In another attempt to kill my insomnia I revisited melatonin supplements a few months ago. I had tried them 15 years ago, once, when I was sleeping three hours a night, whereupon I slept for 24 hours. That kept me off the stuff until a few years ago, when I tried them again, using the dosages listed on the labels — 1.5 mg, 3 mg, etc. I could feel it working and I got sleepier and sleepier and then…nothing.
I get the same effect when I use amber light bulbs and amber glasses, which prevent blue light from turning off your melatonin production at night. Especially if I’m reading, I’ll get sleepy and doze-y for about 30 minutes and…nothing happens and I’m wide awake again. Clearly a crucial step is missing somewhere.
When I discovered that some people out there use up to 40 mg (milligrams) with apparently no ill effects, I tried that. (Since melatonin is a hormone, and a prescription-only substance in some countries, there is some worry about big doses.) I spent a couple of weeks building up to 50 mg a night. It had even less effect than the smaller doses. I didn’t even get sleepy. In fact it was kind of weird how little an effect there was. I did notice a few things:
- hiccups 4 times in 3 days
- period extended by two weeks
- two episodes of dreaming while awake
That last effect was entertaining. Early in the morning, I was half awake and dreaming a series of images displaying in my head like a slide show — click, click, click, very fast: photo-realistic images of things like a space station in a nebula, or people I’d never seen before on a picnic, or machines that don’t exist. In other words, definitely not memories. I forced myself to wake up and discovered that by concentrating I could get the images to start again. Woo hoo! The last one stood out, clear as day — a sunset shot of a grand building, like a Carnegie library, with a row of Model Ts or similar old cars lined up on the street outside, which was built on the top of a small dam or causeway.
This is a lovely example of the difference between physiological doses (the dose the body uses in normal operations) and pharmacological doses (the dose that creates a certain effect, usually much larger) of a substance. If you want to read accounts of people who’ve used melatonin for mind-altering as well as traditional applications, visit the Experience Vault at Erowid.org.
Later I remembered a New Scientist? Discover? article on researchers who pointed out that melatonin is only needed in wee little doses, 300 mcg or so, and that using more might be counterproductive. (Sorry, can’t find it, but I swear I tweeted about it.) So I dug out my melatonin bottle and bit off what I hoped was a third, which would be maybe 500 mcg. It seemed to give me a few hours more sleep that night, but I couldn’t repeat the results.
I continued experimenting with difference doses of timed-release melatonin (TRM), and after several months I’ve noticed a few things. Please note that when I say “worked” here, I mean it gave me a few more hours of sleep.
- More than 1.5 mg of TRM never worked. I only tried two different doses of non-timed release melatonin, with no effect.
- At first, in late October and early November, 1.5 mg TRM — and no other dose — gave me four more hours of sleep, but ONLY when I also spent 1.5 hours in daylight before 1:30 pm AND 1.5 hours in front of a light therapy lamp. If I skipped any of those steps, I would not get the effect.
- Eventually that stopped working. I’m assuming it’s because morning daylight got less and less intense, but I’m not sure.
- Using doses larger than 1.5 mgs TRM made me feel anxious, panicky and depressed for an hour or so at night. Not fun. This matched personal accounts I’ve found of other experimenters who considered it a sign that the dose they had used was too high.
- If I tried taking more melatonin again after I woke up after several hours, timed release or otherwise, it wouldn’t do anything.
- At 7 am, after I used a bright light device for an hour, if I sat in the dark after the device turned off, I would get very sleepy and fall asleep for about 20 minutes (unusual for me). Turning on all the lights in the apartment stopped the effect.
- My period stopped for 45 days after I started experimenting with the lower dose melatonin. This has only happened once in my life. I was very happy.
- Doses of 2-7 mg seemed to give me headaches and mild cystic acne after a while. It is possible that the 1.5 mg doses did this, too, after several weeks of use.
I’m concluding from this that my insomnia problem is related to light exposure, but not to melatonin production. Light affects melatonin and the circadian rhythm, and melatonin is part of the circadian rhythm, but the influence of light on the circadian rhythm is NOT entirely due to its effect on melatonin, if you follow me. So I’m going to try to get more light into my day.