Melatonin has received a fair amount of press in the last few years as a natural “magic bullet” for healthy sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, use of melatonin more than doubled between 2007 and 2012, with an estimated 3.065 million adults reporting taken melatonin during the past 30 days a. But, is melatonin really a cure for all sleep problems?
What is melatonin?
So, what is melatonin anyway? Melatonin is a hormone, or chemical messenger, produced by the pineal gland, a small gland in your brain. Melatonin is one of the regulators of the so-called circadian rhythm or biological processes that show a 24-hour cycle. Some of these processes include metabolism, blood pressure, and sleep-wake timing.
Melatonin is available as an over-the-counter supplement. It is also found in some foods such as oranges, bananas, pineapples, olive oil, rice and cereals.
How does melatonin work?
Light intensity is a signal that our body uses to regulate the levels of melatonin in the body. As the intensity of the light diminishes at the end of the day, melatonin levels increase. We can think of melatonin as a switch that tells the body “time to sleep!”.
One interesting consequence of this mechanism is that exposure to artificial light suppresses the onset and duration of melatonin production h. This fact helps explain how our modern lives impact sleep quality. If you are experiencing problems falling and staying asleep, consider reducing your late-day exposure to artificial light, including light from electronic devices. If you cannot avoid exposure to artificial light at night, research suggests melatonin supplements may counterbalance the negative impact of artificial light.
When is melatonin useful?
Although melatonin has not been found to be helpful in all cases of insomnia, melatonin supplements can be useful resetting sleep-wake cycles in some of the following situations.
Use of melatonin has been found effective in preventing or reducing the effects of jet lag. According to the latest analysis of the literature e, adult travelers flying across five or more time zones, especially if done in the easterly direction, would benefit from short use of melatonin to help them re-set their biological clocks.
The non-24 sleep disorder is characterized by a lack of synchronization between the individual’s biological clock and their environment. Since the wake-sleep cycle is kept in check using light-dark cues from the environment, non-24 is most commonly found in blind people with no light perception. Melatonin or melatonin-like medications have been found useful in resetting the internal clock in non-24 individuals.
The levels of melatonin that our own bodies produce declines steadily with age. Perhaps not surprisingly, data support the use of low doses of melatonin in older individuals to improve sleep g.
Which melatonin to use?
This is not a trivial question, as the results of a recent study indicate f. According to these results, 71% of the supplements did not meet melatonin concentration within a 10% margin of the label claim. The actual content ranged from 83 percent less to 478 percent more than the concentration declared on the label. In addition, some of these supplements also contained undeclared amounts of serotonin, another neuroactive compound.
Bottom line: Do some research, try to improve your sleep hygiene, and consult your medical professional before using melatonin.
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Additional Resources and Literature Cited
The following are some additional resources on melatonin, sleep, and insomnia
a. Clark et al. “Trends in the Use of Complementary Health Approaches Among Adults: United States, 2002–2012” Natl Health Stat Report. 2015 Feb 10; (79): 1–16.
f. Erland and Saxena, “Melatonin Natural Health Products and Supplements: Presence of Serotonin and Significant Variability of Melatonin Content.” J Clin Sleep Med. 2017 Feb 15;13(2):275-281. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.6462