I recently read an article about the increasing use of melatonin for sleep problems in children. Many people are familiar with the use of melatonin for sleeplessness, or insomnia. Melatonin is a hormone which is produced by the pineal gland, whose main role is to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Its production is stimulated by natural light, and as well as blue light – like that from electronic screens. Melatonin rises during evening hours, as light tends to decrease, and falls off in the morning as the daylight returns. This is the natural cycle of melatonin, and why it is commonly used for sleep complaints.
Melatonin is a Hormone
The problem is that we don’t really know what the long term effects of using melatonin are. It has been approved for use in insomnia in people over the age of 55, but for younger individuals, especially children, the long term effects may affect other cyclic hormones in the body – affecting puberty. The short term side effect can include headaches, nausea, and dizziness – and of course, drowsiness. Supplementing any hormone when it is not needed, takes away the body’s own regulatory mechanisms for producing it, and the cycles which these mechanisms promote may be lost in the long term. When the supplement is taken away, the body may have drastic reflex deficiencies as the body “learns” how to produce those hormones on its own. The studies support that melatonin may be beneficial for sleep disturbances, but only for up to 18 months.
Long Term Effects of Melatonin Unknown
Children under normal circumstances should not need melatonin. Sleep disturbances are likely due to behavioral factors, such as electronic use, non-scheduled sleep time, inconsistent sleep patterns, and stimulant use (caffeine/sugar). However, many pediatricians and parents are giving melatonin to children and teenagers for sleep disturbances as the first option. There is a concern that it is being over prescribed without knowledge of long term effects, and also becoming “fashionable” for parents who want “perfect” children, instead of addressing sleep schedule issues and other behavioral aspects of sleep.
Children Have Different Sleep Patterns Than Adults
It is important for parents to keep in mind that children have different sleep patterns and needs than adults, and those patterns are being learned. Addressing behaviors surrounding sleep is a great first step for sleep disturbances in children, leaving melatonin for very specific cases managed by a naturopathic doctor or holistically minded physician.
Node Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine amongst the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend campout where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.