By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
These days, people just aren’t getting the sleep they need, and it’s costing them in some pretty significant ways. You could say that we’re suffering from an epidemic of exhaustion.
Yeah… but who needs sleep, anyway? We all do… Lack of sleep has been linked to serious chronic conditions like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and mood disorders. And – let’s face it – being tired, spacy or cranky all the time compromises quality of life. Our work and relationships can pay the price.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), too little sleep is also becoming a big public health issue, “with sleep insufficiency linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors. Unintentionally falling asleep, nodding off while driving, and having difficulty performing daily tasks because of sleepiness all may contribute to these hazardous outcomes.”
Ready to get some more sleep? Before you reach for those sleeping pills, I’d like to tell you about a natural sleep aid that offers even more benefits than better sleep.
Melatonin and Sleep
Our sleep cycles are regulated by an important hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the tiny pea-sized pineal gland located in the middle of the brain. Darkness triggers the pineal gland to release melatonin, which sends the “Go to sleep, you’re tired!” signal to your body. Levels of melatonin stay elevated throughout the night to help keep you asleep, then begin to wane as the sun comes up. This decrease is your body’s way of slowly nudging you awake. During the day, levels are barely detectable.
This cycle is pretty straightforward when everything is working as it should. But a few factors can affect the production of melatonin and sleep quality.
First of all, as we age, our body makes less melatonin. So, older adults have a greater risk of insomnia and disrupted sleep.
These days, though, most people, regardless of age, don’t produce enough melatonin. We have our modern-day lifestyles to thank for this.
One of the biggest concerns is that our environment is constantly under assault by electromagnetic pollution from Wifi, cell phones and other electronics, and power lines. Clinical studies show that this “electropollution” is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with the creation and release of hormones, including melatonin.
Adding to the problem is American’s love of late-night living. Our ancient ancestors were ruled by their “internal clocks.” They awoke with the sunrise, slowed down at dusk, and went to sleep once it become dark.
Thanks to modern conveniences like electricity, people today stay awake well into the evening. Bright artificial light from lamps, cell phones, TVs, and other electronics throws off the brain’s natural response to release melatonin during the nighttime hours. This means that less of the hormone gets into the system, resulting in disrupted sleep patterns.
So, what can you do to naturally boost the production of melatonin and sleep better?:
- Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, even on weekends. Ideally, bedtime should be around 10:00pm, but no later than 11:00pm. (In other words, follow a schedule that supports your natural circadian rhythm.)
- Establish a calm and predictable bedtime routine. Do things that defuse a stressed and agitated mind, like meditating, deep breathing, or listening to soothing music.
- Stay off your computer, phone, or tablet an hour or two before bedtime. If you must use it, dim the brightness or see if your device has a “night shift” feature that changes the color spectrum from a cooler (and harsher) blue light to a warmer, more soothing yellow tone. This is helpful because blue light limits melatonin production, so you want to avoid it close to bedtime.
- Keep TVs, computers, bright alarm clocks, and other lighted objects and distractions out of the bedroom. This not only reduces electropollution; the darkness boosts melatonin production.
- Exercise during the day. Daytime workouts (preferably in the sun or in a bright room) promote a regular circadian rhythm, which in turn helps with nighttime melatonin secretion.
I also usually recommended to my patients to start taking melatonin in supplement form.
Both sublingual (under the tongue) delivery and pill form are fine. Melatonin can help reset your body’s internal clock, and help your body get the message that it’s time to go to bed.
Other Benefits of Taking Melatonin
The most obvious benefit of taking melatonin is sleep regulation. It’s especially effective for jet lag and for night shift workers. But research also shows melatonin can play a role in preventing or treating several diseases.
Research shows, for example, the crucial job melatonin has “in a variety of cardiovascular pathophysiological processes including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-hypertensive and possibly as an antilipidemic function.” In plain English, some of the top benefits of taking melatonin are its positive effects on blood pressure and cholesterol.
Melatonin has also been studied for prevention and treatment in several types of cancers including prostate and colon. But the greatest promise lies with breast cancer. A recent study found that it “not only inhibits breast cancer cell growth, but also is capable of inhibiting angiogenesis [growth of blood vessels] and cancer cell invasion.”
A link has been found between low melatonin levels and type 2 diabetes and bone loss. And the benefits of taking melatonin have even extended into depression, seizures, seasonal affective disorder, renal failure, and ulcers.
Side Effects of Melatonin
Luckily, there aren’t many negative side effects of melatonin. The most common complaints are minor headache, dizziness, or next-day grogginess. In my experience, probably the most bothersome side effect of melatonin is vivid dreaming. Some people may enjoy having very intense dreams, but I know others, understandably, don’t.
You can lessen the side effects of melatonin by starting at a low dose. Typical dosing ranges from 300 mcg all the way up to 10 mg. I suggest beginning with 300 mcg. If you don’t feel any effects, increase the dosage to 1 mg, and keep going up as needed. Keep in mind, melatonin is most effective when taken close to bedtime in a darkened environment, so follow the steps listed above to create an atmosphere conducive to sleep.
One last note—while melatonin is generally recognized as safe, if you’re pregnant (and looking to catch up on some zzzzs before your bundle of joy arrives) discuss with your doctor whether or not using it is right for you.
- Sangün Ö, Dündar B, et al. The effects of electromagnetic field on the endocrine system in children and adolescents. Pediatr Endocrinol Rev. 2015 Dec;13(2):531-45.
- Dominguez-Rodriguez A. Melatonin in cardiovascular disease. Expert Opin Investig Drugs. 2012 Nov;21(11):1593-6.
- Nooshinfar E, et al. Melatonin, an inhibitory agent in breast cancer. Breast Cancer. 2016 Mar 26. [Epub ahead of print]
- McMullan CJ, et al. Melatonin secretion and the incidence of type 2 diabetes. JAMA. 2013 Apr 3;309(13):1388-96.
- Tresguerres IF, et al. Melatonin dietary supplement as an anti-aging therapy for age-related bone loss. Rejuvenation Res. 2014 Aug;17(4):341-6.
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