You don't have to be a shift worker or jet setter to have awkward or non-existent sleeping habits, but both groups suffer quite a bit. Melatonin, one of the more popular over-the-counter supplements, may be headed toward a new delivery system, a patch placed on the body with small pulses of the hormone administered throughout the evening (or day), through your skin!
I've written about this sleep aid frequently because I get so many questions on it. Many supplement companies and health food stores will claim that melatonin is a natural sleeping aid or nightcap because it "naturally" helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. Given its wide spread availability today, you'd presume it's safe and effective.
Well, that depends. Melatonin has been shown to help regulate sleep cycles in certain populations and really help out quite a few people, but like anything there are pros and cons :
• The precise mechanism of melatonin secretion in the body is not well understood. We do know, however, that melatonin isn't just about sleep-wake cycles. It's been shown to help regulate the female reproductive cycle and may also affect the onset of puberty. Children who take melatonin can suffer a delay in sexual development. (So never ever give a child a melatonin supplement.)
• This new patch study showed that men and women had different levels of melatonin in their system with the same dosage patch! So a gender difference may apply.
• Studies have pointed to melatonin's role in regulating blood flow, specifically in constricting coronary arteries.
• And it's been suggested that melatonin can increase depression in people prone to the illness.
For the record, melatonin is a hormone, and it's not a regulated drug under the FDA. No other hormone is available in the United States without a prescription. In some parts of Europe, melatonin is available by prescription only.
If this experimental patch version of melatonin reaches the market, it could have a much bigger effect on the body than just popping a pill. The half-life of a melatonin pill is short and it doesn't last long; a patch, on the other hand, can deliver small doses throughout its use to keep the levels in the body consistent for a longer, stronger effect. This might be great for shift workers who sleep during the day, when the body does not like to produce melatonin.
The patch has been tested on people who sleep during daylight hours and work at night.. For this reason, I can see why a melatonin patch could be helpful to those who maintain schedules opposite to the usual solar day (where the body prefers to be functional). And I have great respect for those who manage to live this life for the sake of their careers and my safety (e.g., emergency care, pilots, etc.). But, even though the patch would be sold as a prescription, it wouldn't surprise me to see people getting their hands on it without trying other sleep hygiene tactics first, which can be far more effective and healthier overall for the body, particularly for those of us that can really get our shut-eye at night.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep DoctorTM