Learn about herbs (and other nutritive ingredients) Chapter 2: Melatonin
You tried drinking warm milk. You tried eating a light dinner. You even tried counting sheep. By all accounts, you should be sleeping. You usually sleep like a baby. So why are you still up googling “why can’t I sleep” and reading blogs about sleep aids? The answer could be as simple as your melatonin levels — which, sadly, do not respond to warm milk or imaginary sheep, but may get a, sometimes, much needed boost from a few behavioral changes and the right supplements.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone, commonly made in the pineal gland of the brain, that helps control daily sleeping and waking cycles.
Your internal body clock (or circadian rhythm) determines how much melatonin you make. Everyone produces a different amount and various factors can influence levels within the body. These can include:
- Use of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine
- Over exposure to ‘blue light’
- Shift work
- Jet lag
- Lack of exposure to natural light during the day
- The aging process
How does melatonin help us sleep?
With a healthy sleep cycle, melatonin levels naturally start to rise during the mid to late evening after the sun sets, helping us to relax, feel sleepy and drift off. Levels stay high for the duration of the night, keeping us in the land of nod, and begin to drop as the sun rises in the early morning, helping us rise and shine.
Artificial light as well as natural daylight is strong enough to decrease the amount of melatonin our bodies produce. This is why it’s important to spend as much time as possible outdoors during daylight hours, soaking up the natural sunlight, and to rest in a dimly lit room when winding down at the end of a busy day. It’s also why we should limit our use of computers and mobile phones, and should consider switching them off several hours before retiring to bed (no more checking Twitter from under the duvet!)
Daytime levels of melatonin are usually barely perceptible as the body needs to remain alert during these hours.
Sometimes I have trouble sleeping. Could my melatonin levels be to blame?
Poor sleep can be brought on and exacerbated by many factors unrelated to melatonin production.
For many people, improving their overall sleep routine by practicing ‘good sleep hygiene’ can have a beneficial effect on their ability to fall asleep quickly along with improving quality of sleep throughout the night.
If you’re having occasional sleep problems, you could try:
- Going to bed at the same time every day and setting an alarm to wake you at the same time each morning.
- Limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes.
- Avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine close to bed-time.
- Moderating your alcohol consumption, as small amount may help you nod off but consuming alcohol regularly and excessively can make sleep problems worse.
- Exercising regularly, even 10 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can improve night-time sleep quality.
- Avoiding heavy, rich or spicy foods before bedtime.
- Establishing a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. This could include taking a bath, reading a book or doing some light stretches.
- Avoiding stress before retiring to bed (holding off on potentially emotional or upsetting conversations or tasks until daylight hours.)
- Creating a pleasant sleeping environment with a soft, clean bed, beautiful scents, dim lighting and a cool temperature.
- Avoiding watching TV or using a computer for several hours before retiring.
- Using blackout curtains or eyeshades to block out light.
- Removing annoying or noisy distractions like pets, fans or any appliances that hum or buzz.
Can melatonin supplements help me with occasional sleeplessness?
Melatonin supplements are widely available in pill, lozenge, liquid and chewable tablet forms and can help the body regulate unbalanced sleep patterns in the short term.
Unlike medical sleeping tablets, often prescribed by doctors, melatonin supplements don’t ‘knock you out.’ Instead, they’re designed to remind your body when it’s night-time, making it easier to relax and drift off during periods when restful sleep has become as likely as sighting a unicorn.
No other hormone is available without a doctor’s prescription – but because melatonin is found naturally in some foods, it can be sold as a dietary supplement rather than a drug.
Are melatonin supplements right for me?
Melatonin supplements aren’t suitable for everyone and you should consult your doctor before taking them if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have any ongoing or serious health conditions.
You should also speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you’re taking any prescription medications or other supplements to learn about any possible interactions.
Do melatonin supplements have any side effects?
Melatonin is considered to be a relatively safe supplement when used in the short term, and side effects aren’t common or severe.
One of the most common side effects of taking a melatonin supplement is drowsiness, with some people reporting that they feel groggy when waking in the morning and for several hours afterwards. To combat this, try taking melatonin earlier in the evening or reducing how much you take – this should help manage grogginess and drowsiness.
Other possible side effects include headaches, weakness, dizziness, vivid dreams and nausea – but these are generally mild and last no longer than a couple of weeks. If you’re concerned about how much to take or how long to use a melatonin supplement, consult the directions on the label or speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
How should melatonin supplements be taken?
The typical adult dose of melatonin is between two tenths of a milligram and five milligrams, taken sixty minutes before going to bed to aid restful sleep, according to Sleep.org by the National Sleep Foundation.
For melatonin supplements to be helpful, it’s important that the dosage and time of day they’re taken are appropriate for the occasional sleep issues you’re dealing with and that they’re not used for long periods of time.
The conventional wisdom is that you should start with lower dose melatonin supplements and increase gradually over time, as needed. Lower doses are thought to work just as well as higher ones – so you may be taking more than you need if you begin at the higher end of the scale. Uleva Sleep contains 3 milligrams of melatonin per capsule, which should be a good starting point for anyone looking to swap the occasional tossing and turning for some much needed zzzs.