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Sleep candy: Why are we popping melatonin like crazy?

Insomniacs know counting sheep is a waste of time. Instead, sleep aids, like melatonin, are a bedtime staple.

CLEVELAND -- The dietary supplement is cheap and no prescription is needed.

Susie Sharp has been taking melatonin for at least 10 years.

"I have to be able to respond to alarms and alerts 24/7," Sharp told us when we visited her.

Much of Sharp's life today revolves around caring for her 90-year-old mother. She's tried other sleeping aids but says melatonin works best for her.

"When I take melatonin and I'm awakened, I don't have any lag or fuzziness. That's important because sometimes I need to make some important decisions," Sharp explained.

WKYC's Monica Robins asked her Facebook followers to share their thoughts on melatonin. Some tried it and didn't like it. But many swore by it. One thing we noticed, the amount they're taking is widely varied.

And that may be part of the problem.

"We are over-treating people with melatonin. The lower doses are actually just as effective. We think a dose that's less than a milligram as being the most ideal dose," said Dr. Samuel Friedlander, a sleep expert with University Hospitals.

The melatonin industry is exploding, with manufacturers making the supplement more enticing by putting it in gummy candy form, sprays, liquids, and even chocolate.

Sleep experts see the availability and affordability of melatonin as a good thing. But they caution some of these supplements can come with ingredients you don't need. And that could bring about new sleep troubles.

"We all produce melatonin and it's a natural product, but we may be suing super-therapeutic, high dosages, and that's a concern. People assume that products purchased over-the-counter are naturally safe, but it turns out that some products that can be purchased over the counter can have side effects. It can be just as serious as medication that's prescribed," Friedlander said.

It's important to note, melatonin is sold as a dietary supplement, therefore it's not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

There are also no studies on the effects of taking melatonin long-term. There is concern about the use of melatonin in children, as they are still growing and developing. It should only be used when recommended by your child's pediatrician.

As it remains largely unregulated in the United States, other countries are cracking down. In the U.K. melatonin is only dispensed with a prescription. And in Italy, the dosage is capped at 1 milligram.

Susie Sharp is sticking with melatonin, but she's done her research and even takes breaks after she finishes a bottle. But with her life and her responsibilities, it's what she needs right now.

"I don't think it works for everybody. I think it depends on your chemistry. But for me, it works just fine," Sharp said.

Getting off sleep aids, and taking steps to improve sleep should be the ultimate goal.

Friedlander says turning off phones, tablets, and the television one hour before bedtime is critical. Make your bedroom, as sleep-inducing as possible, by lowering the temperature, blocking outside light and leaving electronics off. Also, if you can't sleep, don't toss and turn. Get out of bed and do activities that are calming and relaxing, such as listening to music, reading or gentle stretching.

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