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Restless teens rely on melatonin to initiate sleep, but should they?

It’s December. Darkness engulfs us 11 hours a day. It’s not even 5 p.m. and the world’s biggest light bulb retires for the night. This should leave plenty of time for our eyes to communicate the change to our brain stem, releasing chemicals that help calm the mind. It’s our nightly chill pill. Top it off with a nightcap of melatonin, compliments of the pineal gland, and sleep should come with ease.

But, things don’t always work just as they should, and it doesn’t just impact adults. Seventy percent of teens are sleep-deprived, and just as unhappy about tossing and turning as any adult. Naturally, they seek a solution to help them sleep. A recent study from the University of Boulder identified a sharp increase in supplemental melatonin use by teens.

Perhaps this study caught my eye because I have a preteen who struggles to fall asleep and wanted to try melatonin. She claims it helped, but what are the consequences and is it safe?

One concern, based on very limited research, is how the supplement might affect the onset of puberty. (You mean, we could hand off our teens’ wild mood swings to their college roommates? Hmm ...)

For more

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Current recommendations for unsupervised (by a health professional) use of melatonin say it is “possibly safe for children when consumed by mouth for a short period.” The dose is defined as up to 3 mg. for children and 5 mg. for teens. Sleepless adults should know melatonin is “likely safe for short-term use and possibly safe for use up to two years.”

What complicates matters is that melatonin is a supplement and thus, not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Companies are expected to take responsibility for accuracy in labeling, which includes the stated dose of their product. Sometimes, third-party testing finds a discrepancy between the actual amount and what the label says.

If this information activates protective parent mode (or even self-protective mode), then we should shed light on alternative options.

I take that back. Light is exactly what we want to avoid when it’s time to sleep. Mother Nature provides the hint, but we find it hard to resist the temptation of technology, we’re drawn to the light. One might believe technology is the lifeblood of a teen, but we can say with certainty that sleep is far more vital for health and happiness.

  • Sleep hygiene tip No. 1: Initiate a media curfew 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. This is when all screens need to be turned off. Removing devices from the bedroom will help with temptations to browse, text or play. If possible, set bedtime to allow for eight to 10 hours of sleep, every day. That said, circadian rhythms shift during adolescence. A later bedtime may feel more natural. Aim for compromise.
  • Sleep hygiene tip No. 2 is for parents: Role model the behavior you want to see. Can you follow a technology curfew? If your curfew doesn’t align with your teen, explain that adults need less sleep, typically seven to nine hours. But follow a curfew nonetheless.

If your teen is anything like mine, they’ll initially freak out at this idea. A snarky response is sure to follow: “What am I supposed to do for five hours before I fall asleep?!?!?” Relax. It’s a response and a practice.

Try a body scan – it helps relax muscles and distract your mind. Lay comfortably, then visually scan the length of your body looking for muscle tension. When found, relax those muscles. Scan head to toe, repeating as needed until all tension is gone. Nighty night, Irene!

Nicole Clark is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at nicole.clark@colostate.edu or 382-6461.