Melatonin: the missing link to your sleepless nights

Melatonin is available as supplements but before you pop one here are ways to naturally increase this hormone in your body

woman sleeping with many pills on her bedside table

Since it was first patented for use as a low-dose sleep aid in 1995, melatonin has become a popular non-prescription aid for our sleep-deprived population. And who would think twice when melatonin in native form is a naturally occurring hormone, produced by the body and found in multiple food sources? It seems like a no-strings-attached, knock-you-out, antidote to sleepless nights and groggy days. But all too frequently, melatonin is overused and misused once it passes over the counter.

Melatonin is a hormone which plays an integral role in circadian cycles and the regulation of sleep onset. Studies have proven judicious use of supplemental melatonin to be effective in easing jet lag and shift work sleep disruptions, maintaining sleep patterns in children with neurodevelopmental disabilities and in older adults with natural melatonin deficiencies.

In addition to sleep regulation, melatonin functions as an antioxidant, preventing cell damage and inflammation through elimination of free radicals. Recent studies have shown that melatonin, by virtue of these free-radical scavenging properties could even be responsible for reducing neuronal damage in cases of stroke, chemical toxicity, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

With all of this evidence stacked up in melatonin’s favour, why not head for the pharmacy to stock up on the supplement?

Here’s why you should think twice before buying a melatonin supplement

First, it’s important to recognise that your body produces its own melatonin. This endogenous supply is produced primarily by a small gland just above the centre of your brain, the pineal gland. Retinal [eyes], epithelial [skin], and intestinal cells also produce melatonin, but not in the form that regulates circadian rhythms. While external melatonin, whether from natural food sources or a supplement, interacts with your brain in the same way as the bodily form, the influx of the hormone can flood your system and offset your natural melatonin production.

When you purchase melatonin as a supplement in the pharmacy, you typically get a dose between 1 and 10mg. This is a dramatically large range which reflects the lack of regulation on production and sales. Melatonin is the only hormone in the United States available for purchase without a prescription. And the United States is one of the only western nations that allows non-prescriptive sales of the hormone. Because melatonin can be obtained through natural food sources, it is designated as a dietary supplement alongside vitamins and minerals. This designation absolves melatonin sales from FDA regulation, meaning that the factory-produced, synthetic hormone makes it to the shelf in doses that are much too large and with incredible variance in purity between brands.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, even taking anywhere from 1 to 3mg of melatonin can increase your blood melatonin levels to up to 20 times their normal value. This is problematic because melatonin in excess can cause grogginess and sleep inertia the following day. Sleep inertia is the physiological condition that persists between sleep and wakefulness, characterised by impaired cognitive, sensory motor acuity and persistent drowsiness. Melatonin production by the pineal gland is a single element in an eloquent symphony of hormonal regulation; cranking up the volume on any one contributor will throw off the balance of the entire ensemble and offset your body’s natural cadence. In most cases of insomnia and delayed sleep onset in adults, there is not enough evidence, particularly for long term intervention, to support melatonin supplementation.  It is far safer and more effective to promote the body’s natural ability to produce the hormone on its own.

So how do you make your body produce enough melatonin

In order to synthesize melatonin, your body needs access to all the right ingredients, the main one being tryptophan, an amino acid.  You may remember hearing this funny word around Thanksgiving, when turkey is held responsible for the drowsiness after the Thanksgiving meal.  And there’s something to this.  Turkey, like chicken, eggs, cheese, meat, is rich in tryptophan. In a series of reactions, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, which is then converted to melatonin.  But tryptophan isn’t the only ingredient needed to synthesize melatonin.  Other key players include vitamin B6 and co-enzyme A, a derivative of biotin and amino acid L-lysine.

Both tryptophan and lysine are essential amino acids, meaning they cannot be synthesized by the body and therefore must be obtained in the diet.  Foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, poultry, and eggs all contain high levels of tryptophan, lysine, and vitamin B6. You can also use supplements to obtain a balanced mix of these crucial ingredients. Adhering to a healthy diet rich in melatonin precursors will optimise your body’s ability to synthesize melatonin and naturally regulate consistent sleep-wake cycles.

More reasons to break the bad habits

For as much emphasis as you place on putting healthy fuels into your body, equal care should be given to keeping unhealthy substances out. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol all suppress melatonin production and will result in disrupted sleep patterns. Additionally, surges in blood sugar cause cortisol levels to spike and melatonin levels to plummet. So if you’re trying to kick a sweet-tooth induced habit, this is one more reason to do so.  And if you’re accustomed to grabbing a late-night snack, avoid the sweets and make sure it’s low in carbohydrates. Human physiology is dynamic and resilient.  Give your body its best shot at wellness and self-regulation by breaking these habits.

Exercise during the day, cut the lights at night

In general, exercise will improve the quality of your sleep, but exercising at night can decrease melatonin production and delay or prevent sleep onset. If possible, exercise during the morning [not at the expense of your sleep quantity] or in the afternoon. Adopting a consistent schedule will assist your body in regulating hormonal balance and maintaining circadian rhythms.

The most important way to promote your circadian rhythm and your body’s melatonin producing abilities is through regulation of light exposure. Light, registered as an electrical impulse, passes along a bundle of nerves from the eye to the brain, signaling and synchronizing circadian processes throughout the body. This electrical impulse deactivates the pineal gland, inhibiting melatonin.  However in the absence of light, the pineal gland is able to operate in high gear producing melatonin and promoting sleep onset and maintenance. It is important to establish a regular schedule that involves exposing yourself to bright light every morning and avoiding daylight spectrum and blue light within an hour of bedtime.  This means no TVs, tablets, phones, computers, or bright households lights.  Dim the lights and put away the electronics to set the stage for a sound night’s sleep.

While melatonin is a key element in sleep physiology, it is essential to consider supplemental melatonin with proper discernment.  If you regularly travel internationally, work night shifts, or if you’re over the age of 60 and have difficulty sleeping, with the consultation of your doctor, supplemental melatonin could be an effective alternative to prescription sleep aids.  However, before visiting the pharmacy, give your body a chance to produce and regulate an endogenous supply of melatonin by adopting a healthy diet, maintaining a regular schedule, and regulating your exposure to light.

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