Why Does Melatonin Give You Insane Dreams?

Photographed by Bianca Valle.
Imagine seeing a building that looked like giant avocados on top of brick cylinders. Or ice skating with just your bare feet. Or being caught right in the crossfire of the beginning of World War III. Okay, what the hell are we talking about here? According to the people of Reddit, these are some of the things they dreamed about when they took the sleep supplement melatonin.
Melatonin is known as the "hormone of darkness," and it occurs naturally in your body, explains Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center. "It comes out a few hours before we routinely go to sleep, helping induce sleepiness, then peaks throughout the night and drops off a few hours before we naturally awaken in the morning," Dr. Harris says. Some people who have circadian rhythm disorders, like "night owl" syndrome or jet lag, use melatonin supplements to increase melatonin production in the brain to fall and stay asleep, Dr. Harris says. But it has to be "taken in specific, often small, doses and timed properly with the help of a sleep medicine doctor," she says.
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Back to the avocado building: A 2000 study found that melatonin increases rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which could explain why the dreams are so bizarre. "REM sleep is a stage of sleep where your brain is very awake, but the rest of your body has low muscle tone," Dr. Harris says. "It's an active stage of sleep where you process memories, regulate emotions, dream more, and encode what you've learned throughout the day." Usually, you spend about 20-25% of the night in REM, cycling through it every 90-120 minutes, she says.
Anecdotally, people (like those redditors) say that their dreams are wilder and more cinematic when they take melatonin than the nights when they don't take it. And women in the aforementioned study reported dreams about "transformation of objects" and "overall transformations" more when taking melatonin than the times when they didn't take anything. But as of now, researchers haven't been able to explain this particular link.
That said, researchers have found one unique use of melatonin when it comes to dreams: Dr. Harris says melatonin can be helpful in treating people with REM Behavior Disorder, which happens when your brain is in REM but your body isn't turned off. "So, essentially, these patients are acting out their dreams, and it can be quite dangerous!" Again, this doesn't really explain why the dreams are so kooky, but it is interesting.
Freaky dreams might not bother you (or you might not get them), but if you still want to take melatonin to help regulate your sleep habits, Dr. Harris says you should be careful, since melatonin is an over-the-counter supplement and it's not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "There have been studies which found that one bottle of melatonin might have varying doses from pill to pill, since there isn't a major overseeing governmental body," she says, adding that it can also cause dizziness, fog, drowsiness, and nausea in some people. "Just because it's over the counter does not mean it is well-researched and safe to take for everyone."
If melatonin supplement nightmares have you spooked, Dr. Harris says there are other ways you can stimulate and protect your body's natural melatonin-production, like avoiding blue light exposure before bed, because it dampens melatonin production. "It is best, in my opinion, to just go old school and stay away from screens," Dr. Harris says. "Read a book, listen to music, or find a quiet, calm and relaxing hobby to wind down that's done in dim light." That might be the best way to sleep tight without letting the avocado buildings bite.
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