What exactly is melatonin and can it make you sleep better?

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A bad night's sleep can ruin your entire day. Consistently getting poor sleep, though, is enough to make a person crack — or at least turn to Dr. Google in desperation. Melatonin is often touted online as an alternative to prescription sleep aids; after all, it's a hormone your body produces naturally to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle. So we looked into it: Will melatonin really help you sleep?

The short answer is that it depends on the cause of your sleep woes. Think of melatonin like a parent telling their kid it's bedtime: As light decreases your brain produces more of the hormone, working like an internal clock that tells you to hit the hay. But melatonin doesn't necessarily help you stay asleep, says Andrew W. Varga, M.D., Ph.D., a sleep medicine specialist at NYU Langone Sleep Disorders Center and clinical instructor at the NYU School of Medicine. And if you take a supplement ten or 15 minutes before bed, it may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, but the effects are mild. Dr. Varga says it's best for people who are jet-lagged, suffering from shift-work disorder, or have circadian-phase delay, which means their natural tendency is to go to sleep later and wake up later.

"I rarely recommend melatonin as a sleep aid, per se," he says. "But melatonin is very much recommended for shifting your circadian phase." When someone with a circadian-phase issue tries to go to sleep at a "normal" time, they might find themselves lying awake for hours. In that case, he might suggest taking a low dose of melatonin three to four hours before their intended bedtime to help shift the cycle backward. And while some people report feeling groggy the next day, in general melatonin is not typically known to have that effect.

(Photo: Getty)

For people who chronically toss and turn, Dr. Varga says you'd probably get better results with prescription sleep medicines like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata (ask your doctor first about possible drug interactions and an appropriate dosage since there's a huge range available), but if you change your habits, you might not even need those.

"Even when it's this classic, psychophysiological sleep-onset insomnia, there's a role for medicines but there's as much or more of a role for behavioral therapy," he says. "There's a lot of things that people do that are counterproductive to them getting to sleep, sometimes things that they're not even aware of."

So how bad are you making things for yourself? Take our sleep quiz below.

If you scored on the lower end, a sleep makeover is probably in order. If addressing these issues doesn't give you relief (or if you have awesome sleep habits but still toss and turn), then it's time to call a doctor.

Click through for helpful tips to get to sleep faster:
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What exactly is melatonin and can it make you sleep better?

Lavender 

The scent of lavender is known to be very relaxing and can help you get to sleep at night. 

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Shut off the screens

Avoid being on your computer, phone or e-reader before going to sleep. Studies have shown the use of these items before bed can decrease the quality of your sleep.

(Photo credit: Tetra Images via Getty Images)

Melatonin supplements 

Taking sleeping pills sounds scary to many people, but melatonin supplements are like a sleep vitamin, giving you a little extra of the naturally produced hormone. 

(photo credit: Ekspansio)

Stick to a schedule

Going to sleep and waking at the same time every day helps your natural sleep/wake cycle. You sleep much better when you go to bed when actually drowsy and wake naturally at the same time each day. 

(photo credit: FogStock/Alin Dragulin)

Exercise 

Regular exercise, even as little as 20 mins a day can help you sleep better at night. 

(photo credit: John Fedele)

Skip the afternoon nap

Taking a nap during the day can exasperate insomnia for many people. 

(Photo Credit: Shutterstock)

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