Is Melatonin a safe sleep-aid for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease?

Melatonin is an all-natural sleep aid, but it has not been evaluated by the FDA for safety, effectiveness or purity or been approved for medicinal use. Potential risks or advantages of melatonin are unknown, and there are no regulated manufacturing standards in place for these supplements.

That being said, melatonin is used to ease insomnia, combat jet lag, boost the immune system and protect cells from free-radical damage. Melatonin is often recommended for individuals with Alzheimer’s who are experiencing sleep disruptions or experiencing sundowning agitation, and some studies have shown positive results in dealing with these behaviors.

Melatonin can be used to regulate night/day cycles or sleep/wake cycles. Darkness causes the body to produce more melatonin, signaling the body to sleep. Conversely, light decreases melatonin production and signals the body to prepare for being awake. Though some success has been shown in using melatonin for a sleep aid, the issue is that the FDA classifies it as a dietary supplement, and that allows companies to sell melatonin in varying dosages.

Researchers have concluded that the correct dosage is between .3 and 1 mg, but since the dosages vary so much on bottles of the supplement, it can be risky not knowing the actual dosage you are taking.

According to MIT neuroscientist Dr. Richard Wurtman, who introduced melatonin 20 years ago, an overdose of melatonin can upset the body’s natural processes and rhythms and produce opposite effects of the intention, meaning, it can actually cause next-day drowsiness. More research needs to be done on the side effects of melatonin to ease sleep and sundowning problems in those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. When used correctly with the right dosage, the supplement can encourage sleep. However, prolonged use of melatonin actually increases insomnia, and changes how the individual reacts to it.

Questions about Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia disorder? Contact Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, Director of Services at Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, (225) 334-7494, advice@alzbr.org, or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.