older woman with insomnia

Chronic insomnia wears you down. It also contributes to a range of health problems, from high blood pressure to diabetes. But many of the medications people take to get to sleep are not intended for long-term use. Others are not safe for seniors. What about taking melatonin?

Is Taking Melatonin a Safe Way to Get to Sleep?

Q. I have been taking melatonin for years to help me sleep. As I understand it, as your body ages it makes less of this natural sleep substance.

I try to avoid sleeping pills. The TV commercials for such medications scare me when they describe horrible side effects.

I recently read the fine print on my melatonin bottle. It said to take it for two months, then wait a week before taking it again. I can do this, but I don’t want to take sleeping pills while I am off melatonin.

I do not need anything that makes my memory worse, which is what I fear from the help-you-sleep stuff advertised on TV. At age 85, I’d like to stay safe. Is there a problem taking melatonin?

Risks of Sleeping Pills:

A. We appreciate your concerns about the dangers of OTC sleeping pills. Many contain DPH or other sedating antihistamines. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine (March 2015) linked the regular use of first-generation antihistamines like diphenhydramine (DPH) and other anticholinergic drugs to dementia.  Some prescription sleeping pills have also been associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline (Expert Opinion on Drug Safety, May 2015).

What About Melatonin?

Although melatonin is usually considered safe (Clinical Drug Investigations, March 2016), a British study recently found that older people taking melatonin are at a greater risk for fracture (Age and Ageing, Nov. 2016). That may be because of dizziness or a morning “hangover” effect.

You might consider a non-drug approach to overcoming insomnia. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is effective and does not provoke unwanted side effects (Journal of Cancer Survivorship, online Jan. 19, 2017). Not everyone can consult a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, but anyone with internet access could benefit from a computerized version of this therapy (PLOS One, Feb. 11, 2016).

You will find more information about sleeping pills and alternative ways to overcome insomnia in our online resource Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep. You will need a link that will be provided through your email, so don’t close the shopping cart until you verify that you have received the link.

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  1. Mary F
    North Carolina

    After 8 months of 5mg of Melatonin I had painful neuropathy in both my hands . It became worse each month. I was trying to come off Ambien and was taking 1/4 of a 10 mg Ambien with the melatonin. I scheduled myself at Duke Hospital for an EMG test but by the time I saw the doctor my symptoms of neuropathy were less as I stopped the Melatonin thinking there might be a connection.

    After being off melatonin for 2 months, the pain was totally gone. I must admit that I was sleeping much better with the melatonin. I insert here that I can not take most medications without a side effect or the flu shot with becoming ill so I believe my body chemistry is the culprit

  2. Nancy

    My doctor suggested Natra Sleep from GNC. He uses it, and feels it is safe. It contains five herbs, and took a couple of weeks to work well, but I’m now enjoying restorative sleep. What a joy!!

    As to pain at night: I feel the pain is due to nerve impulses sent from my spinal column. For 53 years I’ve been using a long-handled vibrator to stop the spasms. If that doesn’t work, I do one of my gentle exercise routines, then fall back to sleep relaxed.

  3. Kaci

    For three years, I’ve been waking up at 3:30 -4:00 a.m. every morning. Instead of tossing and turning I get up & do housework, etc. However, am not tired from that and stay awake. Then I decided I might as well do my morning workout at 3:30-4 a.m. when I wake up. Something amazing happened… I get very tired from the workout instead of energized. I use an elliptical machine for 60 mins. while watching a tv show. Tired from the exercise I return to bed and sleep quite well for3-4 more hours. It’s been a year and it works great. I find it is also important to go to bed by 10. When I do that I sometimes sleep through the night.

  4. JuneBug14

    My two sons were put on 5mg timed released Melatonin years ago by their pediatrician for ADD and ADHD. This also helped to calm them down and get the rest they needed. I am 65 and was constantly feeling tired from light and interrupted sleep at night.

    About 3 weeks ago, I read that people my age and older lack this in their brains, so I started taking my son’s dosage at 8pm or 8:30pm. I am experiencing more calm at night and I also am sleeping so comfortably. I don’t feel drugged in the morning and if I must get up at night for any reason I can easily and readily fall back into sleep again. I am very pleased with my melatonin choice and I do believe that the extra restfulness has helped me lose a little weight, too.

  5. Adina

    I invite you to read the following web sites, which are about the use of Melatonin at a microdosage level of 300 mcg, said to be the amount humans produce daily: wurtmanlab.mit.edu/static/pdf/950.pdf; http://www.healthydirections.com/he-and-wurtman-launch-sleep-answer.

    Life Extension offers Melatonin at 300 mcg, in extended and regular dosage.

    I have taken expensive and inexpensive CBT instruction, which I found to be completely useless. Meditation and learning deep breathing have, however, helped me.

    More than 1 mg of Melatonin may flood the body.

    I have found 300 mcg to be helpful. Adina

  6. Cassandra

    Melatonin certainly works well for many people and is generally safe, confirmed to me by my husband’s neurologist. That being said, there are many potential side effects that may make it, at the least, not desirable for you or at the most, rile up your gastrointestinal system, cause arrhythmia, and more. For me, 3 mg gave me raging nightmares. At the time, that was the standard recommended dose. Over time, it was reported that 300 mcg’s was typically effective without major side effects for many. If you are new to melatonin, start low.

    For more complete information about uses and side effects, you might want to visit WebMD, a well-researched site with an excellent reputation and reviewed by medical specialists. Specifically, Google “Melatonin Web MD” and you’ll find a number of articles from that site.

    And a final thought that I’d like to share is that if your insomnia is caused by depression, anxiety, racing thoughts, etc., you might want to ask your doctor about a trial of Trazodone. It’s an older anti-depressant that has fallen out of favor, in part, because it often causes drowsiness. It is safe and well-tolerated by many people and can be added to other medications. Now, it is widely used as a sleep aid and not just in people with mental health issues. For me, it was a godsend. It makes me gradually drowsy, like a normal end-of-the-day, ready to go to bed drowsiness. I typically get up once or twice to go the bathroom. I am alert, not groggy, and almost always go right back to sleep. In the morning, I am well-rested and alert. My prescription allows me to add more if needed, but when I do, I tend to have intense dreams (not nightmares as with melatonin). Like with melatonin, start at the lowest dose.

  7. Janet

    I read a book on CBT and have found its advice helpful. If I nonetheless need something more, I take 1g of melatonin. My current supply was from Florida Direct, which seems to have stopped selling it (I wonder why?). I have a different bottle, not yet opened, which says the melatonin is as n-Acetyl-5-Methoxytryptamine. I gave up amitryptaline 2 years ago because you say it is anticholinergic, so the “trypt” bit rather worried me. I am glad of your reassurance. Janet

  8. Dot

    My system for a good night’s sleep is to go to bed around 11PM or 12…and I wake up about 7 each morning. If I need a power nap during the day that is fine….some days I do and some days I don’t. I drink sleepy tea in the early morning around 3-4 am if I am awake and cannot get back to sleep, which does not happen often.

  9. Steve

    Since our pineal gland manufactures melatonin and it is part of the circadian rhythm cycle, it seems unlikely to me that it could grossly be harmful. I would think any pharmacological sleep aid would require that one sensibly plan ways to negotiate your way at night or be aware of “hangover” effects in the morning. I’m somewhat surprised you cited that study and are not more positive about melatonin, which I have taken for years at 3 mg nightly with Zolpidem for fibromyalgia and know others who have for used it for years up to 10 mg. Saying a sleep aid could make you drowsy is like saying a knife could cut you.

  10. Rob

    A cup of chamomile tea (with a dash of peppermint tea for flavour) gives a sound, dream-free night’s sleep.

  11. Sandra

    What do you look for in evaluating the various cognitive behavioral approaches to insomnia? How do you know what’s reliable?

  12. Linda

    My daughter does not do well with Melatonin however prefers L Tryptophan which is in turkey. That is why most folks get sleepy after eating on the holiday bird.

  13. Linda
    Las Vegas

    I enjoyed your article on taking melatonin. I too have problems falling back to sleep if I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. You mentioned Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is new to me, how do I get more information on this method?

  14. J. David Auner
    Springfield, MO, USA

    Like “organic”, melatonin has many manufacturers and the cheapest pill from WalMart may not be a good idea. The binders for the cheap pills have 50 mg of calcium carbonate which added to hard water, other pills, calcium added foods and supplements may wreck your GI equilibrium. Several good sublingual pills are available from health food stores and Costco – a little more expensive but would see how these work before judging melatonin – which works well for me and is a great anti-oxidant.

  15. edwin
    new jersey

    I use Organic Tart Cherry Juice for my arthritis. I take 30ml every night. Tart Cherry Juice contains melatonin which I find does help me get to sleep. I do not feel any effects when I wake up. I wonder if there are any other side effects I should be aware of.

  16. Janet
    Roanoke, VA

    I was given melatonin in rehab and it didn’t work at all- kept me awake. My husband took it home from a month in China- didn’t work at all. I have read about “sleep receiver cells” mightnot receive this normally. There is research about what to do to make receiver cells work more efficiently. Good.

  17. Brenda B

    I have tried warm milk with a teaspoon of honey at night before bed works for me.

  18. Judy

    I was taking a supplement with 3 mg of melatonin. I gradually started feeling groggier in the morning; sometimes it felt like a hangover. I happened to get an email ad from a man who was a researcher at MIT, studying melatonin and sleep. It said that only a small dose is needed, like a third of a mg. But it said that another dose is needed in the middle of the night, especially for older people. He was selling a time release pill, one little dose at bedtime and another Bout four hours later. Since my sleep problem is waking and not being able to go back to sleep, I bought some. It works pretty well and does not leave me groggy. I’ve been taking it less than a month and their literature says it takes about three months to work completely well.

    The ad said that MIT patented low dose melatonin, under one mg, so no one else can sell that low a dose. That seemed very weird but I looked up the patent and it exists, with MIT the holder and this man’s name on it as the inventor.

    • Janet

      I use a 1/2 mg chewable melatonin the same way. I have no trouble falling asleep. But when I wake about 4 hours later, I take it then and it helps me go back to sleep.

      Trader Joe’s has the 1/2 mg right on their shelves.

  19. Janet

    The often seen 3mg melatonin may be too much. I read that melatonin works better at lower doses, and I have had no dizziness or hangover. I use the 1/2 mg or 500mcg. chewable peppermint melatonin from Trader Joe’s…that dose is hard to find elsewhere. Very occasionally I may take two, so at most 1 mg works well for me. Due to all the risks coming to light, I take no OTC sleep aids nor NSAIDS ever. What dose melatonin do you recommend?

  20. Kate
    vestal ny

    This may be helpful (especially the CBT-I idea) for people with Parkinson’s; insomnia is a common symptom. Thank you Terry.

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