We examined effects of very low doses of melatonin (0.1-10 mg, orally) or placebo, administered at 1145 h, on sleep latency and duration, mood, performance, oral temperature, and changes in serum melatonin levels in 20 healthy male volunteers. A repeated-measure double-blind Latin square design was used. Subjects completed a battery of tests designed to assess mood and performance between 0930 and 1730 h. The sedative-like effects of melatonin were assessed by a simple sleep test: at 1330 h subjects were asked to hold a positive pressure switch in each hand and to relax with eyes closed while reclining in a quiet darkened room. Latency and duration of switch release, indicators of sleep, were measured. Areas under the time-melatonin concentration curve varied in proportion to the different melatonin doses ingested, and the 0.1- and 0.3-mg doses generated peak serum melatonin levels that were within the normal range of nocturnal melatonin levels in untreated people. All melatonin doses tested significantly increased sleep duration, as well as self-reported sleepiness and fatigue, relative to placebo. Moreover, all of the doses significantly decreased sleep-onset latency, oral temperature, and the number of correct responses on the Wilkinson auditory vigilance task. These data indicate that orally administered melatonin can be a highly potent hypnotic agent; they also suggest that the physiological increase in serum melatonin levels, which occurs around 2100 h daily, may constitute a signal initiating normal sleep onset.