Think Twice About That Melatonin Gummy

Pop something to sleep? There are some things you should know. This common sleep aid used by adults and teens alike has more potential risks than many are aware of.

10 mins read

This story is syndicated from The Black and White, the newspaper of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD. The original version ran in print.

When someone can’t fall asleep at night, they might pick up their phone, meditate or even count sheep. Recently, though, more and more children and adolescents nationwide have found themselves instead reaching for artificial melatonin supplements to help them get to sleep. 

According to the CDC, only about 1.3% of parents reported that their children used melatonin supplements as of 2018. In 2023, however, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 20% of school-age children used the supplement as a sleep aid. Young people’s prevalent use of the over-the-counter substance is a concerning trend given the lack of research on melatonin’s long-term effects and its potential to be hazardous. 

Art credit: Chloe Szep

To prevent melatonin usage from threatening a user’s health, individuals should refer to the advice of their healthcare professional before consumption and learn to recognize the substance as the psychoactive chemical that it is. 

Natural melatonin is a hormone secreted from the brain’s pineal gland to help regulate the sleep cycle. As the sun sets and it becomes dark, the brain registers the decrease in light and melatonin floods in, signaling to the body that it’s time to sleep. Over-the-counter melatonin supplements contain synthetic melatonin, which mimics the effect of the sleep-inducing hormone to aid those with sleep disorders like insomnia. In many countries, the synthetic hormone is classified as a drug and available by prescription only, but in the U.S., the supplement is sold on the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies. Synthetic melatonin supplements are available for purchase in the form of a pill, chewable, liquid or patch.

The shared lack of a serious sleep condition in many young melatonin users begs the question of what attracts these healthy adolescents to the synthetic hormone. In his sophomore year, junior Zach D’Uva began taking melatonin multiple times a week because he was having trouble falling asleep at a reasonable hour and had family members who already used it. Though consuming melatonin allowed him to get to sleep faster, D’Uva quickly realized he was taking the supplement too frequently and experienced adverse symptoms, he said. 

“It wasn’t helpful and it made the day after worse,” said D’Uva. “Sleeping with melatonin doesn’t feel natural, but when you do get natural sleep you’re more awake, attentive and just better overall.”

The younger generations’ excessive use of electronic devices also impacts their ability to get quality sleep. In a 2024 survey studying the relationship between screen time and sleep duration and quality, Sleepopolis found that pre-bedtime screen use is common amongst young people, with 92.1% of Gen Z subjects reporting they use a screen before bed most of the time. A study published in the Sleep Medicine journal found that teenagers who reported high levels of screen time had shorter sleep duration. Exposure to bright screens before bed decreases natural melatonin production, making melatonin supplements an obvious choice for people who use devices excessively. 

Regardless of melatonin’s allure as a solution to sleep problems, the substance poses a potential threat to users’  health because of its accessible nature. Pharmaceutical companies often sell melatonin supplements as colorful fruit-flavored gummies, which can prompt young people to treat the supplement like candy. The substance is also frequently not packaged with the child-lock mechanisms typical of many over-the-counter medications. 

Though melatonin is not considered a toxic drug, in excess it can cause gastrointestinal and cardiovascular distress, including swings in blood pressure and respiratory issues. There are also growing reports of melatonin-related overdoses, calls to poison control centers and emergency room visits among adolescents who took too much of the supplement. 

In a 2022 study published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a group of Michigan doctors found that the number of annual calls to the National Poison Data System for pediatric melatonin overdoses in the U.S. had grown by 530% since 2012. By 2020, poison control had received more calls about pediatric overdoses on melatonin than on any other substance. In April 2023, researchers at the CDC reported a 420% increase in emergency room visits for complications related to pediatric melatonin ingestions, including five children who required ventilation and two who died as a result of melatonin overdose.

Inconsistent potency in melatonin supplements contributes to the dangers of melatonin over-accessibility. Research from the University of Mississippi and the Cambridge Health Alliance published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzing 25 melatonin gummy brands indicated that 22 of the brands’ products were inaccurately labeled, with variations in the gummies’ actual melatonin content spanning from 74% to 347% of the amount advertised on the label. 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reported that 26% of 31 tested melatonin supplements from grocery stores and pharmacies contained serotonin, a hormone related to mood that can have mild to severe effects when combined with other medications. 

Some companies also market melatonin as a “natural” substance, leading many consumers to see it as harmless or tame in comparison to other hormone supplements.   

Junior Chloe Green regularly consumes melatonin and acknowledges its appeal as an “easy fix” for sleep problems. However, she recognizes the risks associated with the supplement. One of her friends took 10 melatonin gummies in one night because she was under the impression that each gummy had a low dosage, Green said. 

“She was uneducated about the correct amount to take, and it probably wasn’t clearly labeled,” Green said. “She was just given access to a drug with no supervision or instruction.”

Unlike other over-the-counter vitamin and mineral supplements, melatonin is an active hormone, and the body doesn’t have sufficient coping mechanisms to compensate for excess hormones. Unpredictable dosages may contain many more times the amount of melatonin than the body would naturally produce.

In an article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr. Michael Mak, a sleep medicine specialist and psychiatrist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, argued that there should be stricter regulation of melatonin and the information on its packaging.

Currently, there is relatively minimal federal regulation of melatonin and few studies on its long-term effects. The U.S. considers synthetic melatonin a dietary supplement, and the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, so melatonin is not officially FDA-approved for any purpose. 

Melatonin is not subject to federal government reviews of medical safety, effectiveness or quality, and companies aren’t required to report test results on their melatonin-based products to prove they don’t contain harmful additives or to ensure they contain the advertised amount of melatonin.

Additionally, a meta-analysis from the University of Colorado Boulder, Purdue University, the Sleep Health and Wellness Center and Brown University reported a concerning lack of research on the long-term safety of melatonin for children. While some experts consider short-term melatonin use to be safe, health professionals have conducted minimal research on the impact melatonin consumption can have on adolescent development. 

Melatonin should be prescribed and taken only under a doctor’s supervision and only for a temporary period to prevent children and adolescents from developing a dangerous dependence on the substance.

The synthetic hormone also warrants federal regulation to prevent dangerous chemical cross-contamination or misleading product labeling from going on shelves and becoming part of young people’s nightly routine.

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