During a time when sleep can be hard to come by, many of us are reaching for reinforcements. When it comes to sleep aids, magnesium and melatonin are two of the most popular over-the-counter options. While both can be effective, they work in different ways. Robert Rountree, M.D., weighs in on when to take one over the other.

Take Melatonin For: Falling Asleep At A Time That Your Body Isn’t Used To

Melatonin is a hormone that our body naturally sends out based on lighting cues, which is why it’s often referred to as the “hormone of darkness.”

“Melatonin is a signal for the brain that it’s time to go to sleep,” Rountree said. “It doesn’t knock you out. It doesn’t make you sleep. It simply tells the brain this is the time to go to sleep.”

This means that supplemental forms of the hormone can be good for people who have variable sleep schedules and need to fall asleep at wonky hours from time-to-time (hence why it’s so popular for jet lag).

By that logic, if you wake up in the middle of the night and need to fall back asleep, Rountree says that taking a small dose of melatonin (0.5 to 1.5 milligrams, taken under the tongue) can help.

Basically, this supplement lays the groundwork by telling our bodies that it’s time for bed – even if our outside environment says otherwise. Once it sends this signal though, its job is done. It doesn’t do much in the way of improving sleep quality, which is part of why some people report feeling groggy and sleepy in the morning after taking it. “It’s not that great for people who are just poor sleepers,” Rountree explained.

Take Magnesium For: Nightly Sleep Support

Compared to melatonin, Rountree says that magnesium is more helpful for improving sleep quality.

Early research suggests that the mineral can reduce insomnia symptoms and kick-start hours of calm and relaxation.

“Magnesium helps to calm 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,” he says.

So while melatonin is a quick signal to go to bed, magnesium is more of a steady, long-lasting sleep enhancer.

While melatonin is great at sending a signal to the body that it’s time to go to sleep, magnesium picks up where it leaves off and helps achieve higher-quality rest. It’s better for every night use, while melatonin is a good supplement to have in your back pocket if you’re traveling to a new time zone or need to pick up after a night shift.

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