A small berry-flavored melatonin gummy holds great promise: better sleep. But a new research paper published Tuesday in the medical journal JAMA highlights a key problem: When it comes to melatonin, like other supplements, it’s not what you read on the label. always what you get.
A team of researchers analyzed 25 melatonin gummies from different brands and found that 22 of them had different amounts of melatonin than what was listed on their labels; one contained only 74 percent of the advertised amount of melatonin, The other was 347% more. Another product contained no detectable melatonin at all.
Researchers tested only one bottle of each product’s gummies, so melatonin levels may vary from batch to batch. But Dr. Peter Cohen, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the paper, said the findings suggest a surprising discrepancy between the amount of melatonin consumers think they’re getting and how much they’re actually getting.
“You’re at the mercy of the dietary supplement industry,” says Dr. Cohen.
The FDA does not evaluate the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements. “Protecting the health and safety of Americans is FDA’s top priority, and we will remain vigilant and warn consumers when public health concerns related to dietary supplement products arise,” an agency representative said in a statement .
Previous research has highlighted how much the quality of melatonin products can vary; a 2017 study in Canada found that one melatonin supplement contained 400% more melatonin than what was listed on the label. Dr. Cohen’s research examined only gummies and focused on products sold in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of Americans using melatonin supplements increased more than fivefold between 1999 and 2018.
What happens if you take too much melatonin?
Our brains naturally produce melatonin after the sun goes down. This hormone helps regulate our circadian rhythm, signaling our body that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin supplements are designed to complement or enhance this process.
Three milligrams of accurately labeled gummies contain about a thousand times the amount of melatonin our brains naturally produce, says Philip Gehrman, associate professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. A large excess of melatonin will likely be broken down in the body and excreted; it probably won’t help you fall asleep faster, he says.
The higher the dose of melatonin, the more likely you are to experience side effects, says Dr. Sabra Abbott, a sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. High amounts of melatonin are unlikely to be dangerous for most adults, but some people report feeling light-headed or hungover or having vivid, disturbing dreams the morning after taking the supplement, experts say.
There are serious risks to children if they consume too many melatonin gummies. Calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers related to pediatric melatonin intake jumped 530 percent from 2012 to 2021, according to research published last summer.
“They’re not candy,” says Dr. Brian Chen, a sleep specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. “They didn’t just take it away.”
How Do You Choose a Reliable Melatonin Supplement?
There is no guarantee that any given bottle of melatonin gummies actually contains the amount listed on the label. Still, experts recommend some precautions for those who decide to take melatonin:
Ask a pharmacist.
Instead of ordering melatonin online or wandering the aisles of a pharmacy and picking a supplement at random, ask your pharmacist to recommend a brand you trust, says Dr. Gehrman.
Make sure it’s authenticated.
Experts say you should choose products that are certified by a third-party organization like the US Pharmacopeia, which reviews different supplements.
Choose low-dose supplements.
Opt for one milligram or less of melatonin, says Dr. Abbott. Larger doses are unlikely to be more effective at helping you fall asleep.
Talk to your doctor.
Even with a seemingly innocuous supplement like melatonin, you should talk to your doctor before trying it, experts say.
It’s also important to think about why you’re taking melatonin in the first place, says Dr. Chen. Many people who turn to melatonin mistakenly take it in an attempt to induce sleep at bedtime, seeking a quick fix when interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy may be more beneficial in treating insomnia.
“Learning this lost art of sleep takes effort and effort,” he says.