Experts warn melatonin use in America is ‘out of control’
Melatonin use is skyrocketing in America, quintessentially in the past 20 years, and while many may view it as a harmless natural sleep aid, some experts are raising concerns about potential long-term harm and poisoning from overuse of the substance.
In a report by JAMA On Wednesday, sleep and psychiatric experts warn that 2.1 percent of American adults are now taking the drug regularly. Many in doses over five milligrams per night — the recommended maximum for most people.
While many consider the sleep aid to be relatively harmless, officials are also reporting an increase in poisoning cases among children who have taken too much of the drug at one time.
The long-term effects of its use during adulthood are also currently unknown due to the relative novelty of being so commonly used by such a large population.
“It’s a crazy situation that’s gotten out of hand,” Dr Judith Owens told JAMA.
While melatonin can be safely used occasionally, like any sleep aid, doctors don’t recommend taking it every night for sleep (file photo)
The popularity of the over-the-counter drug is only increasing over time, with annual sales increasing from $331 million in 2017 to $821 million in 2020. But sleep experts say many people taking the drug are still suffering.
‘They end up on my sidewalk in a sleep clinic because [melatonin] is not the magic bullet,” said Owens, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Unlike many other countries, in the US melatonin is distributed over the counter rather than by prescription.
It is also marketed as a more natural sleep aid because it uses an active ingredient that the human body already produces.
Experts warn that many Americans are taking more than the recommended maximum of 5 mg of melatonin per day – and that this can lead to significant cognitive problems over time. Pictured: An over-the-counter melatonin product at a dosage of 12 mg
This has led many to believe that it is safe to use without considering the long-term consequences of overuse – unlike other prescription drugs such as Tylenol, where a person can understand the limits of how much it should be taken.
‘It’s a bit alarming; just because the product is available over the counter doesn’t mean it’s totally harmless and doesn’t have significant physiological effects,” Dr. Naima Covassin of the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science in Rochester, Minnesota at JAMA.
Little is known about the long-term effects of melatonin supplements. They are relatively new to the market and their widespread use was only very recently applied in much of the world.
As a result, its general effects are unknown. However, if there are long-term problems associated with it, the world will find out in a big way.
The National Institutes of Health, along with others, have linked the drug to dementia and a slightly shorter lifespan, though there’s no conclusive research to prove the case.
There is also data on other sleeping pills showing that overuse or abuse of them later in life can lead to significant cognitive decline or psychiatric problems.
Researchers in a Mayo Clinic study published in March wrote that anyone taking the drug now is actually participating is a huge study.
“The increasing use of exogenous melatonin in the general population and its growing therapeutic potential provide impetus for obtaining robust evidence for the long-term safety of melatonin supplementation,” they wrote.
Even people who think they are taking safe amounts of the drug could be misinformed.
Since the drug is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, doses may be higher than advertised, meaning someone may be taking more of the drug than thought.
WHAT IS MELATONIN?
Melatonin is a hormone that determines how sleeping or awake people feel.
The hormone is produced in the pineal gland in the brain and its release in the body is controlled by light.
During the day, when the eye absorbs light, melatonin levels in the body are low, making us feel awake.
But when it gets dark and the amount of light absorbed by the eye decreases (although this is disrupted by artificial light in modern societies), more melatonin circulates through the body.
Melatonin prepares the body for sleep by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and changing the way heat is stored in the body – the core body temperature drops while the outside of the body and extremities heat up.
The hormone also makes people sleepy.
Melatonin supplements can be taken to help sleep in people who have problems with it, as well as for certain medical conditions such as tinnitus or Alzheimer’s disease.
“These estimates may raise safety concerns, especially given that the actual melatonin content in marketed supplements may be up to 478 percent higher than the labeled content and that the evidence supporting melatonin use for sleep disorders is weak,” the researchers wrote. the Mayo Clinic.
Because of these fears, no sleep aids are recommended for long-term use without trying other sleep therapies first.
“There are no drugs recommended for long-term use for insomnia in children or adults,” Dr. Jennifer Martin, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told JAMA.
“We always try non-drug approaches first, and that works for most people.”
Many people understand the risks of sleeping pills, and it even pushed them toward the melatonin considered safe, experts note.
Another big fear is that kids will get their hands on them and use them unsafely in ways that will make them sick.
Since many melatonin supplements are gummies, a child may mistakenly think they are candies and eat a large amount of them.
The experts told JAMA that many parents who want their child to take melatonin also say it is candy. While that may make bedtime a little worrying, experts warn it could give their child a dangerous misconception about melatonin.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that 4,000 children have been hospitalized for melatonin-related causes in the past decade. Two cases resulted in death.
“As with any other drug, don’t leave it on the counter for your toddler to touch,” Owens said.
There are also concerns that one may become tired the next day. If a person took too much of a dose the previous night and doesn’t get enough sleep, they will likely be even more tired in the morning.
However, the drug is not completely useless. Experts say they’re great in rarer situations where a person needs to quickly adjust their sleep schedule — like resolving jet lag after a trip.
It can also be used as an occasional sleep aid for a person who is afraid of missing important sleep on a particular night – as other types of sleep aids are used.