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Sleep Specialist Warns Against Using Over-The-Counter Melatonin To Combat Insomnia

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- During the pandemic, millions of people have resorted to an over-the-counter remedy to help them get to sleep, but as CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez explains, the melatonin you might be taking could be harmful.

Insomniacs have even more company than they used to, judging from what Mount Sinai sleep specialist Dr. Neomi Shah is seeing.

"We're seeing a lot more patients coming through for sleep-related care, primarily for insomnia," she said.

Shah attributes a lot of this to pandemic-related stress and anxiety, and most of her patients have sought help from over-the-counter melatonin.

"About 95% of the times, patients who report having insomnia have tried melatonin over-the-counter at some point, and in a majority of them, it has not been effective," she said.

Ineffective because melatonin only works for short-term treatment of what's called circadian rhythm misalignment, like jet lag.

Worse, a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that some melatonin users are taking dangerously high amounts for extended periods, which can lead to problems ranging from headache and dizziness to confusion, irritability and depression.

Because the Food and Drug Administration is prohibited from regulating supplements like melatonin, those pills may not contain what the label says.

"Most of the evidence shows that it ranges anywhere from having none to about 400% of what is listed on the label," Shah said.

Melatonin is not an herb or vitamin. It's a psychoactive hormone that should not be taken without a doctor's guidance.

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