Why is melatonin banned in the UK?

by Hannah de Gruchy January 19, 2023

Why is melatonin banned in the UK

Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the pineal gland in our brains. Our body uses it to regulate our natural sleep-wake cycle, otherwise known as our body clock or circadian rhythm. It’s often referred to as the sleep hormone because it regulates when we feel tired, and when we feel awake.

Plane side wing

When it begins to get dark in the evening, the pineal gland releases melatonin, making us feel sleepy. Then, when it gets light in the morning, production stops, making us feel alert. Therefore, our night times and daytimes are synchronised with our sleep-wake cycle.

This night-day cycle of melatonin production is the reason we feel more tired and sluggish during the winter months when it’s darker for longer. It’s also why we may struggle with jet lag after travelling and find it hard to sleep during the day if we work shift patterns.

Synthetic melatonin is available in tablet form and can be useful for managing insomnia and jet lag on a short-term basis. However, it cannot be legally obtained in the UK without a valid prescription. In other parts of the world, melatonin is available in health food stores or online without a prescription.

Melatonin in the UK: fast facts

  • Melatonin is a hormone naturally released by the brain in the evening that promotes sleep. Its production ceases in the morning to encourage wakefulness.
  • Synthetic forms of melatonin are available as tablets that can help to switch the brain into sleep mode and help manage the symptoms of insomnia and jet lag.
  • In the UK, melatonin isn’t available over the counter as it’s a prescription-only medicine.
  • In the USA and Australia, melatonin is available in health food stores as a nutritional supplement.
  • 5-HTP and valerian are supplements that can help to promote good sleep if you cannot get a prescription for melatonin. 

Can I buy melatonin in the UK?

UK flag

It isn’t legally possible to buy melatonin tablets in the UK without a doctors’ prescription, meaning that it cannot be bought ‘over the counter’ at a pharmacy, like common painkillers and cough medicines.

You may find it being sold online by companies who will import it illegally from overseas, but these services are unregulated and could be selling low quality or even dangerous products.

However, it is possible to buy melatonin for jet lag in the UK from an online doctor. You won’t see a physical prescription but you’re still being prescribed the tablets by a doctor, based on the answers you provide to certain questions. If you choose to go down this route, make sure you use a reputable website from a recognisable brand – many high street pharmacies now have a credible online doctor. 

Why is melatonin banned in the UK?

Used correctly, and for a limited time, melatonin isn’t dangerous and isn’t technically ‘banned’ in the UK. Instead, its availability is restricted to those who have had a consultation with a doctor to assess their suitability for it.

In some parts of the world, including the USA and Australia, melatonin is considered a supplement rather than a drug and it can therefore be sold in health food stores and online without a prescription or doctors’ consultation. In the UK and most of Europe, it’s classed as a medicine, not a health supplement and as such, requires a prescription.

MHRAThis is because melatonin is considered “medical by function” which means that it requires a drug licence. All medicines that are prescription-only require a drug licence, which outlines strict criteria on who it can be prescribed to, and for what purpose.

Melatonin falls into this class of medicines as the UK’s Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) deems it necessary. The MHRA have full control over what medicines are licensed and for what use.

Can I get melatonin on prescription in the UK?

Prescribing to a patient

It’s entirely possible to get melatonin on prescription from your GP (or an online doctor as described above), if you’re considered suitable. The NHS tends to only prescribe it to those over 55 years old who are experiencing temporary sleep problems. Usually, it will only be prescribed for a few weeks at a time. Melatonin is unsuitable for those with liver or kidney problems or an autoimmune condition.

Some people experience common side effects when taking melatonin, such as feeling tired during the day, dizziness, nausea, and irritability. If you’ve been prescribed melatonin and you’re experiencing these or any other side effects that are bothering you, stop taking it and speak to your doctor. 

In some cases, it’s prescribed to prevent headaches and to help manage the symptoms of jet lag. Speak to your GP if you’d like to be considered for a melatonin prescription.

What are the alternatives to melatonin for sleep?

If you’re struggling to get a good nights’ sleep, you can’t get a prescription for melatonin and would rather not take sleeping tablets, some of the best supplements for sleep are worth a try.

Night Aid

Night aid 5-HTP capsules – G&G
Night Aid 5-HTP capsules from G&G Vitamins have been formulated to support deep sleep. The hero ingredient, 5-HTP, is an amino acid that’s naturally produced by the body. It’s converted into the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin which itself can then be converted into melatonin.

 

Taking a precursor to melatonin can be helpful for keeping our natural levels topped up which can in turn promote good sleep. These capsules contain ten other minerals and herbal preparations that support calmness, improve sleep quality, and reduce stress and anxiety.

They’re free from artificial fillers and binders, are suitable for vegans and contain no gluten, soya, lactose, or GMOs. Taken one or two hours before bed, they can help you fall asleep more quickly, and stay asleep until the morning.

Valerian

Organic fermented valerian capsules

Valerian is a root herb that has been traditionally used to help relieve nervous tension and encourage good sleep. It works by inhibiting the breakdown of a neurotransmitter called GABA, or gamma aminobutyric acid.

GABA attaches to specific receptors in the brain to create a calming effect on the nervous system. A substance called valerenic acid in valerian root supplements can prevent the natural breakdown of GABA, causing it to promote calmness and relaxation for longer, leading to better sleep.

Try taking Organic Fermented Valerian capsules from Living Nutrition before bed, they can help you drift off quicker and stay asleep for longer. They’re certified organic and contain no gluten, soya, lactose, or artificial fillers and are suitable for vegans.

Avoid taking any supplements that cause drowsiness If you’re also taking prescribed melatonin, as the combination may cause an excessive sedative effect. 

Taking supplements to help you sleep

If you’re struggling to get enough, good quality sleep, melatonin can help on a short-term basis. But for a longer-term solution, you may benefit from taking herbal supplements that are available without a prescription. They tend not to cause side effects such as drowsiness the following day and are generally safe for most adults to take. Try them for at least three months to see if they can improve your sleep.

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Hannah de Gruchy
Hannah de Gruchy

Author

Health and wellness author and biologist specialised in sustainability, nutrition and eco-living.


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