The pandemic continues to change sleep habits and increase issues that can disrupt sleep. That has helped to make melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep aid, more popular.
Sales for melatonin pushed close to $1 billion in 2020, up 43% from the year before.
Melatonin is a supplement, so there's not a lot of oversight and research. But sleep doctors say it has a low-risk profile, meaning it's generally safe with few side effects.
"We've been able to show with lots of studies that we can shift to the body's melatonin curve to sort of be in line with what we want it to be," said Dr. Katherine Green, the medical director of the sleep medicine clinic at UCHealth in Colorado.
Green says because a person's brain naturally produces melatonin, users likely won't build up a tolerance. That's not always the case with other sleep aid prescriptions. But she says the act of taking melatonin at night might be more significant than the medication itself.
"That actually becomes one of the behavioral and environmental cues in your sleep routine, so it's a hard thing to tease out as to whether it is a tolerance or a dependence on the medication or simply a behavioral cue that becomes a part of your bedtime routine," she said.
Some things can disrupt the body's natural melatonin production, like stress, smoking and hormones. Green says women tend to have more sleep disorders in general, especially around pregnancy and menopause.
But the biggest controllable factor in melatonin disruption for everyone is blue light from electronic screens.
"That blue light actually directly inhibits the brain's production of melatonin on a night to night basis, and so we know that if you get a lot of screen time, if you have a lot of blue light exposure within about an hour of bedtime, your body's entire production of melatonin for the whole night is actually blunted, and so it makes it not only harder to fall asleep but harder to stay asleep," Green said.
Green those who have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and those who don't feel rested when waking up should start by talking to their primary doctor. She says that often, physicians can correct those issues with sleep hygiene techniques and modifying behavior.