is a part of their treatment plan. According to the Mayo Clinic, melatonin supplements have been shown to help remediate a number of sleep problems, including circadian rhythm disorder and insomnia. 

Hannah Stern, a Cresskill senior, said using melatonin has drastically improved her quality of sleep. She was introduced to melatonin supplements when she started experiencing severe sleep difficulties in eighth grade. “I learned about it through my great aunt, because she’s a professor [and sleep psychologist] at Howard University, and she recommended that you take it,” she recalled. She began using melatonin supplements, sometimes in conjunction with sleep glasses, which block out lights that interfere with sleep. She reported that it takes “at least an hour” for melatonin to kick in: “I have to wait a little bit for them to start working, but once they do, they are great.” 

But what are melatonin supplements? Contrary to popular belief, melatonin isn’t the name of a medication. It’s a hormone that your body naturally produces to regulate its sleep-wake cycles. According to Kidshealth.org, puberty alters melatonin production: “During adolescence, the body’s circadian rhythm (sort of like an internal biological clock) is reset, telling a teen to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning. This change in the circadian rhythm seems to happen because a teen’s brain makes the hormone melatonin later at night than the brains of kids and adults do. (Melatonin and another hormone, serotonin, help regulate a person’s sleep-wake cycles.)” Melatonin supplements are synthetically created or derived from animals or microorganisms.

However, melatonin supplements don’t work for everyone. While some swear by it, others find that they don’t help as much as they would like them to. Melatonin supplements don’t have as many side effects as some other medications, but according to WebMD they may include headache, dizziness, and stomach discomfort. 

If that is you, it may be tempting to use Benadryl or other over-the-counter allergy pills that induce drowsiness. But off-label use of these medications isn’t a great idea. In fact, Huffington Post says that antihistamines may disrupt your normal sleep cycle, forcing your brain to stay in the lighter stages of sleep at the cost of the deeper stages. This, as you may have guessed, can have you feeling anything but well-rested in the morning.

Instead, you can try other natural remedies. 

Magnesium supplements can help with sleep. Magnesium is integral to overall health, promoting a variety of functions from blood pressure to energy production. Although magnesium is naturally found in foods, up to 50% of people in Western countries don’t get enough magnesium. Unlike melatonin, your body doesn’t make it on its own, so you may need magnesium supplements to optimize your health. As a matter of fact, magnesium deficiency is linked to a number of health problems, including depression and migraines. Taking magnesium supplements, according to Healthline, may help to “quiet the mind and body,” thereby helping you relax at night and optimize on your rest. 

Ms. Sellix, a case manager at Cresskill High School’s Child Study Team, says that paying attention to our five senses can do wonders for mental health. She often recommends that her patients eat a piece of chocolate or hold a warm cup of tea as a mindfulness exercise. 

“Our sensory input can really have strong reactions (both positive and negative!). I believe that when done with mindfulness, eating something like chocolate or drinking tea can help people slow down and take notice of how their body and mind are connected,” she explains.

By the same token, if stress is preventing you from winding down at night, using essential oils may be able to help. 

That ability to slow down and become more self-aware helps individuals manage emotions, thoughts, and experiences more effectively, if done in a purposeful way. Essential oils can definitely have a similar effect due to the olfactory senses they engage.”

— Ms. Sellix

Essential oils are highly concentrated oils from flowers, peels, or leaves of herbs. They have strong scents, and can be used diluted, in a diffuser, or mixed with carrier oils, such as olive oil and coconut oil. Studies show that lavender oil may be effective in treating mild insomnia and helpful for those who suffer from anxiety, especially for younger individuals.

Before you pick up essential oils, make sure to read up on safety precautions. Ingesting essential oils can lead to nausea and stomach pain. It is also not recommended to apply undiluted oils on the skin as doing so can cause burns. 

While these natural remedies can be helpful to those who suffer from restlessness during the nighttime, it’s important to note that these aren’t cure-alls. Health is multifaceted. Everybody responds to sleep aids differently, so try not to give unsolicited health advice. And since a lack of sleep can be detrimental to your health as a whole, you should let your doctor know if sleep problems are persistent. Furthermore, if you have a known health condition, always ask your doctor before starting new supplements.