Melatonin is a natural hormone produced in the body by the pineal gland, and it plays a vital role in sleep. You will also find melatonin available in pharmacies as an over-the-counter supplement and can be prescribed for sleep disorders.
As sleep has significant effect on both our mental and physical health, it is no wonder we are on the lookout for a solution that will help us regulate our sleep patterns. Unfortunately, many are unable to get a good night sleep, and we are not just talking about finding it difficult to get out of the bed two or three mornings in a row – people deal with far more serious issues.
How common are sleep disorders?
According to ASA (American Sleep Association), between 50 and 70 million adults struggle with sleep disorders in the U.S. alone. Almost 40% of all people between the ages of 20 and 39 report short sleep deprivation, as well as 40% of people between the ages of 40 and 59.
Insomnia takes the lead as the most common sleep disorder, and more than 25 million U.S. adults have obstructive sleep apnea.
In some instances, our sleep patterns may be disturbed with bad sleep hygiene, which includes going to bed at different times each night, sleeping with any kind of light on, afternoon naps, etc. Still, even those who take good care of their sleep hygiene may not just find it difficult to fall asleep, but also have trouble staying asleep.
Here enters melatonin.
The most recent statistics indicate that 3.1 million adults in the U.S. used melatonin sometime in their life. In fact, the use of this over-the-counter sleep supplement has more than doubled in the period between 2007 and 2012, and we can expect to see its popularity rise even higher.
Let’s see why.
What is melatonin
As already mentioned, we can define melatonin as a natural hormone which plays crucial role in sleep. It is produced by the pineal gland which is located above the middle of the brain. Melatonin used as a medicine is created synthetically in a laboratory, most commonly in a form of a pill.
Generally speaking, melatonin helps regulate our circadian rhythm. Some refer to it as a natural pacemaker, which signals not only time of day, but also year, that way aiding in the regulation of our internal clock.
What affects melatonin production
The production of melatonin in our body primarily depends on the time of day – light is the switch that controls it: turn it on, and melatonin production stops; turn the lights off, and hormone levels begin to rise about 2 hours before our bedtime, making us feel sleepy. Light actually pushes pineal gland in an inactive state. The gland then activates once again as the sun goes down, and for about 12 hours our blood levels stay elevated, all the way until the morning light when our natural melatonin levels reach the lowest point.
Yet, certain medicine, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol can cause melatonin deficiency. Numerous factors affect the optimality of our sleep patterns, which in some instances requires melatonin supplementation through medicine or food.
But more on that later, let’s first look at all the factors which affect the quality of our sleep.
What regulates sleep
Sleep is largely affected by our exposure to darkness. When we are exposed to light, retina in the eye sends signals to a special center in the brain – suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which performs functions that affect our entire body. From here on, our body receives information used to control hormones, body temperature and other functions crucial to our feelings of sleepiness or alertness.
There are two pathways that regulate sleep:
- Homeostatic drive – The longer you stay awake during the day, the sleepier you are at night;
- Circadian rhythm – In humans, it is natural to feel sleepy two times a day, somewhere around noon (which is why in some cultures people take siesta) and around 9 and 10 in the evening.
Blue light, especially, can affect the quality of our sleep, suppressing melatonin levels. It is emitted by screens, like TV, computer, or mobile device screen. On the other hand, red light is highly unlikely to affect melatonin levels, thus being ideal for nightlights.
It is also important to mention cortisol, a stress hormone which operates on the opposite cycle than melatonin. It increases in the morning and decreases during the night. When we are under greater amount of stress, more cortisol is released into our body at night, what may cause hormone misalignment and our inability to fall and stay asleep.
But even if we do care for our sleep hygiene and still cannot regulate sleep, how can melatonin help?
What is melatonin used for
Melatonin is a common over-the-counter sleep supplement, usually prescribed as a sleep aid. However, know that some experts highlight that melatonin is not a sleep initiator, but regulator.
Among melatonin benefits we can list helping with certain sleep disorders, including (but not limited to) jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorder, sleep problems caused by working in shifts, and insomnia.
Maybe it’s better to look at the most common sleep disorders individually:
In the past, melatonin proved to reduce the time it takes for people to go to sleep. However, note that it cannot be considered a cure, since these natural sleep supplements can help us fall asleep, but cannot keep us asleep.
- Jet lag
Jet lag comes as a result of rapid travel across several time zones. People suffering from it not only struggle with disturbed sleep, but also fatigue during daytime and indigestion. We’ve already published a piece which discusses whether eyedrops could cure jet lag, but can melatonin help as well? Certainly, it can aid in both the prevention and reduction of jet lag symptoms, especially for travelers flying in an easterly direction.
- Delayed sleep phase disorder
It reflects in a person’s inability to fall asleep before 2 a.m. and trouble waking up in the morning. Both children and adults can suffer from it. Though melatonin cannot help cure delayed sleep phase disorder completely, studies showed that it is effective in advancing sleep-wake rhythm.
- Shift work disorder
Shift work disorder is common with people who work the infamous night, or third shift, which disrupts our internal clock. Melatonin showed to improve daytime sleep quality and duration, as a result allowing us to be more alert during the night. In addition to melatonin, light therapy helps shift workers adjust to irregular schedules, as well as caffeine taken in a form of a preferred beverage that helps us stay alert.
Insomnia is defined as an inability to fall and stay asleep. There are numerous causes of this sleep disorder, and evidence show melatonin helps treat insomnia induced by high blood pressure and certain developmental disorders, including ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, as well as some intellectual disabilities.
In recent years, stress has become one of the modern age diseases which greatly affect our sleep pattern.
The majority of adults continually report high levels of stress, and numbers show that, on average, 1 in 75 people can experience panic disorder. Consequently, many studies have been focused on discovering (natural) remedies which could possibly bring this number down to a minimum. Melatonin proved to aid in treating depressive symptoms, stress and anxiety, all which tend to result in circadian disturbances.
Less common melatonin uses
Melatonin also showed to be beneficial for blind people with sleep disorder that causes changes in their sleep and wake times. Namely, light sensitive receptors that are located in our brain start melatonin hormone production, and since they don’t perform this function in people with visual impairment, natural sleep supplements may serve as the required trigger.
Sunburn can be prevented or minimized if melatonin is applied to the skin before sun exposure. Actually, a research published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine shows that melatonin is more effective in protecting from UV radiation than other common antioxidants.
Finally, it can be prescribed to some patients who are about to undergo surgery before anesthesia to calm them.
Over the years, melatonin has been tested for treating a long list of health issues, but there are no definite results indicating its effect. Some are the following:
- Bipolar disorder
- Cancer care
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD)
- Lung disease
- Ringing in the ears
- Depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Mild mental impairments
- Nonalcoholic liver disease
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Restless leg syndrome
When should I take melatonin and how much melatonin can I take
It is important to remember that melatonin supplements may have different effect on two individuals – while it may work wonders for your friend, it may not help you at all. For this reason, there is no one recognized dose appropriate for different patients at this moment. Melatonin supplements should always be purchased in an established pharmacy and taken in amounts prescribed by your doctor.
Can you overdose on melatonin? So far, there are no records of melatonin overdose, but note that too much melatonin can cause bad dreams and grogginess the following day. Furthermore, excessive melatonin dosage can make other medicine you are taking less effective. Taking higher doses than recommended might result in daytime sleepiness, reduced physical performance and change in normal body temperature. Also, if melatonin is not taken at the right time of the day, a countereffect can be achieved – you can wind your body clock the wrong direction.
In a study conducted at MIT in 2001, researchers found that 0.3 mg of melatonin will suffice. Depending on an individual, their height, weight and some other physical traits, the safe and recommended dosage varies between 0.3 mg and 1 mg.
Ultimately, a physician is the one who determines how to take melatonin and the appropriate dosage.
And how long does it take for melatonin to kick in? That too, depends – mostly on the melatonin supplements you purchase and your physical state.
Is melatonin safe for kids?
Melatonin can also be supplemented through food, but in small amounts. Traces of this natural hormone can be found in:
These cannot affect melatonin levels significantly, so try combining them with foods rich in tryptophan which stimulates melatonin production naturally:
When it comes to beverages, you know better than to resort to drinks high in caffeine a few hours before you plan on going to bed, as these can lower your melatonin levels. On the other hand, wine contains notable amounts of this supplement, which is why you might feel sleepy after having a glass of chardonnay before going to sleep.
But before you resort to a glass of alcohol on an evening basis, know that you can also find melatonin tea available in reputable pharmacies that will slightly elevate your hormone levels and help relax before going to bed.
Numerous researches have been conducted on the use of melatonin, however, certain questions remain open to some extent, including long-term effects of melatonin, its influence on specific diseases and health issues, how it affects children, etc.
For this reason, people are not advised to take melatonin supplements on their own but rather after consulting with their physician. A professional will be able to better determine the therapy for a patient’s specific case.
Overall, long term melatonin usage is not recommended simply because there is no research which proves the specific effects it can have on the body or on long term use.