A lack of sleep is devastating to brain health and immune system. The hormone melatonin plays an important role in sleeping. Melatonin supplements appear to be a welcome aid for people with sleeping problems. But having them available as over-the-counter drugs for everyone, including children, is not such a good idea.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland, located close to the center of the brain. Although its existence was already known, it was only named in 1958. It took about forty years more for the first patent to be awarded for use of melatonin as a low dose sleeping aid. Since then, melatonin has gained fame as a wonder drug and sales of melatonin supplements have turned into a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
But it is still unclear whether this fame is well-deserved. Research into melatonin supplements as sleeping aids hasn’t turned out unambiguous results. General conclusions so far are that melatonin supplements offer little or no benefit for the sleep-deprived. Melatonin appears to help some people fall asleep sooner once they go to bed, but benefits are limited.
Some studies did encounter a positive effect for off-hour sleeping, for instance when working night shifts or suffering from jetlag. Supplements appear to be effective as a sleep aid during times when the body is not producing melatonin naturally.
Chemically, melatonin is synthesised within the body in four steps. The dietary amino acid tryptophan is the base material. This is transformed into serotonin, a famous neurotransmitter – chemical messenger – in our brains. Serotonin is eventually converted into melatonin, but only when it is dark.
Melatonin governs our sleep/wake cycle. You need it to fall asleep and to stay asleep. During daytime, blood levels of melatonin are almost undetectable. The pineal gland starts to produce melatonin as night falls. Production of melatonin peaks between 2.00 and 4.00 in the morning.
As the level of melatonin in the blood rises, body temperature falls slightly, and you will start to feel sleepy. Melatonin level starts falling again in the early morning, as daylight inhibits production by the pineal gland. That’s when you will wake up.
Melatonin is very important in the functioning of our biological clocks. It regulates processes of sleep quality, body temperature, blood pressure, and glucose levels. During the night, melatonin also lowers level of leptin, the satiety hormone. That’s why sleeping too long and thus having melatonin continuing to lower leptin levels may cause you to get fatter. Lower leptin level may make you go on eating.
Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant. It is very good at scavenging free-radicals, which may cause damage to cells. It has been seen to interact with the immune system as well, but researchers haven’t been able to find out yet what for.
Because its production is directly related to the amount of light in our surroundings, in winter it is so hard to get out of bed early. It is dark outside and melatonin production is still going on, which makes it hard to shake of the night’s slumber.
If your biological clock isn’t functioning well it is important to remain in areas with bright light during the day. A marked difference between day and night – that is between light and dark – improves the action of the biological clock. This is especially important for elderly people since melatonin production decreases with ageing. This makes elderly people more prone to a melatonin deficiency.
Our excessive use of electronic devices nowadays may also contribute to melatonin deficiency. The blue light emitted by devices with self-luminous ‘backlit’ displays suppresses melatonin. A two hour exposure lowers melatonin level by 22 percent, which will affect sleep. That’s why it is important to limit time spent using these devices prior to bedtime.
It is clear melatonin is indispensable. Exciting new research shows a role of melatonin in multiple sclerosis. It had already been known MS symptoms improve as days get shorter. Researchers in the US and Argentina have found out this may have to do with higher melatonin levels in winter time. Melatonin has a protective effect and dampens the response of the immune system. Further research may result in the development of drugs not only for MS but for other autoimmune disorders as well.
But what about those melatonin supplements that are freely available in some countries though many countries recognise melatonin as a neurohormone which can only be prescribed by a doctor? Melatonin supplements do have some nasty side effects, such as nausea, next day grogginess and irritability. They interact negatively with other medications.
The supplements can influence blood sugar resulting in a bigger risk of type 2 diabetes. Asthma patients shouldn’t be taking them since higher levels of melatonin can cause overnight loss of lung function. A study with zebrafish turned out taking extra melatonin could hurt memory formation at night.
Australian research showed providing melatonin supplements to children may result in serious side effects when children are older. The hormone for instance switches on a protein that brings on puberty. Since melatonin provides only small advances in the timing of sleep, it simply is not worth the risk to child and adolescent safety, the researchers concluded.
A lot about melatonin just isn’t known yet and people should be very careful taking supplements, even when they are being sold over-the-counter.
But there are other ways to help your body produce the melatonin it needs. Make sure you sleep in total darkness at night. Melatonin is present in certain foods. Add tart cherries, bananas, corn, rice, ginger root, mustard seeds, grains, asparagus, and tomatoes to your diet. Physical activity increases the production of melatonin. A safer and healthier way to raise your melatonin levels cannot be found!
Beating insomnia naturally
Insomnia has many different causes: stress, noise, medicines, hormones, depression, or pain. If you have trouble falling asleep don’t seek refuge in melatonin supplements or sleeping pills right away. Start with natural ways to attack the sleeplessness:
- Go to bed at about the same time every day and do the same with getting out of bed, also during weekends.
- Create a fixed bedtime routine. A sequence of activities like brushing your teeth, undressing, and assuming your favourite sleeping position, constitutes a signal for your brain it is time to go to sleep. You can even extend your routine with other activities like taking a short walk, taking a warm bath, meditating, or performing relaxation exercises.
- Make sure you get enough physical activity during the day and try to spend some time outside every day, in natural light.
- A siesta is good for you, but it shouldn’t last too long. Limit an afternoon nap to no more than ten to twenty minutes so it doesn’t affect your night-time sleep negatively.
- Learn to relax, for instance via breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga. When you have a very active mind, it may bring relief if you concentrate on a certain image like the sun or a flower, or a specific word and focus all your attention on it. This will help you chase off other thoughts. Above all, don’t worry about the fact that you are not able to fall asleep since that will surely keep you awake.
- To get the production of melatonin going, it is a good idea to dim all the lights in your home about an hour before your bedtime. If your family members complain, put on sun glasses for the same effect.
- If you wake up frequently during the night you may not have the right type of bed. Possibly your mattress is too hard or too soft; your bed base may be worn out; or your pillow may not give sufficient support. If you awaken regularly because you have to urinate be sure not to drink coffee and alcohol in the evening.
- If you are a light sleeper and wake up easily or when you have to sleep in a noisy environment you could try a white noise machine. Such a device produces a soothing, relaxing sound, such as of a breeze, the surf, or a waterfall, to drown the disturbing noise.
- When you stay awake for too long, get up and do something relaxing, like reading. After a short while, go back to bed and try again to fall asleep.
Melatonin-rich tart cherries © FomaA – Fotolia.com
Pineal gland © rob3000 – Fotolia.com
Multiple sclerosis © jameschipper – Fotolia.com
Alarm clock © Haver – Fotolia.com