It’s no secret that many people today do not get the amount of sleep they need. Hectic lifestyles, demanding jobs, family responsibilities, and more drive us daily to perform better, harder, and faster, usually at the sacrifice of sleep and restoration. And this has sent us straight to the retail shelf to find support, sometimes in the form of natural sleep aids and dietary supplements.
At the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s (CRN; Washington, DC) annual conference in November 2019, market researcher IRI (Chicago) noted that the sleep and mood supplement category grew an impressive 16% in 2019 (in the 52 weeks ending August 11, 2019).
Further insight provided to Nutritional Outlook from supplement brand Natrol, based on Nielsen Scantrack data, indicate that the sleep category comprising vitamins, minerals, and supplements (VMS) grew 31% over the past year, outpacing the 4% sales growth seen by the overall total VMS category.
Notably, the company points out, the sleep category is made up “almost entirely” of melatonin-based products.
Looking at sales data for the past five years, David Hilton, Natrol’s director of research and development and regulatory affairs, says, “[T]he melatonin growth rate has been well above category rates for some time and is accelerating. In fact, melatonin is now the second-largest segment behind probiotics in all of VMS.”
The sleep ingredients market reflects this growth for melatonin. Market researcher SPINS (Chicago) reports that in a cross-channel ranking of the top-10 ingredients in terms of dollar change seen in 2019 (during the 52 weeks ending October 6, 2019), melatonin shot up from its previous #10 spot to the #2 spot based on the ingredient’s growth across the mainstream, natural, and specialty gourmet retail outlets combined. Across these channels, melatonin sales grew nearly 29%, from $285 million to $367 million. (For more insights on this cross-channel growth, click here.)
Most of melatonin’s activity is happening in the mainstream retail channel—giving it a broad consumer reach that many supplement ingredients strive to achieve. Breaking down the mainstream data further, SPINS reports for this story that in the mainstream channel alone, melatonin sales during the above time period grew 29.7% to $354 million in sales. Melatonin now reigns as the top-selling sleep ingredient in all three channels SPINS tracks (mainstream, natural, and specialty gourmet), with double-digit growth in each.
Why are consumers so drawn to melatonin? Is it the sheer fact that it’s the most well-known natural sleep aid?
Natrol’s Hilton says that is one reason—but there are others. “[T]he reason melatonin is specifically increasing in popularity is tied to growing consumer confidence in melatonin’s effectiveness, and the powerful macro-trend of consumers looking for more natural and drug-free alternatives to help with their health needs.”
He continues: “The sleep solutions people turned to 10 and 20 years ago largely centered on medicating yourself to sleep with products like ZzzQuil, Tylenol PM, Benadryl, Ambien, and the like. Now, there is a different, drug-free trusted option, and people are excited to choose melatonin over other options.”
Consumers have good reason to be confident in melatonin, including its safety. Michael Grandner, PhD, MTR, associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, nutritional sciences, and medicine, and director of the Sleep & Health Research Program, at the University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ), says, “Melatonin, which is sold as a dietary supplement in the U.S., has more substantial research behind it compared to other compounds sold as supplements. There are thousands of scientific studies that have explored how melatonin works, and there is a good understanding of its use as a sleep aid. For this reason, and its relative safety compared to prescription medications, many people are turning to melatonin as an option that they perceive to be safer than the alternative.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that consumers really understand how melatonin works. In fact, Grandner says, many don’t understand how melatonin can improve sleep, nor how to use it most effectively. “Many people are not actually using melatonin optimally, even though many people are using it,” he states.
For instance, he says, a melatonin supplement’s efficacy is highly dependent on its dosage and timing (i.e., at what point during the day a consumer takes it). “Melatonin is not a treatment for insomnia,” Grandner says. “It is almost always ineffective for this. Also, melatonin is more of a clock-shifter than a sleep-inducer. It is a signal of nighttime to your body. If you give a dose in the middle of the day, it will have little effect since your body knows it's not nighttime. If you give it at night, it also usually has little effect since your body already knows it's nighttime. It is most effective at the transition points. A small amount of melatonin in the evening can make your clock shift earlier—getting sleepy a little earlier but also waking up earlier.” Basically, melatonin will cause you to get drowsy, but it is not sedating, he says.
Higher melatonin dosages are not always better, either, Grandner says, because melatonin is a hormone and not a drug. In fact, he says, smaller doses may be more effective.
Natrol’s Hilton says: “[I]t’s important to understand how melatonin works and when supplementation might be needed. Melatonin is naturally produced in the body to guide our ‘sleep-wake’ cycle. When the sun sets, darkness signals the brain to produce melatonin, telling our body it’s time to sleep. Melatonin levels stay elevated through the night to help keep us asleep. When the sun comes up, the light signals the brain to stop making melatonin, telling our body that it’s time to wake up. Changes in routine, seasonal time changes, and screen time before bed are some of the many things that can interrupt melatonin production and throw us off cycle. Melatonin supplements can help.”
Given all the interest in the sleep category, one might take a minute to wonder how other ingredients within the sleep set are performing. According to SPINS’s 2019 sleep-category numbers, sleep ingredients such as valerian are not seeing nearly the same level of sales that melatonin enjoys. The journal HerbalGram, published by the American Botanical Council (Austin, TX), reported in its latest annual Herb Market Report1 that in 2018, sales of valerian were $17 million in the U.S. mainstream channel and $7 million in the U.S. natural channel. Those aren’t numbers to sneeze at, but they do demonstrate that, by comparison, melatonin is the sleep star by far.
Grandner shares additional thoughts on sleep-support ingredients beyond melatonin, which he says is to date the most well-studied sleep supplement ingredient.
“There are a number of nutrients that have been studied in relation to sleep. Nearly all, though, have very little data to support them. Most nutrients thought to be sleep-promoting have only been studied in mice, or, if there are human studies, these are often small and poorly controlled. Some nutrients, such as chamomile, actually have no real supporting research on effects in humans. Others, such as valerian, have relatively extensive human research, but these studies generally show only weak effects. Some compounds, like L-theanine, have been studied for their calming effects, but very little work has been done evaluating their role as an actual sleep-promoting compound. Currently, the research in this area is very preliminary, and although there are some compounds that have shown promise, there are no clear indications that there are specific nutrients that have strong and reliable effects on sleep.”
The search for sleep aids goes on nevertheless. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that one-third of U.S. adults report not getting the recommended amount of sleep. Moreover, says the CDC, “Not getting enough sleep is linked with many chronic diseases and conditions—such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression—that threaten our nation’s health.”2
- Smith T. “Herbal supplement sales in US increase by 9.4% in 2018.” HerbalGram, no. 123 (2019). Accessed at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue123/files/HG123-HMR.pdf
- “Sleep and Sleep Disorders.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed January 29, 2019, at https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/index.html
- Bruni O et al. “Current role of melatonin in pediatric neurology: clinical recommendations.” European Journal of Paediatric Neurology, vol. 19, no. 2 (March 2015): 122-133