A US News & World Report story published this week asks a question that may rankle parents who swear melatonin is a miracle drug that helps their children sleep better. The news magazine wants to know if the drug, which is sold over the counter in the U.S. but only by prescription in many countries, is actually safe for kids.
In the article, a variety of evidence is given that melatonin use by children is on the rise.
Sales of the supplement, a synthetic form of the naturally occurring hormone that helps control sleep-wake cycles, have increased more than 500 percent since 2003, from $62 million to $378 million in 2014, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. While the figures aren’t broken out by children or adults, many melatonin supplements are specifically made for kids, featuring fruity flavors and chewable tablets.
The article also quotes a sleep specialist who says it’s rare for her to see a child for a sleep evaluation where melatonin has not already been tried. It also references comments on melatonin products sold on Amazon.com that say the drug has worked wonders for children’s sleep.
While all of this may make you want to try melatonin to help keep your young problem sleepers in bed, there could be an issue with the strategy. There are significant concerns that all of this drug use could cause problems later in a child’s life.
The primary concern is puberty, according to a doctor quoted in the story:
To date, research hasn’t determined whether melatonin use could affect the onset of puberty or whether there are any other long-term effects on children’s health, Owens says. “Melatonin actually suppresses some hormones that regulate puberty. So, the concern is that chronic use of melatonin could alter normal pubertal development,” she says, adding that, at present, there’s no evidence to support this – at least that’s been published. “It’s more of a theoretical concern at this point, but I think that’s [what] tends to be most worrisome.”
Using the wrong dosage can lead to dizziness, headaches and daytime sleepiness. Additionally, there’s extensive evidence from animal and human studies that the supplement causes changes in physiological systems, including the reproductive, cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems.
What it comes down to is that there have been no long term studies of the use of melatonin by children and teens, so we just don’t know what the impact will be. As with any sleep drug, melatonin should be used only as a last resort and not long term. And, before starting any new sleep medicine, a physician should be consulted.