Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the brain’s pineal gland. It regulates sleep and maintains the body’s natural biorhythms.
The Mechanism between the Pineal Gland and Melatonin
During the day, the pineal gland is inactive. When the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal is "turned on" and begins to actively produce melatonin, which is released into the blood. Usually, this occurs around 9 pm. As a result, melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert. Sleep becomes more inviting. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for about 12 hours - all through the night - before the light of a new day when they fall back to low daytime levels by about 9 am. Daytime levels of melatonin are barely detectable.
Melatonin works by suppressing neurons in the brain that keep you awake and alert. It's also important to note bright light at night will block melatonin production, which is why it's sometimes called the "Dracula of hormones" – it only comes out in the dark. Even if the pineal gland is switched "on" by your biological clock, it will not produce melatonin unless the person is in a dimly lit environment.
Surfing (electronically) Before Bed Interferes with Melatonin Levels
Devices with backlit displays, such as smartphones and tablets, cause melatonin suppression which can lead to delayed bedtimes and insufficient sleep. Exposure to a backlit display device for two hours can suppress melatonin production by almost 25%. Given that teenagers and young adults tend to keep long hours to begin as well as take their smartphones everywhere, you could see how sleeplessness could become a problem.
To combat this problem – until manufacturers start making more circadian-friendly devices – it is recommended that you not take your smartphone or tablet to bed. Shut it down at least one hour before bedtime and find other ways to wind down, like reading a book, or meditating. If you are going to take your smart device to bed, turn the brightness down as far as it will go.
When Melatonin May Help You
If you’re over 60 years old and have trouble sleeping: as we age, our body makes less melatonin. If you aren’t sleeping well, your body may need more assistance to sleep better. Check out Serene Dreamz, which contains melatonin and other nutrients involved in sleep support.
If you have a major shift in sleep schedule: because of melatonin’s control of our body clock (sleep-wake cycles), melatonin may be helpful for jet lag, disruptions of the body's internal "clock," insomnia, and problems with sleep among people who work night shifts. This melatonin spray is a convenient way to take melatonin.
If you get cluster headaches: melatonin has been found to reduce the incidence of cluster headaches and supports immune function.
Interesting Tidbits: melatonin is found naturally in foods such as tart cherries and tomatoes, which is why, even though it's a hormone, it can be sold as a supplement and not a drug. If you’re in the habit of having a midnight snack, a banana would be a good one since it can boost melatonin production. I've also been known to take a shot of tart cherry juice before bed, which supports quality and duration of sleep.
When To Avoid Melatonin
If you can’t sleep because of stress, anxiety, or depression: melatonin may not work because the problem isn’t your body’s ability to make its own melatonin. Find something to calm your body and distract your brain.
If you already took melatonin earlier that day: melatonin is so powerful and too much may actually disrupt your sleeping pattern. You may end up feeling even more groggy and unrested, and may have a hard time waking up.
If you’re using melatonin as a sleeping pill: melatonin isn’t a sleeping pill but many may mistake its power for that of a sleeping pill and feel compelled to take more for better sleep. However, at the wrong dosage, melatonin may actually destroy your sleep cycle. Too much melatonin at one time may also cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, or irritability.
Appropriate Melatonin Dosage
Taking a typical dose of 1-3 mg may elevate your blood melatonin levels to 1 to 20 times normal. For avoiding jet lag, consider 1-3 mg (sublingual form) dissolved under the tongue half an hour before you want to go to sleep at your arrival destination. If you prefer to take melatonin capsules, which are not as fast-acting, consider 1-3 mg 1½ hours before desired sleep time.
Caution With Melatonin
Melatonin may make you very sleepy and should only be taken at bedtime. Taking melatonin at the "wrong" time of day may reset your biological clock in an undesirable direction. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery after taking it. If you are taking any medication, have a serious illness, are pregnant, trying to become pregnant or breastfeeding, are diabetic, have a hormonal imbalance from another illness, or are menopausal and on hormone replacement therapy, melatonin should not be taken without consulting your doctor. Because it may overstimulate immune function, anyone with an autoimmune disease or on immune-suppressing medication should not take melatonin.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
1. National Sleep Foundation. Melatonin and Sleep.
2. RPInews.com, "Light From Self Luminous Tablet Computers Can Affect Evening Melatonin, Delaying Sleep" found here.