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Even if your melatonin says “natural” it may not come from a plant

Even if your melatonin says “natural”  it may not come from a plant

By Kim Ross, DCN, CNS, IFMCP

December 9, 2022

Melatonin is just melatonin, right?

Well, actually, there are at least three different sources of melatonin. This supplement is derived from animal, synthetic, or plant sources. Each can dramatically impact their effectiveness and even safety. As more people, and medical professionals, discover the broad benefits of melatonin, some are going deeper to question the source.

The first source was from animals.

Melatonin was first isolated in 1958 from the pineal gland in cows, and for the next thirty years, it was exclusively sourced from dead cows, sheep, or pigs. However, due to safety concerns of animal sources, such as viral infections and prions (think mad cow disease), melatonin supplements began to be manufactured synthetically in the mid 1990’s. Over the last twenty years, nearly all melatonin has been synthetically produced, derived from petrochemicals and other chemicals through an industrial process [1].

 99% of the melatonin you can buy is synthetic

However, with greater awareness of the benefits of plants, along with initiatives that encourage an environmentally-friendly process, phytomelatonin (plant melatonin) appeared on the market in 2007. By 2020 melatonin supplement sales reached $821 million [1], with 99% of those sales being for the synthetic form of melatonin and less than 1% from plant sources.

 While synthetic melatonin is cost-effective to produce and purchase, the manufacturing of synthetic melatonin may contribute to pollution and environmental concerns as it involves industrial processing, solvents, or petrochemicals. Synthetic melatonin potentially may contain up to 13 different toxic substrates or contaminants [2], not to mention the potential issues around dosing, quality, and efficacy.

 Today’s dose may be 400% stronger than the one you took yesterday

In 2019, Canadian researchers analyzed 31 melatonin supplements and noted several issues [3]. First, the actual melatonin content in the products ranged from 17% to 478% of the label claim, raising toxicity concerns in vulnerable populations, such as children. Second, there was substantial variation in batches, by as much as 465%. Finally, 8 out of 30 supplements tested contained serotonin, which has even more severe health implications than melatonin, particularly for those on medications that may be influencing serotonin levels (such as SSRIs), and further to those who may develop serotonin syndrome [4].

 Unlike synthetic melatonin, plant-based melatonin is environmentally safe. The cultivation techniques employed include selecting plants based on the ideal location, soil, climate, and harvest time to optimize melatonin levels. It is free of potential contaminants, chemicals, excipients, fillers, and binding agents. Plant-based melatonin supplements can have the added benefit of naturally occurring vitamins, amino acids, and phytonutrients including carotenoids, flavonoids, tocopherols, and antioxidants [1,5].

 Just because it says “natural” doesn’t mean it came from a plant

It pays to be wary. Search Amazon and health food stores around the country and you’ll see the claims “natural,” “vegan,” “vegetarian” and even “plant” melatonin—all coming from companies that supply synthetic melatonin!

How is that even possible? Good question, and it’s the inspiration for this blog. A member of our team, who is a vegetarian, saw a popular health site recommend another company’s melatonin as the “best vegan and natural” melatonin. This was surprising considering that it was actually synthetic and contained microcrystalline cellulose, magnesium stearate, silicon dioxide, stearic acid, cellulose gum, maltodextrin, gum arabic and hypromellose!

 We want you to be empowered with the truth about melatonin

As you know, “natural” has no definition in the health product space. When you read the word “natural” melatonin, it can mean it is animal, synthetic, or plant. Animal sources are defined as natural. Melatonin chemically synthesized in a lab using petro or other chemicals, where the original source material that was replicated was a plant, can be defined as natural, vegan, vegetarian, plant, and even sometimes herbal. Often herbal ingredients will be mixed with the synthetic melatonin to further muddy the waters. They will call them a “natural sleep aid” or “organic sleep aid”.

 It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that melatonin was detected in plants [2,5]), and it was only in 2007 that the first plant melatonin supplement was released (Herbatonin®) containing a proprietary blend of alfalfa, chlorella and rice. At present, there are five plant-based melatonin products available commercially, three as a dietary supplement and two as a cosmetic cream [2]. The two additional supplements that have been made available contain extracts from Montmorency tart cherry skin (Prunus cerasus), St. John’s wort, and extracts of plants and herbs.

 Yes, you can get melatonin from food. How does 45 pounds of cherries sound?

Only Herbatonin® and one other supplement have actual therapeutic doses of melatonin, with the other supplement and creams measured in nanograms, not milligrams. While many edible foods contain low levels of melatonin, most of us would have a hard time eating the 45 pounds of cherries, the 1500 pistachios, or 3852 bananas it would take to get 0.3 mg of melatonin!

 What’s more, and most importantly, recent research on the first supplement, Herbatonin®, has shown that it may be up to 646% more effective than synthetic melatonin as an anti-inflammatory, 470% more effective at free radical scavenging, up to 100% more powerful around cellular health and even antioxidant (ORAC) was over 356% greater[1]! So, knowing your source of melatonin is becoming more and more important, not just to avoid toxins, but to make sure you get all the benefits possible.

Knowing where your melatonin came from is vital because of where it’s going—into your body!


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