You may have heard about a substance called melatonin marketed as a sleep aid or to help you relax. But what is it? How does it work? And are there any side effects?
A hormone made naturally in the body, melatonin affects sleep-wake cycles, possibly helping some people fall asleep faster or stay asleep longer. It is sold as an aid in preventing or reversing jet lag and can be found as an ingredient in pills, drinks and food.
Because some foods contain melatonin naturally, it doesn’t need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration or shown to be safe or effective in the same way as drugs.
Melatonin can make you feel drowsy, so don’t drive or operate machinery when you are taking it. Melatonin also can cause vivid dreams, headaches, trouble being alert the day after using it, and changes in blood pressure. Those who shouldn’t use melatonin unless under a physician’s supervision include pilots, truckers, or others whose lack of alertness on the job could endanger themselves or others. Children shouldn’t take melatonin without a doctor’s okay.
Recently, America’s 57 poison centers started receiving calls about brownies containing melatonin and labeled for “relaxation.” The problem is that the brownies contain a very large dose of melatonin, and people were eating them as a snack food, giving them to children, and, most worrisome of all, driving and working after eating the brownies had made them drowsy.
In July 2011, the FDA notified one brownie manufacturer that it must stop promoting them to kids and teens, and that the brownies may be seized from stores because they are an unsafe and adulterated food. At least one state has passed legislation banning these products.
If a child or teen has consumed a melatonin-containing food or beverage, be aware of the possibility of severe drowsiness. For adults, never consume these products and attempt to drive. In case of accidental exposure or consuming too much, call your poison center at 1-800-222-1222 immediately for help and advice.
— Contributed by Donna Lotzer, poison educator, University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics
The American Association of Poison Control Centers supports the nation’s 57 poison centers in their efforts to prevent and treat poison exposures. Poison centers offer free, private, expert medical advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We take calls in more than 150 languages and from the hearing impaired.
For questions about poison or if you think someone has been exposed to a poison, call 1-800-222-1222 to reach your local poison center.