Why Melatonin Matters
First – what is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that controls your body’s sleep-wake cycles, also known as your circadian rhythm. Melatonin tells you when you’re tired at night and when it’s time to wake up in the morning. Essentially, the more melatonin in your body, the sleepier you feel. As Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of Sleep School explains, “Melatonin is the sleep hormone. It’s released by the pineal gland of the brain, which is an endocrine gland located in the middle of the brain. Melatonin production is brought on by increased darkness. The light sensitive cells in your eyes are able to detect changes in light, which, via your body clock, instruct the pineal gland to release melatonin. When all is working as it should, melatonin puts your body into a state of quiet wakefulness that promotes sleep.” In a nutshell, it’s why you feel sleepy when sat in a dark room, such as a cinema, even in the middle of the day, and explains why blackout blinds are so effective.
So, if you struggle to sleep, does that mean your melatonin is out of balance?
Quite possibly. “If you’re struggling to sleep and wake at the right times, and regularly feel unrefreshed or sluggish, your melatonin levels could be out of whack,” says Guy. Hormone expert Dr Martin Kinsella adds that occasional insomnia and waking early – typically in the early hours of the morning – can also be signs of unbalanced melatonin levels.
Why might this happen?
As Linda Geddes, author of Chasing The Sun explains, light exposure and digital devices are wreaking havoc with your body clock. The body has natural rhythms to wake us up and put us to sleep. In the morning, our cortisol levels rise to wake us up – cortisol at this point in the morning is a good thing as it makes us alert. Then, as the sun sets, our eyes register the changing light and melatonin is released, helping us feel sleepy. “If you think back to a time before electricity, this worked perfectly,” says Linda. “Until the 19th century, the only source of light at night came from burning materials such as oil and wood, and the light from these was relatively dim,” Linda says. “People also spent more of their day outdoors, which is what is needed to maintain a robust circadian rhythm. Today, however, we light up our evenings with electric lights and digital devices, and spend most of the day indoors, where even on a rainy day, it’s far gloomier indoors than it is outdoors. When our light exposure is more similar during the day and night, our circadian rhythms begin to flatten. Plus, if you see bright light at night – such as from a lamp or screen – your rhythms will shift later, making it harder to fall asleep.” Guy adds that research shows being on your phone or laptop within two hours of bedtime inhibits melatonin production, resulting in delayed sleep onset and disturbed sleep.
What about diet?
What you eat at the end of the day can have a beneficial effect on your melatonin levels, preparing you for a good night’s sleep, says Martin. “Eating foods that have a high amount of naturally occurring melatonin is an easy lifestyle change to make,” he says. “If you are struggling with your sleep or feel sluggish during the day, eat more cherries, asparagus, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, goji berries and eggs. Reducing caffeine during the day will also help, as caffeine directly affects melatonin.” Walnuts and almonds have also been shown to raise melatonin levels in the blood while Italian researchers have speculated that the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet may derive its power partly from the melatonin content in plants. Hormone expert Dr Marion Gluck adds that eating foods rich in l-tryptophan – an amino acid which is a pre-cursor to serotonin and melatonin – can also help you feel sleepy. “Foods rich in l-tryptophan include free-range organic eggs, organic dairy products, free-range poultry, wild salmon, oats, brown rice, quinoa, legumes, pumpkin seeds and bananas.” When you eat also matters. Research shows that when you eat at irregular times, your body clock gets out of sync, so aim to eat meals at roughly the same time each day, and always aim to leave at least two hours between finishing dinner and going to bed.
Is there anything else you can do during the day to support optimal melatonin levels?
Exposing yourself to light first thing in the morning can help, says Marion. “You need bright light in the morning to reset your body clock, and studies show this seems to work best with natural light,” she advises. If you’re a morning person, consider taking your workout outside first thing, but if you constantly hit snooze, even opening your curtains as soon as you can will make a difference. Conversely, keep your evenings as dim as possible, Linda recommends. “It doesn’t have to be candles, but warmer, dimmer lighting will make a difference.” Bonus points if you can get your hands on a pair of blue light-blocking glasses, says Guy.
Can you take melatonin as a supplement?
In the US, melatonin is widely available in supplement form, but here in the UK, it’s only available on prescription and typically only for adults over the age of 55. However, under special circumstances, it can be prescribed to younger people. If you think you could benefit, Guy recommends popping to your GP for a saliva test, the only way to detect low melatonin levels. “If your GP recommends you take melatonin, you will start with a daily dose of 0.5 to 3mg. In terms of side effects, it depends on your dose. If a higher dose than what is recommended is taken, it’s likely that daytime sleepiness will increase. This can lead to a lack of concentration, headaches and dizziness.” Marion adds that melatonin is also very different from the average sleeping pill. “Melatonin is generally safe as unlike with other sleep medications; you are unlikely to become dependent or have a diminished response after repeated use. Its usage, however, must be monitored by your doctor.” she says.
For more information visit MarionGluckClinic.com, SleepSchool.org and Re-Enhance.com
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