Older people typically exhibit poor sleep efficiency and reduced nocturnal plasma melatonin levels. The daytime administration of oral melatonin to younger people, in doses that raise their plasma melatonin levels to the nocturnal range, can accelerate sleep onset. We examined the ability of similar, physiological doses to restore nighttime melatonin levels and sleep efficiency in insomniac subjects over 50 yr old. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, subjects who slept normally (n = 15) or exhibited actigraphically confirmed decreases in sleep efficiency (n = 15) received, in randomized order, a placebo and three melatonin doses (0.1, 0.3, and 3.0 mg) orally 30 min before bedtime for a week. Treatments were separated by 1-wk washout periods. Sleep data were obtained by polysomnography on the last three nights of each treatment period. The physiologic melatonin dose (0.3 mg) restored sleep efficiency (P < 0.0001), acting principally in the midthird of the night; it also elevated plasma melatonin levels (P < 0.0008) to normal. The pharmacologic dose (3.0 mg), like the lowest dose (0.1 mg), also improved sleep; however, it induced hypothermia and caused plasma melatonin to remain elevated into the daylight hours. Although control subjects, like insomniacs, had low melatonin levels, their sleep was unaffected by any melatonin dose.