Melatonin Versus Magnesium: Which Is Better For Sleep?

There are a lot of things that keep us up at night these days, from booked schedules to shift work to the evening news. It's no wonder that many are reaching for sleep aids before bed to get a little help falling (and staying) asleep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about four percent of U.S. adults over the age of 20 used a prescription sleep aid in the past month. Millions more turn to more "natural" over-the-counter supplements to help them get to sleep, like melatonin and magnesium, but what's the difference between them?

Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the body in response to fading light, which is why it's sometimes referred to as the "hormone of darkness" (via MindBodyGreen). It's released by the brain's pineal gland and signals to the body that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep. "Your body produces melatonin naturally," sleep expert Luis F. Beunaver explained via Johns Hopkins Medicine. "It doesn't make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep." If you're having trouble falling asleep, due to travel, shift work, or stress, supplemental melatonin could help give your body and brain a stronger cue that it's time to settle down and sleep. It won't necessarily help you stay asleep, though.

Melatonin and magnesium play different roles in the sleep cycle

Magnesium, on the other hand, is an essential mineral (meaning the body can't make it itself) that is involved with hundreds of bodily processes, including inducing relaxation and a sense of calm (via Sleep Advisor). It tends to be better at supporting overall sleep quality. "Magnesium helps to calm down the central nervous system, which helps to prepare the brain to turn off and also to keep it functioning at a calmer level throughout the night," functional and family medicine physician Dr. Robert Rountree told MindBodyGreen.

Some studies have also shown that it may be effective to take a combination of both melatonin and magnesium at once to improve sleep quality. It's important to consult with a healthcare practitioner before taking either supplement to ensure a safe dosage and non-interference with other medications or supplements, as well as to discuss and reduce side effects. "A person's melatonin dose should be determined in partnership with a trusted healthcare practitioner," Dr. Ashley Jordan Ferira told MindBodyGreen. "Some people may experience headaches, grogginess, and sleepiness upon waking after taking melatonin — likely because the dose is too high for regular use."