Most melatonin used in 2011 is made synthetically, though there are a number of natural melatonin sources. This hormone is produced in a part of the brain known as the pineal gland. It is also found in other diurnal animals, regulating the sleep cycle so that these animals sleep during the night and are awake during the day. Melatonin can be extracted from the brains of these animals and used in melatonin supplements. Plant-based alternatives are marketed as natural, though these supplements do not contain any melatonin.
Melatonin is created in the brain as a response the natural cycle of day and night. In most people, enough of this hormone is created naturally to successfully start the sleep cycle, though the melatonin levels may drop off in the winter and as a person ages.
Animals that are awake during the day and asleep at night also produce melatonin to regulate this cycle. The only natural source of melatonin that can be used in medication comes from the pineal glands of these animals. Buried deep within the brains of cows, sheep, and other diurnal animals, pineal glands can be harvested and the melatonin extracted. Though the rest of the animal is not wasted, harvesting this gland is not a cost-effective process. Additionally, viruses found in the brains of animals can cause disease in humans, so natural melatonin gathered from animal sources is not generally used anymore.
Nowadays, natural melatonin is not available in most of the world. Companies that package this drug as natural usually use synthetic melatonin that does not include preservatives, dyes, or additives. This type of melatonin is made in a laboratory and is not derived from natural sources.
Aside from real melatonin, there are a number of herbal alternatives that are sometimes labeled as natural melatonin. Extracts from plants in the grass family are used in some medicines instead of animal-based melatonin. These extracts are often labeled as "Gramineae," which is the plant family in which these grasses are found.
Synthetic and natural melatonin is often used by people who have difficulty sleeping. It can help people get over jet lag more quickly as well as those who have long-term sleeping problems. As the melatonin production decreases in the pineal gland with age, a person may supplement their natural supply of this hormone with a melatonin pill.