The pineal gland does a lot more than just sit at the base of our brain and watch the days pass. Probably the most important of its several functions is to regulate things entering our blood system and one of those things is melatonin.
Melatonin is the naturally produced hormone that regulates when we fall asleep and when we awaken. If you took a sample of your blood during the middle of the day and tested it for melatonin you’d discover that you have none in your system. However 12 hours later that same sample would be loaded with melatonin. Its production is a function of sunlight. As the rays of the sun lessen in strength as the sun begins to set our pineal gland kicks in and starts producing melatonin. It produces it slowly and as it passes through our system it causes us to become sleepy. Eventually as more melatonin pumps into our system we fall asleep.
The following morning the opposite effect occurs. As the sun brightens the horizon our subconscious brain picks up the increasing amount of light and the production of melatonin begins to decrease. Eventually when the concentration of melatonin is at a certain level it causes us to wake up.
At least that is how it works with most people and especially younger people. As we age our ability to produce melatonin lessens and that can lead to sleep problems. I discovered this in 2004.
At that time while age 52 going on 53, I noticed that sleep was becoming a mercurial luxury. I would lay in bed and toss and turn and sleep in fits. Nothing seemed to help. My typical pattern was to stay awake until 2 or so in the morning then sleep out of exhaustion until 5 when I would get up to get ready to go to my office. The following evening I would be dead tired and fall asleep about 6 pm only to wake up about midnight and not be able to get back to sleep. This pattern continued unabated and it was driving me nuts.
The pineal gland and its function in producing melatonin at normal doses
One day as I thought about this I remembered melatonin from an endocrinology class I took in graduate school. I remembered it had something to do with the sleep process and I sought out information on the Internet. What I read made some long-dormant brain cells start to fire and I remembered the process by which we sleep.
Excitedly I drove to the nearby Safeway and in the health food section found a bottle of melatonin and bought it. There were actually three different concentrations for sale; 3 mg, 5 mg, and 10 mg. Not knowing what the effects would be, and lacking any information on a recommended dosage (melatonin is not FDA regulated because its naturally occurring) I bought a bottle of 3 mg tablets and went home. I dropped one tablet and was quickly asleep.
Everything worked well and I was sleeping normally for several months but then 3 mg of melatonin wasn’t working so well. This time I purchased 5 mg and eventually because of my body mass increased my dosage to 10 mg. All of this took place over a 4 year span so by 2008 when I retired I was taking 10 mg a night.
Research on melatonin has revealed that we typically produce about 0.3 mg of melatonin (that’s all it takes to make us sleepy) so a 3 mg dose was 10x what we normally produce. 5 mg was about 16 times the normal dose and 10 mg was about 33 times what we produce naturally. I was sleeping like a baby on 10 mg and wasn’t about to change my intake.
By 2010 I was noticing some changes in my own physiology. Most importantly I was noticing that 1) I wasn’t falling asleep on 10 mg any longer and was now occasionally taking 20 mg (66 times normal) and 2) I was noticing a particularly sharp pain in the upper right quadrant of my stomach right below the ribs. If you remember from anatomy and physiology class, that part of our “stomach” is occupied by the liver, and under the liver lies the gall bladder and the pancreas. Behind the liver is one of our two kidneys.
The sharp pain wasn’t debilitating but it was chronic. It was also becoming a major frustration. Of course my initial thought was that I had liver cancer and then when that went away I was convinced that I had cirrhosis of the liver. Finally in 2011 I asked my super-efficient and all around excellent primary care physician Mike Bentze with Intercoastal Medical Group what was up with the pain in my stomach.
Mike did an exam in which he palpitated the liver but he found nothing out of the ordinary. At least no growths could be found with an external exam. Stumped by this and unable to explain the pain he ordered a test of my gall bladder function which resulted in knowledge that my gall bladder was just happy as a clam. Next was a test of my pancreas function and like my gall bladder my pancreas was just as happy as my gall bladder’s clam. In the end Mike had no idea what was going on with my side and together we concluded that it was likely just a strained muscle in my six pack area (although in my case I have about 3 six packs to choose from).
What I didn’t tell Mike at the time because I didn’t think it was relevant was that I had increased my melatonin dosage to 50 mg a night (167 times what we normally produce) because I simply could not fall asleep at lower dosages. On several occasions after taking 50 mg and not falling asleep I would take an extra 10 milligrams moving my intake up to 60 mg (200 times normal) on occasion.
Although I would fall asleep I didn’t sleep well. I was having vivid dreams, screaming in my sleep, throwing pillows across the room, sleeping on the floor and just generally having a miserable time “resting.”
My self-medication continued until just recently when I reasoned that something was definitely wrong somewhere. The pain in my upper right side was almost constant (it felt like someone had shoved a knife in there) and now I was having pains in my lower back directly over where my right kidney sits. By now I was convinced that I would be on a slab in the morgue and it would be because of some rare tropical liver ailment I picked up in Africa or some place.
Curiosity recently got the best of me and one day I did a search in Google asking the question “Can you overdose on melatonin?” The simple answer is that nobody knows because nobody has researched it. Melatonin is naturally occurring so why would some pharmaceutical company making a zillion dollars off the development of Zoloft care about something produced by everyone’s pineal gland.
Despite there being no definitive information on overdosing the articles I read talked about possible side effects and I seemed to have almost all of them. Probably the most eye-opening was the potential for liver damage. Other side effects included bizarre sleep patterns, irritability, physiological changes and several other things I had noticed. The other eye opening thing was that doctors now recommend (at least the Mayo Clinic does) that you take melatonin as a supplement for only two or three months and then discontinue use. I have been taking it for 10 YEARS. No wonder my body was reacting.
Information at this link about possible side effects follows:
Information at this link about possible side effects follows:
Possible Melatonin side effects
1. Daytime drowsiness
Ok you might laugh, but one side effect is of course drowsiness. Yes, it’s like saying on a bottle of milk ‘warning contains dairy products’. But the point is, if you take Melatonin at the wrong time you can end up being drowsy during the day. You are then a risk if driving or operating heavy machinery for example.
2. Hormonal changes
Again this sounds obvious. You are taking a hormone after all, right? But the effects can be serious in some cases. For example pregnant women are advised not to take Melatonin as it can have negative effects on fetus growth.
But it can also reduce the sex drives of both men and women. As well as interfere with women’s ovulation and men’s sperm count. So if you are trying to get pregnant, Melatonin probably won’t help.
3. Mood changes
This is especially likely if you take too much Melatonin. You may experience a range of mood changes such as sadness, worsening depression or even feeling over-excitable. People who suffer from any kind of depressive illness should not take Melatonin.
4. Hallucinations, paranoia and disorientation
More likely if you take a Melatonin overdose, you may experience hallucinations, delusions, disorientation, confusion and paranoia. These are side effects not to be taken lightly as they can be very disturbing.
5. Increase in vivid dreams and unusual sleep behavior
You may find you have very vivid dreams. It can also increase the possibility of other events such as sleep walking and nightmares.
6. Physiological effects
Melatonin has been found to have several effects on the body. This includes lowering blood pressure, or even raising it if you are taking drugs to control it. It may have effects on blood sugar levels and cholesterol. It can also bring about further problems for type 1 diabetics. This is due to a reduction in tolerance to insulin as well as increasing blood sugar levels.
7. Risk of seizures
This is a particular risk if you overdose on Melatonin or have any existing kind of seizure disorder. Again this can be potentially serious and another good reason to be careful with how much you take.
8. Nausea and other stomach problems
This is one of the more common side effects of Melatonin, even at low doses. You may experience nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and pains, and diarrhea.
9. Risks to infants through breast-feeding
Melatonin is possibly not safe for infants, even though some sources argue that it’s safe for children. Breast feeding mothers should therefore not use Melatonin as not enough is known about its safety at this time.
10. Serious allergic reaction including rashes and swelling
In some rare cases you may experience a severe allergic reaction. This could result in a rash, swelling of any parts of the face, tongue or throat, itching, dizziness and trouble breathing. You should definitely seek immediate emergency medical help if these symptoms occur.
11. Increased risk of contracting immune system disorders
Melatonin may increase the risk of contracting autoimmune disorders such as Hepatitis or Crohn’s disease. For this reason, people who already have an autoimmune disorder should consult a doctor before taking Melatonin.
12. Risk of liver damage
There is thought to be an increased risk of liver damage. This is another reason people who have problems with alcohol misuse need to consult a doctor before taking it.
Reading this I quickly started to wean myself from melatonin. My usual 50 mg nightly dose went down to 20 mg and almost instantly I noticed a change. Not only was I actually sleeping through the night (I had been waking up 3 or 4 times in the night despite the 50 mg dosage I was taking) but when I woke up I was feeling refreshed. I also noticed that my pillows were staying on the bed all night and Cathy started commenting on how I was sleeping so soundly with no yelling (I had attributed the yelling to dreams I was having about the Bradenton Marauders playing against the much-despised Palm Beach Cardinals but apparently that was not what was going on). Lastly I had been taking several naps each day (one of the perks of retirement) but now I rarely take even one.
While all of these positives were working I also noticed that the pain in my “liver” was subsiding and the massive pain over my kidney was going away.
Now I have weaned myself down to 10 mg a night and I am sleeping like a baby. Last night for instance I went to bed at 10:30 and this morning woke up at 7:30. Nine hours of uninterrupted sleep was unheard of just three months ago. When I woke up this morning all four pillows of mine were right where they were last seen last night, the blanket on the bed looked like nobody had slept in the bed last night. Most importantly however, just like every day for the last week or so there has been ZERO pain in the area occupied by my liver and ZERO pain over my right kidney.
I have no empirical data to support a claim of having overdosed on melatonin. However the anecdotal observations have more than convinced me that there was some sort of negative interaction going on related to way-too-much melatonin in my system. I can’t say that I was overdosing on melatonin but I certainly think that I was doing something wrong.
With the pain in my side gone and with me sleeping like a baby I’m more than pleased with the 10 mg dose I’m taking. Given my body mass I don't think a smaller dose will work to put me to sleep. I had been taking 50 mg and could feel the effects in an hour. Now at 10 mg I’m feeling the same effects in the same amount of time. Maybe when this bottle of melatonin is gone I’ll drop down to 5 mg and see if I have the same beneficial effects.
Although Dr. Mike Bentze chuckles each time I correctly self-diagnose myself he’s probably going to kick my ass into the next county when I tell him what I probably did.