What is Melatonin: An amino acid based hormone produced from serotonin in the pineal gland, the gut and skin. Its main function is regulating sleep and wake cycles. Researchers have also uncovered its role as a defense against the destructive hydroxyl free radical (damages the brain).
Our body’s circadian cycles, together with the amount of light, control when and how much melatonin we make. Since our caveman days, being active during the day when it is light and asleep during the darkness of night increased our survival chances. When everything is working well, melatonin levels rise during the evening, remaining high during sleep, and then begin to drop towards morning. At the same time, serotonin drops during the evening and then rises towards morning.
We produce more melatonin during the extended darkness of winter and less during summer. Correspondingly, we produce less serotonin during winter and more during summer. Which is why we can get the winter blues (serotonin is our happy hormone)
Melatonin and age
As we get older, we tend to produce less melatonin. Children generally secrete more melatonin than adults do. On average, by age 80 our melatonin levels are about 10% of what they were in our 20s. Research has shown that low melatonin levels do not always cause sleep problems however.
Melatonin’s relationship to light?
Our exposure to light and darkness is a key factor in our sleep. Exposure to light stimulates the hypothalamus through a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye. The hypothalamus coordinates many hormonal systems affecting body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide-awake. It also controls circadian and seasonal rhythms.
Once exposed to the first light each day, serotonin levels increase, together with body temperature and stimulating hormones like cortisol. As little as an hour of light suppresses melatonin production.
Melatonin as a supplement
Some foods naturally contain melatonin, which allows the US to sell it as a dietary supplement rather than a drug. Because the FDA doesn’t consider it a drug, it does not regulate it. Meaning doses might be inaccurate or unsafe. No other country sells this product over the counter – they consider it dangerous, together with other over the counter hormone sales. Taking it as a supplement can elevate levels far higher than normal and cause.
- Hormonal miscommunication
- Drowsiness and fatigue
- Mood disorders such as depression – from disruption to serotonin
- Lowered body temperature
- Disruption to normal sleep cycle
Increasing melatonin naturally
- Make sure your sleeping area is dark. Light exposure can severely disrupt production.
- Get plenty of light during the day. This creates a strong contrast, necessary for a healthy circadian cycle.
- Melatonin needs adequate L tryptophan and serotonin production. Make sure you have the building blocks. Tryptophan rich foods include beef, turkey, chicken, oily fish like salmon, sunflower and sesame seeds and dairy products. Egg whites and spirulina have the highest concentrations. Like any building blocks, an excess can’t cure disruptions to the process.
- Calorie restriction increases melatonin production in animals. Excess insulin and insulin resistance disturbs melatonin levels
- Some studies show meditation and relaxation can increase nighttime melatonin levels. This might be due to cortisol reduction (cortisol and melatonin tend to run opposite to each other. Meditation can also lower body temperature – melatonin is associated with lower body temperature. This is why a warm bath an hour or so before sleeping can improve sleep – your body temperature starts to drop.