Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Are melatonin-laced drinks just taking the piss?

At the end of a long day at work there's nothing quite like the salve of a glass of red to ease the troubles from your mind. Or perhaps a scotch is more your thing (neat or on the rocks I'm not here to judge). Then again maybe yours is a gin and tonic, an Old Fashioned or even just a cup of chamomile. The point is whatever your poison there are few among us who don't turn to a little liquid helper as the day draws to a close. Whether to dull those frayed nerves, to placate our worries, or let's face it to gently ease us into the calming refuge that is unconsciousness. Recently it appears however, that many of us are turning our backs on that hot toddy in favour of a hormonal liquer. Yep we're trading the merlot for the melatonin and the truth is we don't really know what it's doing to us.

Already widely available in the US, and slowly making their way to a store fridge near you, the relaxation drinks, with names such as IChill, Dreamwater and NeuroDrink, have recently found themselves the focus of a Nature Neuroscience Editorial, and for good reason. In the US the drinks, which contain ingredients such as melatonin, GABA and 5-HTP (a serotonin precursor), are classified as dietary supplements, meaning that they are not subject to the tests of safety or efficacy normally required for food and drugs. Rather as the editorial says 'It is instead assumed that the companies selling these products have conducted all of the necessary safety and efficacy testing before the products go to market (although there is no requirement that they release any information about such tests).' But before we dive into to a discussion of the safety of these products let's take a quick look at how consuming melatonin is thought to help us sleep at night.


Melatonin (or N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine for those of you playing at home) is a serotonin derivative produced by a small endocrine gland in the epithalamus, known as the pineal gland. First isolated back in the late 1950s, it was found to be intricately linked to circadian rhythms and, perhaps more importantly for our purposes, to sleep regulation. The synthesis of melatonin occurs mainly after dark when serotonin-N-acetyltransferase produces serotonin, from tryptophan, which is then converted to melatonin. This process also occurs during the day, however at a much slower rate as light signals at the retina are transmitted to the pineal gland, via the hypothalamus, resulting in a breakdown of serotonin-N-acetyltransferase and a subsequent reduction in its activity by approximately 100-fold. Or more simply about 100 times more melatonin is produced when it's dark outside than when it's bright.

So the pineal gland produces and accumulates melatonin before environmental and endogenous clues lead the gland to steadily release it from around 9.00pm. The melatonin release continues throughout those sleeping hours peaking between 2.00 and 4.00am, when our core temperature and state of alertness are at their lowest levels (or when we're fast asleep) before tapering off once the morning sun begins to peek around our bedroom curtains. But whilst it's generally accepted that melatonin helps make that pillow seem extra comfy it's not entirely sure how it all happens other than helping us sleep when it's dark and wake when it's light. But despite the gaps in our knowledge it's exactly this process that relaxation drinks are attempting to mimic. By introducing a high peak level dose of melatonin just before sleep, drinks such as Dreamwater attempt to kick start a solid night's sleep by telling our bodies they're already at those optimal stages of temperature and alertness and thus are ready for some serious shut-eye . But are they safe?

The simple answer is we don't know. One problem is that these products haven't been around long enough to know whether they are safe for short-term, let alone long-term use. The second issue is that negative effects resulting from the ingestion of such CNS targeting ingredients are notoriously hard to measure, especially when compared to the adverse effects in energy drink consumption. After all heart palpitations are much more readily observable than subtle changes in sleeping patterns, mood and cognition. These issues are further compounded by the fact that it is often a combination of these CNS targeting ingredients that are present in any one product, making it hard to delineate the individual effects of a single ingredient.

But whilst the FDA doesn't currently ensure the safety of these 'dietary supplements', it's interesting to note that they recently labelled melatonin-laced brownies as unsafe and warned manufacturers that the products could be seized from shelves if production continued. Like the relaxation drinks, the company producing the brownies had been marketing them as dietary supplements and stress relievers, however the FDA disagreed and issued a warning letter to the company stating that the cakes were 'adulterated' and contained 'an unsafe food additive' (more specifically melatonin). So what's the difference between the 'unsafe' melatonin in the brownies compared to the supplemental melatonin in NeuroDrinks? Nothing at all. As it would happen the difference all boils down to the fact that the drinks are not viewed as food under FDA guidelines. But this categorical oversight doesn't mean they should be given the green light. Especially when there are other more reliable, not to mention safer, sources of melatonin freely available.

Back in my day...

That's right, the concept of ingesting melatonin as a means of alleviating stress and restoring the wake-sleep cycle is by no means a novel phenomenon. In fact it is a traditional practice referenced in ancient Hindu and Yogic texts. Alright so obviously the tradition didn't involve popping down to the local store to pick up a bottle of IChill just before bed time, but it did involve drinking a ready supply of melatonin. But where would you get such a ready supply in those days of old? Well as it turned out the answer was inside us all along...

Known as 'Amaroli' (because urine therapy just didn't have the same ring to it), the practice involves collecting and drinking the mid-stream of your early morning evacuation. Taking care to avoid the initial and concluding flows that are thought to impart no health benefit whatsoever (and so just leave you with a bad taste in your mouth). Traditionally, Amaroli was performed in secret (a decision made after the early practioners encountered a number of awkward conversations...'Really you don't drink yours?') but thanks to modern technology Amaroli enthusiasts are now sharing their tips and tricks in open online forums. For example try adding some oregano it really helps with the taste, apparently (go on Google it you know you want to). Undoubtedly early Amaroli practitioners weren't aware that it was the soothing warmth of melatonin in their urine that was helping them drift right back to sleep, but the premise remains the same. Levels of melatonin in the urine are relatively high first thing in the morning and it is thought that the low pH of our gastric system is the perfect environment to convert our mid-stream melatonin back to its biologically active form. From there it is able to restore our circulating melatonin levels and thus ensure we continue to sleep like the proverbial log.

Now whilst it might be tempting to give these hormonal potions a go after a long day at work, when the thoughts of how tired you are are preventing you from sleeping. Why not stop and take a minute to consider just what it is that your potentially willing to risk for that good night's sleep. In my mind it's really not worth the hassle. After all do we really need another stressor to occupy our thoughts? So instead of that hormonal snake oil why not just take a moment to yourself. Take a deep breath. Have a cup of warm tea (or a glass of red) and try and enjoy those mid-stream dreams. But whatever you do, just don't forget the Oregano!


Bellapart J, & Boots R (2012). Potential use of melatonin in sleep and delirium in the critically ill. British journal of anaesthesia, 108 (4), 572-80 PMID: 22419624
Mills MH, & Faunce TA (1991). Melatonin supplementation from early morning auto-urine drinking. Medical hypotheses, 36 (3), 195-9 PMID: 1787809
Editorial (2012). Sip carefully. Nature neuroscience, 15 (4) PMID: 22449954


This post was written by Andrew Watt for A Hippo on Campus.



  1. Wow! I never knew my urin could make me sleep better just by adding oregano. I also didn't know our early morning urine does contain high levels of melatonin.
    It's worth a try but this is going to take some bravery. Not so sure about the smell.
    Joe Francis

    1. If you're willing to give this a go you truly are a braver man than I, Joe. Though might I suggest giving that glass of warm milk a try first. Or more or less anything else for that matter.
      Good luck!

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