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The “vampire hormone” can act like a dose of sunset, tricking your body into feeling like it’s time to sleep.
Most people think of melatonin as a natural nod-off aid, kind of like chamomile tea in pill form. Even the name of the popular dietary supplement sounds sleepy — that long “o” sound almost makes you yawn mid-word. But melatonin is also a hormone that our brains naturally produce, and hormones, even in minuscule amounts, can have potent effects throughout the body.
“There are some clinical uses for it, but not the way that it’s marketed and used by the vast majority of the general public,” said Jennifer Martin, a psychologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Experts strongly urge people to consult their doctor or a sleep specialist before taking melatonin, in part because the supplement does not address many underlying health problems that may be disrupting sleep. Anxiety can cause insomnia, as can a host of other potentially serious ailments, such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome or mood disorders like depression, that may require medical treatment.
Melatonin, however, is relatively inexpensive and readily available at local pharmacies in the United States (in other countries it typically requires a prescription), and many people will go out and buy it on their own. So what’s the best approach to taking melatonin? Here’s what experts had to say.