Do you sleep soundly every night? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 35% of U.S. adults do not get enough sleep on a regular basis! If you’ve ever looked for a solution for your sleep struggle, you’ve probably heard about melatonin. It’s a hormone produced naturally in various parts of the body, but primarily in the pineal gland (located near the center of the brain). Melatonin is also a widely available and commonly used dietary supplement that may provide relief from specific sleep disorders.
Here’s how melatonin works in the body. When the hypothalamus (in the brain) receives a signal from your retinas (in your eyes) that nighttime is imminent (i.e., darkness in your environment), it signals the pineal gland to release melatonin. Once melatonin enters your blood and cerebrospinal fluid, it travels to distant parts of the body where it acts as a chemical messenger, signaling bodily changes that accompany sleep. An end-of-day spike in melatonin usually occurs when darkness approaches (around 9 pm), and blood levels remain elevated for about twelve hours thereafter. When your melatonin levels rise during nighttime, you may begin to feel less alert. Your age and prior sleeping habits play a role in the time of day when melatonin is released and how much is released.
Melatonin is the key regulator of your circadian rhythm, also known as your sleep/wake cycle. Think of your circadian rhythm as a 24 and ¼ hour clock that runs constantly in the background of your brain. It’s responsible for why you feel particularly alert or sleepy at the same time each day. As such, if something inhibits your body’s melatonin production or your body does not produce melatonin when needed most, the sleep portion of this cycle might be disrupted. Light—dim, bright, and from electronic devices—is understood to be a strong inhibitor of melatonin production. Without darkness, and the subsequent brain signal that nighttime is approaching, the release of melatonin may not happen properly. Avoiding light and light-emitting electronic devices (televisions, smartphones, computers, tablets) and adjusting your bedroom environment to ensure darkness is the best way to circumvent this problem. Many people find success with blackout curtains and window shades, especially if they work night shifts and need to sleep during the day.
There are a few situations in which melatonin supplements can assist in adjusting the body’s circadian rhythm. People with jet lag are likely to benefit most. Findings are positive, but largely inconclusive, for those with insomnia and disordered sleep from shift work. In these cases, the body’s sleep/wake cycle needs readjusting, and melatonin supplements can stand in for the body’s own supply. There are a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about supplementing your body’s naturally produced melatonin:
- Be cautious of drug interactions with melatonin supplements. Melatonin inhibits the breakdown of MAOIs, which can lead to a buildup of MAOI drugs in the body. Melatonin may also interact with blood pressure, diabetes, and blood thinning medication.
- High doses of melatonin are not more effective than low doses of melatonin. Melatonin supplements are available in doses from 0.3mg to 10mg. Health professionals recommend a one-to-three milligram dose two hours before bedtime for people with altered circadian rhythm.
- Stop taking melatonin if you do not experience any benefits (improved sleep timing) within 7-14 days.
- Melatonin is meant for short-term use to adjust the body’s sleep/wake cycle. Don’t plan on using a melatonin supplement for longer than one-to-two months.
- Side effects are uncommon but may include drowsiness, headache, dizziness, or nausea. So, only take melatonin if you plan on falling asleep.
- Melatonin is non-habit forming and you can safely discontinue use whenever you see fit.
If you’re someone who struggles with getting enough sleep, turning to a melatonin supplement might seem appealing. The reality is that melatonin supplements are only likely to help if you’re experiencing sleep disruption related to the body’s circadian rhythm. Instead, consider checking in on your sleep habits. Do you use electronic devices or consume caffeine too close to bedtime? Is your sleeping environment bright, noisy, or too warm? Follow healthy sleep habits to make the most of your body’s melatonin:
- Sleep only as much needed to feel rested, then get out of bed.
- Keep the bed for sleeping only–avoid doing work, watching television, and even reading in bed–it trains the brain to be awake when you’re in bed instead of sleeping.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule, aiming to sleep and wake at the same time daily.
- Avoid light and electronic devices that emit light before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeinated foods and beverages after 2 pm, including coffee, tea (green, matcha, oolong, black, and white), soft drinks, energy drinks, and dark chocolate.
- Avoid alcohol near bedtime.
- Adjust your bedroom environment so it’s dark and quiet.
- Avoid extremes of temperature in your sleeping environment.