The hormone melatonin promises more than just sound, natural sleep, it has powerful effects on other aspects of your health.
Americans have been turning to melatonin as a sleep aid, and as remedy for jet lag, for many years. So much so that today it ranks as one of the highest selling supplements across the United States. But here in Australia, we’re a little late to the somewhat soporific party, as melatonin only became available over the counter in Australian pharmacies in 2021.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is the natural hormone released by the brain in response to darkness. Produced by the pineal gland, located in the middle of the brain, and distributed through our bloodstream to reduce nerve activity, melatonin functions with the cycles of the sun to regulate circadian rhythms and synchronise our sleep cycle with night and day.
While it’s best known for assisting us to go to, and maintain, healthy sleep, a lack of which leads to a wide variety of health issues, this busy little hormone also has a role to play in managing immune function, blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Research suggests that, in Australia, more than 1.5 million Australians suffer from some type of sleep disorder. As someone who has been in a dysfunctional relationship with anything resembling sleep for decades, I’m one of them. I’m also the first person to put my hand up for anything that will help me get to, and more importantly, stay asleep. So of course, I tried melatonin and I have to say that the results were startling, because sleep and I are in the best place we’ve been in years. I’d even go as far as saying we’re almost friends!
But the success of the supplement begged the question why? I mean, if melatonin is produced naturally, why did I need to pay for it?
Let’s start with the obvious. The body’s natural production of melatonin tends to drop as we age, and despite living in denial most of the time, I am indeed getting on a bit. The reduction is exacerbated by not having enough sleep, but our modern lifestyle can also have a detrimental impact on melatonin with caffeine, alcohol, frequent travel across time zones, and long working hours also causing an impediment to its production.
Plus, studies have shown that electronic back-lit devices like cell phones, tablets and readers, especially used before bed, can suppress the production of melatonin. In my case, a few decades of uninterrupted insomnia could certainly be classified as not enough sleep, and as for those other red flags, I get straight As. Which in this case is a fail.
What happens if you’re lacking in melatonin?
Well, aside from that whole debilitating lack of sleep thing, a melatonin deficiency can result in anxiety and mood disorders. Decreased levels of melatonin, exceeding those observed during normal aging, have also been detected in neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia.
If you don’t like dentists, melatonin is your mate, as it plays a physiological role in building strong bones and teeth. Melatonin interacts with biologically female hormones and helps in the regulation of menstrual cycles, so an inadequate supply may affect fertility. There’s even been some evidence that melatonin can help repair and restore your skin while combating signs of stress and pollution and, though research is so far inconclusive, that it might even being helpful for migraine sufferers.
Experimental studies have also demonstrated that a disturbance to the internal circadian system through diminished melatonin can induce glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, -which can lead to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Something that provided a bit of a lightbulb moment for this sleep-sidestepping, frequent flying, insulin resistant individual.
Clearly my own melatonin is missing in action. Not particularly keen on relying on supplements, but somewhat concerned that without them I may be guilty of murdering what’s left of my naturally produced melatonin and dancing jauntily on its grave, I decided to delve deeper to see if there was a non-pharmaceutical white knight that might come to its rescue.
How to Boost Melatonin Naturally
The good news is that Melatonin can be boosted naturally. Here are some of the best ways to give yours a boost
Reduce artificial light exposure – Artificial light at night, especially fluorescent light, blocks melatonin production, so start switching off the lights at least an hour or two before you plan to go to bed.
Reduce screen time – The blue light emitted from televisions, smartphones, tablets and computer monitors can restrain the production of melatonin and disrupt your internal clock. Invest in blue light blocking glasses and disconnect from all devices at least an hour before bed.
Let the sunshine in – A little sunshine everyday helps serotonin levels, which is converted to melatonin after dark. Researchers recommend getting a 30-minute dose of sunlight within an hour of waking. It’s also vital for maintaining Vitamin D levels.
Cut back on coffee – Caffeine can not only reduce our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, but research has shown coffee can also disrupt melatonin production, so cut back and try not to drink it after midday.
Munch on melatonin – You can eat you way to better sleep with melatonin-rich foods. There are a variety of foods that are naturally high in melatonin. These are a few to add to your diet…
- Goji berries – Are a great source of naturally occurring melatonin. and also have anti-aging effects.
- Cherries – Though not all are created equal. Tart cherry varieties are especially high in melatonin.
- Nuts – Including almonds and pistachios, which are also packed with antioxidants, healthy omega-3 fats, and essential minerals.
- Bananas – They’re high in melatonin and rich in vitamin B6 and magnesium, which can also aid sleep.
- Oily fish – Salmon and sardines are amongst the best animal-based sources of melatonin and are also one of the best sources of essential long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
- Eggs – which also offer plenty of protein and iron, among other essential nutrients.
- Milk – best drunk warm before bed, just like grandma told you.
What about supplements?
Yes, you can buy melatonin over the counter now, but just because something is available doesn’t mean you should take it. While there are many studies showing supplemental melatonin can indeed improve sleep in many cases, and is generally safe for short-term use, it isn’t for everyone. We recommend speaking to a medical professional first about your needs, dosage and when to take it. Like anything, there are side effects. Taking too much melatonin, or consuming it at the wrong time, can disrupt your body’s natural cycle and can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and drowsiness.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your physical or mental health, seek immediate medical attention.