What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that helps control our sleep-wake cycle.
It is made by the pineal gland, a small gland in the brain. Normally, melatonin levels begin to rise during mid- to late evening, stay high for most of the night, and then decrease in the early morning. As we age, melatonin levels tend to drop. Some older adults make very small amounts of it or even none at all.
Melatonin is useful in treating jet lag, sleep problems, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and controlling sleep patterns for people who work night shifts. Melatonin is also helpful for patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia by improving sleep and reducing pain. Some research studies have demonstrated the role of melatonin in protecting healthy cells during cancer treatment, reducing the side effects of chemotherapy as well as slowing the development of cancer cells.
Can we boost our body’s melatonin levels through diet and lifestyle?
To maximise your body’s production of natural melatonin, there are several things you can do:
1) Minimise use of bright lights from around 7pm onwards. Once it gets dark outside, your pineal gland begins to produce and secrete melatonin. Continuously being exposed to light during the evening will affect melatonin levels and sleep. One study showed that melatonin was suppressed in preschool children who were exposed to bright light in the evening. In the study, one hour of bright-light exposure in the evening suppressed the children’s melatonin secretion by around 90% and these levels remained suppressed for up to 50 minutes after light exposure. This study was presented in June 2016 at the SLEEP 2016: 30th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.
2) Sleep in total darkness. Do not use night lights and get black-out blinds if you need to. Any light during sleep will disrupt your body’s melatonin production and stimulate the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, which has the opposite effect of melatonin.
3) Exercise regularly. Try to exercise during the daytime or at least 3 hours before bedtime.
4) Melatonin-boosting foods include cherries, walnuts, corn, oats, bananas and rice. Calcium is needed for melatonin production. Foods rich in calcium include green vegetables (e.g. kale, broccoli), almonds, dairy products, quinoa and fish with bones (e.g. sardines).
How can melatonin be taken as a supplement?
Melatonin is generally indicated for short-term use only. For jet lag, 2mg to 3 mg of melatonin can be taken around 1 hour before the desired sleep time. When purchasing melatonin, look for a sublingual melatonin supplement (i.e. a pill that dissolves under the tongue). Melatonin taken sublingually is directly and immediately released into the bloodstream. It has a higher bioavailability and faster onset of action. Melatonin should not be taken when eyes are exposed to bright light or the sun- This can disrupt the body’s biological clock because the body clock will receive conflicting daytime light signals and dark signals from melatonin. To treat other conditions, always consult a licensed naturopathic doctor or health care practitioner who is trained in nutraceuticals so that the appropriate usage and dosage can be given. If you are experiencing insomnia or sleep problems, always consult your health care practitioner before using nutraceuticals or pharmaceuticals.