I did something scary in the week before New Year’s. I had just bought a new bottle of 10mg melatonin tablets, it was sitting on the table next to my hotel bed, I was about to take one... and I didn’t.
It’s hard to express the dread I felt.
If you’ve ever gone through an extended period of sleeplessness, you know what I mean. Tiredness takes over your life. Sleep is the only thing you can think about. You feel like your bones are grinding together and there’s sand under your eyelids.
Add to that the impending threat of having your one lifeline taken away. Your security blanket. Your safety option.
Cue existential yawp.
Why would I voluntarily do something to myself that scared me that much?
One, I had been feeling for the past couple of months that melatonin wasn’t doing the job for me. My sleep was wrecked and it seemed to be getting worse. I was desperate and ready to “try anything.”
Two, I have a policy of experimentation around mysterious health issues and persistent problems in general. I believe that persistent problems are complex, with multiple variables, and that fixing any one thing is never enough. That’s why people always say they’ve “tried everything” - they’ve done a lot, but they haven’t necessarily done it in the right combination or for a long enough time period.
Three, I happened to stumble across a news article just as I was about to reach for my bottle. It was “What Happens If You Take Too Much Melatonin.”
I am a big believer in kismet and serendipity. Coincidences, if nothing else, are a reliable signal that the always-on [right brain] is noticing connections and finding relevance in information that the [left brain] does not. (I know there isn’t really such a thing as a “right brain” and a “left brain,” but I still find the concept useful until we come up with better terminology or a more accurate framework).
The smart version of myself would not have been scrolling through a news aggregator while lying in bed. It’s not a good way to fight insomnia. HOWEVER! Timing is everything. I read the article, rather than bookmarking it in my Sleep Project folder. It was enough to get my attention.
Ah, heck, what’s one more sleepless night?
I had been having an on again, off again problem with stomach cramps waking me up in the middle of the night. I had been feeling wired at bedtime. I had been waking up four or five times a night, often lying awake for 90 minutes straight. I was exhausted all day and not getting any relief. This had been going on for the last several months. I’d been blaming it on the off-brand 10mg melatonin tablets I’d been taking.
(If you’ve taken melatonin for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that there seems to be a big difference in quality between brands, or between the liquid versus tablet form).
Then I read this fortuitously timed article. It claimed that symptoms of excess melatonin include: hyperactivity, gastrointestinal issues, abdominal cramps, anxiety, irritability, and excessive sleepiness.
The article also mentioned that melatonin can interact with contraceptives, along with several other categories of prescription drugs that I don’t take.
I couldn’t rule it out. Excess melatonin was entirely consistent with the issues I’d been having. Maybe that wasn’t it, but I’d be a fool not to test this as an input.
Let me state for the record that this was THE VERY LAST POSSIBLE THING I would ever want to try.
This is a testing moment. It’s a crucible. Confronted with hard science and peer-reviewed research that contradicts our fundamental ideas about our physical health, it is human nature to reject the evidence and cling tighter to identity.
An example would be someone with a food intolerance to yeast, corn, garlic, or fructans who, due to lack of clinical lab testing, believes that the real issue is a sensitivity to gluten. This person might get sick from eating something that contained, say, vinegar or GF soy sauce. Instead of questioning whether the correct, accurate food sensitivities have been identified, this person will believe that someone lied and tainted their meal with gluten.
Another example is a migraineur who will explain, in painstaking detail, why caffeine can’t possibly play a role in their particular migraine problem.
Okay, if you say so!
(Says me, a person who was so fed up with four-day migraines that she emptied her cup and became receptive to uncomfortable ideas).
I’m teasing myself right now, because I spent nearly a decade relying on a supplement that probably became a major contributor to the very problem I was trying to eliminate.
What happened when I quit taking melatonin?
Well, that night I did finally manage to fall asleep. I had been struggling to sleep five hours a night. I slept about the same amount that I had been getting over the past few months. I did not have stomach cramps. I also didn’t wake up and lie awake for an hour or more in the middle of the night.
That meant I couldn’t rule out the melatonin as a contributor to my recently worsened sleep quality.
It was a rough week. My husband and I were on vacation, and I’d dearly looked forward to sleeping twelve hours a night. He did. I lay next to him for hours each night/morning, listening to him snooze peacefully, and feeling pathologically jealous. He was sleeping my sleep!
After a week without the 10mg melatonin, or any at all, I started sleeping better.
I ordered an older-model Fitbit to use as a sleep tracker. It showed up a little after that rough withdrawal/adjustment week.
Guess what? Suddenly I was sleeping nearly eight hours a night!
According to the tracker, it took me nine or ten minutes to fall asleep every night. I lost an average of seventeen minutes a night to restlessness.
I wish I’d had the foresight to know I would want a sleep tracker before I quit taking melatonin. This would have been an ideal opportunity to record some better metrics. I’m not a laboratory, though, and it wouldn’t be worth it to me to try to recreate my situation. I don’t think I could, really, because eight years is a long time to commit to messing around with your sleep.
As the month has gone on, I’ve felt subjectively like I’m sleeping more deeply and that I’m falling asleep more quickly. I also have a mystical connection with the sleep tracker, that after I buckle it on and start the app, it is hypnotically helping me fall asleep.
In the month before I finally quit melatonin, I had my first pavor nocturnus episode in four years. “Lobster-sized scorpions” were “crawling across my bed” and suddenly I found myself crouched on my living room floor, shaking and wondering why my husband was shouting my name. I woke up fully, promptly burst into tears, and started swearing because “it’s the night terrors again!”
Also in that month, I had a severe headache, the type that always used to indicate a shift into migraine.
I was willing to take what felt like drastic action because my daily life was starting to become intolerable. As much as I did not want to spend my nice vacation sleeplessly, it was happening anyway. I felt like I had nothing to lose.
Having gone through the process, a lot of things suddenly make sense. The pharmacy changed my pill prescription. I take my pill at bedtime, usually in the same swallow that I would take my nightly melatonin. It never occurred to me that taking two separate synthetic hormones at the same time might cause an interaction. (I don’t have any direct evidence that it did, but it’s a testable hypothesis that is worthy of further research). Anyone with any type of hormonal or endocrine issue might consider whether that is interacting with their sleep issues, migraines, appetite, thyroid function, weight gain or weight loss, skin condition, or maybe even hair loss. (I lost a patch of hair off my head again this year, which hadn’t happened to me since 2007).
Sleep is an area deserving of more respect and medical research. In many ways it’s a final frontier for medicine, because doctors and nurses have to go through such an heroic ordeal of chronic sleep deprivation as part of their training. Trial by fire. Just like nutrition, they’ll only respect sleep as something “real” when they’re encouraged to by their school curriculum. They’ll only respect sleep when they’re allowed to get some for themselves!
For the rest of us, nothing is stopping us from tracking our own metrics and testing our own ideas about sleep, activity, food intake, or anything else where we wish we felt better.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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