New research from Australia suggests that for sufferers of traumatic head injury, the “natural” supplement melatonin can be a safe, effective way to improve sleep and reduce anxiety.
For this randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study, published at BMC Medicine, researchers recruited volunteers who had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and then put the patients on a 4-week regimen in which they took either a 2-milligram dose of melatonin or a placebo. After a 48-hour “washout” period, the groups switched places – the placebo group began 4 weeks of melatonin and the melatonin group took a placebo made of sugar. All the participants were asked about their sleep and then scored on a standard sleep test.
What the researchers ultimately determined was that while the melatonin did not help people fall asleep faster, it did “significantly”–to use their word–improve their test scores by improving the quality of sleep they got. Melatonin users also reported reduced anxiety, which is common among traumatic brain injury patients.
Melatonin did not, though, reduce the users’ daytime sleepiness.
There were no serious adverse effects reported by any of the study’s volunteers.
What Melatonin Is
In the body, melatonin, which is a hormone, is best known for its role in regulating our sleep-wake cycles. As a supplement, it has been proven effective for jet lag and has been studied, albeit with varying levels of success, in the treatment of other sleep disorders, certain types of headache and certain types of cellular damage.
Some evidence suggests that melatonin may also reduce the risk for certain types of cancers, especially in nightshift workers.
There is less evidence to support its use in dementia, heartburn, endometriosis and epilepsy.
While melatonin isn’t safe for absolutely everyone, it is currently believed to have no real potential for addiction. (A 2017 animal study, in fact, found that it could actually reduce cocaine cravings.) It has been touted as an alternative for sedating preschoolers undergoing MRI procedures and is widely, if tentatively, accepted as safe for use in children.