Sleep. Many of us don’t get enough of it. According to the CDC, over one third of adults in the United States routinely get less than the optimal 7 hours of sleep per 24-hour period. With short sleepers more likely to report chronic health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, COPD, arthritis, depression, and obesity; incorporating effective sleep solutions is the foundation of a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
One solution that three million Americans have turned to is melatonin. But what is it? And how does it benefit your health?
Melatonin Promotes a Healthy Circadian Rhythm
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that your brain produces as a response to darkness. After sunset, usually around 9 pm, the pineal gland is activated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a control center in the hypothalamus that regulates hormones and body temperature.
When the body is exposed to darkness, the SCN releases melatonin into the bloodstream, inducing relaxation and sleep. Melatonin levels stay elevated through the night for roughly 12 hours, until our bodies are exposed to light at the start of each day. At this point, the SCN halts melatonin production and, instead, begins producing cortisol and raising the body temperature for anticipated daily activity.
This sleep-wake cycle is most commonly known as the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and the timing can vary per individual. Most people produce enough melatonin on their own to induce rest. However, modern activities like excess travel, stress, screen time, and night schedules disrupt this natural rhythm, leading to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Supplemental melatonin may be a solution.
Who can benefit from supplementing with melatonin?
People with limited daytime light exposure: Even as a daytime worker, direct and natural light is limited if you work in an enclosed, industrialized environment. Exposure to light in the morning is what tells the body to switch from producing the sleepy, melatonin hormone to activity-producing cortisol. However subtle, this is enough of a disruption to the body’s natural rhythm to cause a sleep imbalance, making it more difficult to fall asleep at a preferred time.
People with increased light exposure at night: As night falls, we continue to cling to active daytime settings with artificial lighting and bright screens on our tv’s, computers, phones, and tablets. While limiting our exposure to light after sunset might not always be an option, supplementing with melatonin to help keep your body clock on time for a restful night’s sleep is.
People with jet lag: Most long-distance travelers have experienced jet lag, a common and temporary sleep disruption caused by crossing multiple time zones in a short period of time. These time changes cause the body’s biological clock to get confused about when to stimulate melatonin, resulting in disrupted sleep patterns until it can adjust. Melatonin is a favorite tool amongst frequent travelers, as it quickly helps them reset their clock and get adequate amounts of sleep while on the go.
People doing shift work: Chronic night shift workers might be able to train their bodies to a new circadian rhythm in as little as a week, but they aren’t without disruption. Adults who have worked night shifts for over two years have altered thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) profiles, reduced cortisol secretion, and a disturbed endocrine circadian rhythm. According to International Classifications of Sleep Disorders, this is considered Shift Work Disorder.
Melatonin for Immunity
Research suggests that melatonin is not only a good sleep remedy, it might also play an important role as an immune buffer. One study examines how melatonin may act as a stimulant for immunosuppressed conditions, helping the body better respond to external threats like viruses and parasites. On the other hand, the study finds melatonin can regulate overactive responses as well, such as that found in septic shock, acting as an anti-inflammatory. “Therefore, we have coined the termed immunological buffer in an attempt to define the pleiotropic, varied and complex effects of melatonin on the immune system in the most accurate way,” concludes the study.
Which form of melatonin is right for me?
Melatonin (2.5 mg) Sublingual Tablets – As a proficient free-radical scavenger, sublingual melatonin can permeate any cell in any part of the body. Sublingual forms may be easier to dissolve for people who have difficulty swallowing pills. Starting at a lower dose may be good for those beginning to experiment with melatonin.
Melatonin (5 mg) Softgels – Delivering a higher dosage than sublingual tablets, these easy-to-swallow softgels may be the better option if you want a bigger bang for your buck. If you don’t mind swallowing pills or require a higher dose of melatonin, this may be the safe and natural sleep enhancer you need.
Melatonin (3 mg) Prolonged-Release – Getting to sleep and staying asleep are two different things. With an extended release, melatonin can be delivered over a prolonged time period, making it an ideal option for those who struggle with staying asleep for six to eight hours. This may be the right option for you if you find yourself waking up at night, struggling to get back to sleep.
Dosage: Standard dosage of 1-3 mg taken one to two hours before bed is ideal to start. For jet lag, you can take melatonin 2 hours before bed at your destination a few days before you arrive to train the body to the new sleep schedule.
Safety Considerations and Contraindications
More doctors are recommending melatonin to be used at night as a safe alternative to sleep aid medications, but there are considerations needed to use melatonin safely.
Consult your doctor before taking melatonin if you are:
Under 18 years old
Pregnant or nursing
Taking prescription medication
Taking hormone replacement therapy
Driving or operating heavy machinery
Taking MAO inhibitor drugs or corticosteroids
You have an autoimmune disease or condition such as:
Long-term use of melatonin has not been studied. Consult your healthcare provider to see if melatonin may be a good option for you.