What seems like a folksy home remedy for a common traveller’s problem had our correspondent sobbing all the way through a transatlantic flight
I’ve always been a pretty bad sleeper. Probably not bad enough to see a doctor about, but in any given month I might spend a couple of nights up till 4 a.m., my brain a tiny factory churning out dozens of troublesome thoughts that I can’t do anything about, especially not at 3:42 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in my pyjamas. (Of course, primary among these troublesome thoughts is that I can’t seem to fall asleep, because brains are super logical like that.)
As a casual insomniac I thought I knew most of the non-prescription sleep aids, but when vocalizing my jet lag dread before a recent trip to Europe, a friend of mine recommended something I’d never heard of before: melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone produced by the brain that regulates a person’s sleep and wake cycle. Her doctor had recommended it to her for jet lag and she swore up and down that it was the best knockout remedy since being punched in the face. “It’s totally natural, acclimates you quickly to a new time zone, and you don’t wake up drowsy or anything,” she said. Not to mention the fact that her doctor recommended it, and it’s not too often a medical doctor recommends something you buy at a store that also carries incense.
A quick Google search confirmed my friend’s praises; it seemed melatonin had quickly become something of an urban legend – an insider’s trick for frequent travellers and restless sleepers wary of prescription pills. The online praises of the converted piqued my curiosity. I went to a holistic health food store near my house where the women have toe rings and the men wear linen year-round. I bought a bottle of two-milligram tablets, the lowest recommended dose for adults. The toe-ringed employee instructed me to take it an hour before bedtime the night before my departure, and then for a few days after I landed in Europe.
“I started to just cry. For no reason at all. And couldn’t stop.”
That night I started my regimen. I felt sort of funny right away, but figured it was probably just in my head. My system is pretty accustomed to various sleep aids, and in general I’ve never really reacted poorly to anything. Though as I started to fall asleep, I could tell it was very different from your average Tylenol PM experience. It happened quickly to be sure, but, as weird as this sounds, it almost felt as though my brain were bullying me into sleep, as opposed to lulling me there sweetly. And when I woke up the next morning, I did feel rested, but also weird. Not quite irritable, but sort of off. Things weren’t right. Like the world was bugging my eyes. For some reason I didn’t connect this with the melatonin right away. Instead I just tried to shrug it off and headed to the airport.
Anyway, to make a long story only slightly shorter, I couldn’t actually shrug this feeling off. In fact, it just kept getting worse. I felt weirder and weirder until finally, once settled into my seat on the plane, I started to just cry. For no reason at all. And couldn’t stop. How long did I cry, you ask? Five. Straight. Hours. No kidding. Even for me, a person who literally just cried at the season premiere of Real Housewives of New Jersey (WELCOME HOME TERESA!!), five hours of non-stop, inexplicable crying was a bit much. In fact, it was pretty horrible. I almost would have preferred the old punch to the face.
As soon as we landed and I had some WiFi, I typed, “took melatonin and now can’t stop crying” into Google and found an abundance of posts in various medical forums and Reddit threads about inexplicable crying and short-term depression after taking melatonin, among other pretty crappy side effects: headaches, confusion, dizziness, stomach pain. I was not alone in experiencing the downside of melatonin.
As well, I discovered that melatonin conflicts with a lot of pretty common medications, like various blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, certain steroids, and even the birth control pill. It seemed odd to me that a product you can pick up at the grocery store should have so many side effects and conflicts with other meds. In fact it seemed to me as though side effects and drug conflicts are exactly why certain medications aren’t available over the counter.
“Prescription medications have to undergo lengthy clinical trials to assess safety and efficacy. Natural health products don’t.”
“I would recommend it as a natural product for patients who do not want to take prescription medications for their sleep disturbances. However I would only recommend it to relatively healthy subjects, with little to no medical conditions,” says Diana Lev, a Windsor, Ontario pharmacist. I was curious as to why she would specifically only recommend melatonin to healthy patients.
As for the misconception that so-called natural health products can’t really hurt you much, Lev explained: “Prescription medications have to undergo lengthy clinical trials to assess safety and efficacy. Natural health products don’t. I think that melatonin and many other natural health products need to be studied more, with better quality trials and studies before recommending to more vulnerable patients, or patients already on medications which might have unknown conflicts.”
So how do they figure out the side effects at all? “Usually side effects are observed during those clinical trials, so because many of these low-risk natural health products don’t undergo that kind of research, it’s more difficult to know exactly. Same with long-term effects – we simply don’t know. That’s why sleep specialists recommend patients don’t take them for any longer than two weeks at a time.”
Why then, are so many people so quick to consume medications without any real proof of efficacy? Why are we so quick to take medical advice from people who are poor in degrees, but rich in toe rings? Natural does not always mean better, and it certainly doesn’t always mean less harmful. For melatonin’s part, it works like a charm for a lot of people, but it’s still a powerful hormone that you should definitely speak to your doctor about before taking – and not the person at the store that sells incense.