8 Dec 2023

Melatonin users buying from overseas

From Morning Report, 7:48 am on 8 December 2023
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New Zealanders who are using melatonin to help them sleep are buying from overseas to get more options and a cheaper deal.   

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the body which has a role in sleep cycles. A synthetic version is available in New Zealand under prescription.

Chanelle Moriah is autistic and has a prescription for melatonin.

"I struggle to get quality sleep, so I do sleep, but I wake up exhausted all the time and I struggle to stay asleep. My melatonin kind of just helps me slow down a little bit and I actually stay asleep through the night."

Discussion of melatonin is common in communities set up to support neurodivergent people, and often the topic turns to where to get it.

About 50-80 percent of autistic people and some 20-70 percent of those with ADHD experience sleep difficulties, College of Psychiatrists NZ Chair Dr Hiran Thabrew said.

Melatonin is funded for people under 18, but for everyone else a pack of 30 pills costs about $20. Overseas a 180-tablet pack sells for the same price.

In many countries, it is regulated as a supplement, rather than being classed as a medication as in New Zealand, and there is greater choice.

Moriah gets their melatonin from a pharmacy but said other options were harder to come by.

"Getting it in other forms like gummy is a lot harder to do in New Zealand. So, if you want gummies, you have to import them."

Some websites people could previously buy from have recently stopped shipping to New Zealand.

Pharmacist Catherine Crofts said discussions around importing melatonin supplements had been around for years, but there was one drawback.

"We know that in the medicinal sale of melatonin it contains exactly 1 milligram of melatonin in every single capsule, whereas the supplement grade product it'll be 1 milligram of melatonin, give or take."

Dr Thabrew said that could be an issue.

"Children and adolescents, a low dose melatonin is what's needed to get to sleep, not high dose melatonin. Actually, it’s the same for adults as well. So, you want to try and get the right dose."

Dr Thabrew said people should try behavioural change for sleep issues before going to medication, but people with conditions like ADHD and autism could find melatonin very helpful.

"It can be a helpful medication when started at the right time and under supervision so that you know you've tried what else you need to and that you're doing all the other things alongside the medication to get you the best night's sleep."

Croft said people had to be aware of what they were buying online.

"Do you want high-quality medicine which in New Zealand may or may not come as the cherry-flavoured chewable option or are you happy with a supplement that you cannot guarantee exactly how much is in each dose?"   

Pharmac provided RNZ with a statement saying it had not received a funding application for melatonin for people over the age of 18 with neurodevelopmental disorders.

It said applications could be submitted by healthcare professionals, suppliers and individual New Zealanders.