Melatonin is a chemical (a hormone) made naturally in your body that plays a role in your sleep. It is produced primarily by a tiny gland in your brain called the pineal gland and to a lesser extent by a few other organs including your retina. Which is interesting because the pineal gland, which used to be called the “third eye” and “seat of the soul,” contains optical tissue and has receptors for light. Your eyes are the primary way that you receive circadian signals from your environment. Your senses help you survive within your environment. When the receptors in your eyes receive light waves, natural and/or artificial, it affects your body’s biological circadian rhythm so that the pineal gland slows down its production of melatonin. This helps you to wake up, become alert, and to function thoughtfully. Later in the day, when light decreases, these same receptors start stimulating the pineal gland to release more melatonin. This hormone (melatonin) helps you become sleepy and to fall asleep when it’s dark. This is important because good sleep is essential to human health. If affects not only our physical health but our mental health as well. For example, have you ever noticed how cranky a child gets if they’re way too sleepy? Some even have a mini meltdown right before they just simply fall asleep right there wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. As adults, we have learned to force ourselves to stay awake and keep working till we literally burn out, physically and emotionally. That’s when things get ugly. Our work suffers. Our relationships suffer. We suffer. Melatonin can help. It has helped millions of people.
Many people take melatonin to treat their insomnia, jet lag or shift-work disorder. Insomnia is a sleep disorder where it’s just hard for you to fall asleep, you can’t sleep for very long, you wake up several times during the night, and/or you wake up still feeling tired. Jet lag is where your body is having a hard time adjusting to a new environment: a new time zone, a new climate, new lights, and noises, etc. Anyone who works odd shifts will tell you how hard it is to adapt to a new schedule and any new parent or pet owner will tell you the same thing. Sleep? What’s sleep? Who gets that anymore? A lack of good sleep can lead to depression, weight gain, irritability, decreased daytime performance, and maybe even reduce your body’s ability to fight off infection. It’s just hard to get anything done when you’re sleep deprived.
Age is a known factor that decreases the amount of melatonin produced by the body naturally so those over 50 may need to take a supplement. Pain is another issue that affects sleep. Having a product that contains both melatonin and a pain reliever, may be your best option. Many older adults are also on prescription medications. Be sure to talk to your doctor about melatonin, drug interactions, and dosing. You may find it useful to use a journal to keep track of your medications, supplements, and how you feel physically and emotionally. Take this journal to your doctor’s visit and use it to find what works best for you.
There are a few things you can do to improve your body’s natural ability to sleep. The first thing you should do is create a scheduled light-dark pattern for your daily/nightly routine. One of the best ways, in this age of technology & artificial lighting, is to decrease the time you spend on electronics and to turn down the artificial lights a few hours before bedtime. This will decrease the amount of light waves hitting the receptors in your eyes which will, in turn, increase the amount of melatonin produced naturally by that tiny gland in your brain. Make your bedroom as dark as you can, keep it at a cooler, comfortable temperature. Make sure the bedding, blankets, and pillows are clean and cozy. Light some candles and play some background music or white noise. Do not bring your devices to bed with you. If you do, make sure you turn down the device’s light to a “nighttime” level. The light from your device causes your brain to think it’s still daytime. It will not release the melatonin that your body produces naturally so it will be harder for you to fall asleep.
Melatonin has a very good safety profile and works well for many adults. Occasionally, it is used in children as well. Be sure to talk to your primary care physician or pediatrician if you’re planning to take it or give it to your children. The side effects and risks are minimal but include headaches, nightmares, stomach aches and cramps, irritability, and daytime sleepiness. If any of these occur, you may need to decrease the dosage, take it at a different time, or with food and plenty of water. Some research says that melatonin may affect the way we metabolize our food so you should wait at least 2 hours after dinner to take it. Everyone is different. It may take some time to find your sweet sleep spot.
The good news is that melatonin may not only be good for sleep but may also work as an antioxidant, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, detoxifier and for its immune-enhancing and anticancer properties thereby supporting overall health in general.