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Melatonin For Sleep: How Does it Work

Lara Vargas

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The hormone melatonin plays an important role in our sleep cycle, as it regulates when we feel drowsy and when we wake up. While a healthy person’s body likely produces enough melatonin, boosting our natural levels of it may help us to rest and relax. Evidence shows healthy melatonin production maintains good sleep and can aid in treating a variety of conditions like jet lag and sleep disorders.

In this article, we explain what melatonin is and how it works in relation to our sleep cycle. We also discuss why melatonin supplements are not as effective as they seem to be, alternative ways to raise melatonin levels naturally, and good bedtime habits to promote better rest.

What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a naturally produced hormone regulating our sleep-wake cycle, sometimes referred to as our “biological clock.” It’s released by the pineal gland at the base of our brains and is most affected by our exposure to light.

Melatonin is sometimes called the hormone of darkness because the production of melatonin slows with exposure to light and starts back up again with darkness. Typically, our melatonin levels begin to rise after the sun sets and are at their peak during the night. In the morning, when the sun rises, our melatonin levels drop, signaling to our brain it’s time to wake up.

Do Melatonin Supplements Work?

We suggest against using melatonin supplements because according to the National Institutes of Health, there’s not enough available information on their long-term effects.

In addition to unknown side effects and risks, it can also be difficult to tell what exactly is in a melatonin supplement. In the U.S., melatonin is not strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it’s only considered a dietary supplement. A lack of regulation means manufacturing processes aren’t monitored and labels can be misleading.

Some melatonin supplements have even been found to contain contaminants. For example, a 2017 study revealed the melatonin levels in many of the 31 tested supplements didn’t match the amounts listed on their product labels. It also showed 26 percent of the products they tested contained the hormone serotonin, which can be harmful even in low doses. According to the Mayo Clinic, too much serotonin in the body can cause mild to severe symptoms like shivering, fevers, and seizures.

Aside from inaccurate labels and lax manufacturing processes, the use of melatonin hasn’t shown to even be that effective in helping to treat sleep disorders.

Leslie Swanson, Ph.D., clinical associate professor in psychiatry at Michigan Medicine’s Sleep and Circadian Research Laboratory notes studies have shown melatonin supplements provided only minor improvements in sleep for those with insomnia. Furthermore, Dr. Suzanne Bertisch, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, states melatonin isn’t very effective in helping to treat chronic insomnia because many people take it incorrectly and there are too many safety concerns associated with it.

Side Effects of Melatonin Supplements

Since melatonin supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, the extent of side effects they may cause is not entirely clear. However, there are possible side effects and potential risks that have been reported.

Common Side Effects

The most common side effects of melatonin include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and sleepiness. It also may cause excessive drowsiness the next day, further affecting our sleep schedule. When our sleep schedule is disrupted, it can be difficult to get back on track, and we may experience a hard time getting to sleep and waking up the next few days.

Less Common Side Effects

According to the Mayo Clinic, less common side effects of melatonin may include brief feelings of depression, mild tremors, mild anxiety, abdominal cramps, irritability, reduced alertness, confusion or disorientation, and abnormally low blood pressure. There have also been reports of nightmares, hypotension, and sleep disorders.

Analysis of the melatonin profile and/or its metabolites in preclinical trials show there could be negative reactions or side effects on various aspects of our body. These include the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, platelet aggregation, glucose metabolism, immunology, and cancer.

Risks of Melatonin

Aside from the side effects melatonin supplements can potentially cause, some groups of people are at a higher risk of unpleasant side effects.

Since melatonin is a hormone, it’s believed melatonin supplements could possibly affect hormonal development in children. There have been very few studies conducted involving melatonin and children so the possible risks aren’t clear. However, they may adversely affect things like puberty, menstrual cycles, and the overproduction of the hormone prolactin. Other side effects reported in children include drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, agitation, and increased bedwetting.

In older adults, melatonin may stay active for longer periods of time than it does in younger adults, causing excessive daytime drowsiness. This can end up negatively affecting the sleep-wake cycle and throwing a healthy sleep schedule off track.

There has also been very little research in regards to melatonin in pregnant or breastfeeding women. Like in children, melatonin supplements could potentially affect hormonal development in this group, posing the risk of adverse side effects.

How to Increase Melatonin Levels Naturally

Instead of taking supplements, there are other safer ways to increase our natural melatonin production. These methods allow you to promote drowsiness without the adverse side effects and risks that may come along with supplements.

Simple things you can implement, like regular exercise, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and avoiding bad sleep habits, can increase melatonin levels. Nutritional factors, like an intake of vegetables, caffeine, and some vitamins and minerals, have also been shown to modify melatonin production.

Here, we’re sharing some alternative ways to raise melatonin levels and increase restful sleep and relaxation.

Light Therapy

Light therapy consists of exposure to artificial light that mimics natural light. The light exposure regulates melatonin and helps reset our sleep-wake cycle.

A part of the hypothalamus in our brains controls the regulation of melatonin, but it needs an external stimulus to maintain its consistent circadian rhythm (24-hour cycle). This main stimulus is our exposure to light and darkness over the course of the day, ensuring we’re awake during the daytime and asleep at night.

Light Boxes

Light boxes are the most common treatment device for light therapy. They are generally rectangular boxes with multiple light bulbs or tubes which emit a high amount of light. To be effective, light from the light box needs to enter your eyes indirectly in order to have the desired effect on your circadian rhythm. You don’t need to look directly at the light as this can cause damage to the eyes, you just need to be close enough for the light to reach your eyes. To do this, people usually sit or work near a light box for a set period. According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy is most effective when you have the right mix of light intensity, duration, and timing.

One study showed light therapy using bright morning light greatly improved symptoms in people with sleep-onset insomnia. It reduced sleep latency, insomnia severity, and pre-sleep anxiety while increasing total sleep time and improving overall daytime functioning. It suggested morning light therapy could improve sleep quality by controlling our natural melatonin levels.

Avoid Blue Light

Blue light, like the kind found in many electronic devices, is extremely effective at suppressing melatonin. Since we become sleepy and relaxed when our melatonin levels increase, exposure to blue light will have the opposite effect, keeping us awake and alert.

In fact, of all the common light sources, blue light is the most stimulating to our circadian systems. Avoiding blue light at night prior to bedtime will help ensure we’re able to relax and fall asleep. Refrain from using cell phones, laptops, and tablets at night, as these all emit high levels of blue light.

Reduce Caffeine Intake

Caffeine is a stimulant temporarily increasing our energy and level of alertness. It can stay in our system for up to seven hours and can cause difficulty in falling asleep. Reducing the amount of caffeine you have in a day can help promote better rest. To ensure your sleep is not affected, avoid caffeine at least seven hours prior to your bedtime.

Eat Melatonin-Rich Foods

One great way of increasing your levels of melatonin is to eat foods to promote better sleep. Studies have shown the intake of foods rich in melatonin could significantly increase the concentration of melatonin in our bodies. One study found foods sourced from animals, eggs and fish possess a much higher level of melatonin than that found in meat. In plants, nuts, some wheat- and grain-based cereals, and germinated legumes or seeds were particularly high in melatonin. Some foods rich in melatonin include:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Mushrooms
  • Mustard seeds
  • Pistachios, walnuts
  • Tomatoes, peppers, olives
  • Grapes, cherries, strawberries
  • Yeast, barley, rice
  • Some wheat- and grain-based cereals, germinated legumes or seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil and virgin soybean oil

Following an overall healthy diet during the day is your best bet at promoting better sleep. Diets rich in vegetables, fruits, and grain products will be more effective at boosting melatonin than any single food. Moreover, it’s believed body weight may have just as much an impact on melatonin levels as dietary choices. And, since body weight is linked to diet, an overall healthy lifestyle will improve melatonin levels.

Try a Weighted Blanket

A weighted blanket looks like a typical blanket but is usually filled with plastic beads or pellets to make it heavier. They generally weigh anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds. Using them at night have shown an increase in melatonin production by eliciting feelings of calm and relaxation.

The use of weight to calm and relax is similar to that of swaddling newborns. The idea is they provide a snug and secure feeling, helping to calm and settle the nervous system. Weighted blankets are based on deep pressure stimulation, gentle pressure applied all over the body.

When we’re stressed or experiencing anxiety, our heart rate increases. In order to achieve calmness, we need to lower our rapid heart rate, which can be achieved by activating our parasympathetic nervous system. One of the best ways to activate it is through pressure. In fact, occupational therapists have used deep pressure touch to calm children with autism, and help ease anxiety and stress in other people for some time now. When your body is calm and in “rest” mode, we are much more able to fall asleep.

While there hasn’t been an abundance of studies on the effects of weighted blankets, what has been done offers promising results. One study surveyed 32 adults who used a 30-pound blanket while lying down for five minutes. Afterward, 63 percent reported lower anxiety and 78 percent preferred the weighted blanket as a calming method.

For anyone interested in trying out a weighted blanket, it’s typically recommended you buy one weighing approximately 10 percent of your body weight.

Exercise Regularly

A study analyzing the influence of exercise on sleep and melatonin levels revealed moderate aerobic exercise may increase the production of nighttime melatonin. Additional research shows moderate exercise for just 30 minutes a day will increase the amount of deep sleep you get at night.

It’s important to note, the time of day you exercise also plays an important role in sleep. During exercise, our body temperature increases, and we feel alert. These effects can continue to last after we’re done exercising and can make it difficult to fall asleep. Additionally, research shows exercise in the late evening, when melatonin secretion is rising, may weaken melatonin production, disrupting our ability to rest and relax. Aim for a workout in the morning or mid-day, or at least two hours prior to bedtime, to avoid any sleep disruption.

Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule

The best way to keep our internal clocks operating smoothly is by maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. To do this, stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time each day, even on the weekends and during vacation. A daily routine like this will keep your body’s internal clock accustomed to a regular schedule and make it much easier to wake up and fall asleep every day.

When we drastically change our sleep or wake time, even on a single night, it can throw off our sleep schedule the following days and make it challenging to get back on track. If you must sleep in, try not to exceed one extra hour.

Manage Stress

When we’re stressed, we may have a difficult time falling or staying asleep. When stressful circumstances occur, a network in our brain called the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis releases cortisol, the hormone responsible for our “fight or flight” mode. Cortisol also affects our mood and metabolism and prepares our immune system for potential illness or injury.

While the HPA axis is responsible for releasing cortisol, it’s also the same pathway controlling our sleep. Research has found when this area of the brain is overly active, it can disrupt our sleep. To prevent this pathway from being overly active, it’s crucial to manage your stress levels.

Work/Life Balance

Stress can negatively impact our productivity, concentration, and relationships, all important elements in both our work and home lives. Maintaining a balance between the two is one key to managing stress and ultimately improving our overall performance and day-to-day life. According to Mental Health America, some effective ways for achieving a balanced life include:

At Work

  • Set manageable goals
  • Be efficient with your time
  • Ask for flexibility
  • Take small breaks
  • Listen to your favorite music
  • Communicate effectively
  • Give yourself a break

At Home

  • Unplug from work and technology
  • Evenly distribute responsibilities among family members
  • Don’t over commit to social activities
  • Get support from family and friends
  • Take advantage of your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Maintain regular physical activity
  • Eat right
  • Ask for help

Find an Outlet for Stress

It can be hard to shake stress, and sometimes finding an outlet for it is the best way of handling it.

Keeping a journal can help to relieve stress by providing a way to get all thoughts and emotions out of your mind and onto paper. Some people even find throwing out the pages of their thoughts can be cathartic in managing stress because it symbolizes conquering the emotions.

Other great stress relievers include any activities which provide mental distractions like playing music, gardening, sewing, baking, reading, or any other hobby you may enjoy.

Unplug at Night

Unplugging from technology before bedtime is important for relaxing. When we’re tuned in to our work emails, news stories, texting friends, and watching TV, our minds are active and alert. Moreover, the blue light emitted from screens tells our brains it needs to stay stimulated. This delays our body’s circadian rhythm and can suppress the amount of melatonin our body produces, making it difficult to fall asleep.

Instead, we should focus on relaxing and unwinding by avoiding stressful conversations, tackling work assignments, and other stress-inducing activities just prior to bed. Aim to power down one hour prior to bedtime to prevent any disruptions in your sleep.

Other Healthy Ways to Boost Better Sleep

Create a Relaxing Bedroom Environment

An environment encouraging rest and relaxation will ultimately promote better sleep and mental clarity.

  • Invest in a Good Mattress and Bedding: Choosing the best mattress for your preferences and sleeping habits is important for helping you relax. Opt for one that is comfortable to you and offers a mix of support and cushion. Likewise, high-quality, breathable bedding will encourage restful sleep.
  • Eliminate Clutter: Clutter creates chaos and stress. Get organized by incorporating smart storage solutions, maximizing space, and donating things you no longer use.
  • Rid the Bedroom of Work: If you have the room, create a separate workspace outside the bedroom. Having your home office in the same space where you sleep and relax can disrupt the environment.
  • Incorporate Calming Colors and Tones: Neutral, muted colors like greys, beiges, and whites all promote a more zen vibe. “Loud” colors like reds are jarring and best suited for other more active areas of the home.

Use Essential Oils for Sleep

There are many benefits to using essential oils, and some even boost relaxation and promote sleepiness. Studies analyzing sleep and essential oils show certain oils and the use of aromatherapy can improve sleep quality. Some essential oils to promote sleep include:

  • Lavender
  • Valerian
  • Bergamot
  • Roman Chamomile
  • Clary Sage
  • Sweet Marjoram
  • Cedarwood
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Jasmine

You can use essential oils in a variety of ways. Some easy, popular methods include:

  • In a Bath: Add several drops of the essential oil to bathwater.
  • Use a Diffuser: Mix several drops of the essential oil with water and add to a diffuser. This disperses the scent throughout the room and into the air.
  • Make Your Own Mist: Add four to five drops of the oil to one-half cup of water in a spray bottle. You can then use this to lightly mist your bedding or around your bedroom.
  • Apply to the Body Directly: Applying essential oils to pressure points, like on the wrist or behind the ear, can be especially soothing. If you do this, make sure you’re using a diluted oil (typically a mix of the essential oil and carrier oil). Using an undiluted essential oil can cause skin irritation because it’s highly concentrated and intense.

Develop a Soothing Bedtime Routine

Implementing a calming routine each evening can prepare our bodies for relaxation and train our minds to slow down, leading to better quality sleep. Pinpointing factors preventing you from falling asleep each night—like racing thoughts or warm temperatures—will help you to build a routine best suited for you. There are general things you can do each evening for a soothing nighttime ritual.

  • As bedtime approaches, begin eliminating light from the space to signal to your brain it’s time to sleep. Dim lamps and overhead lights, and use blackout shades or opaque curtains to minimize the glare of street lights.
  • Power down electronics like TVs, phones, and tablets so the blue light from the devices doesn’t interfere with your circadian rhythm.
  • Taking a warm bath or shower prior to bedtime can also help you relax and unwind. Adding essential oils to promote sleep like lavender and valerian will further prepare you to doze off.
  • Follow a shower with gentle stretching to further relax your muscles. Meditation or breathing exercises can also be useful in preparing you for bed because these exercises help to quiet your mind.
  • Make sure your bedroom temperature is cool for the night. Generally, somewhere between 65 and 72 degrees is ideal to keep you comfortable through the night, but this can vary from person to person. Turning on a quiet fan and sleeping in breathable clothing will also help prevent night sweats, which can impede on sleep.

Try Natural Sleep Aids and Bedtime Teas

Bedtime teas and natural sleep aids incorporating ingredients to promote relaxation can help boost better sleep.

Natural Sleep Aids

Natural sleep aids, like magnesium and valerian, feature various herbs and vitamins to help induce sleep.

Magnesium is one of the essential vitamins and minerals, however many people don’t get the recommended daily amount. One of magnesium’s main roles is to maintain healthy levels of Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that helps us to relax and fall asleep at night. Magnesium is available in supplement and oil form.

Valerian is an herbal supplement to boost GABA and promote sleep. Sourced from the root of the valerian plant, it’s long been a natural remedy for anxiety and stress. Valerian extract has shown to induce sleep in studies and can be taken in a supplemental form.

Bedtime Teas

Adding a bedtime tea to your nighttime routine is another great way to prepare yourself for bed. Bedtime or “sleepytime” teas are herbal caffeine-free teas with calming ingredients in them like valerian or lavender. These types of teas offer a more enjoyable way to consume these sleep-enhancing herbs, as opposed to taking them in supplement form.

Many of the ingredients in bedtime teas only provide a mild effect, but the ritual of sipping warm tea is intended to make you sleepy and may be enough to get you relaxed enough to doze off and fall asleep.

Chamomile is one of the most popular teas for bedtime because it’s been proven to help with anxiety and even has some anti-depressant qualities. In 2005, a study on rats showed chamomile extract helped them to fall asleep quicker.

FAQs

Is it safe to take melatonin supplements?

We recommend against using melatonin supplements because there is not enough research on their long-term effects to fully understand the risks and benefits of them. In the U.S., melatonin supplements are considered a dietary supplement and therefore, are not regulated by the FDA. This means the manufacturing process and labels can be misleading and ultimately harmful.

Instead, we recommend boosting melatonin levels the natural way by incorporating daily habits shown to increase melatonin and promote rest.

Are there alternatives to melatonin to help you fall asleep?

There are many natural ways to promote sleepiness. Creating a relaxing environment in your bedroom is a great way to encourage rest. Rid the room of light, noise, and blue light as these can disrupt our circadian rhythm and make it hard to fall asleep. Eliminating clutter and incorporating neutral color tones will both ease stress as well.

Getting in the habit of a calming nighttime routine just prior to bedtime can also help ready your body and mind for sleep. Gentle stretching and breathing exercises can create a sense of peacefulness. Using essential oils to promote rest, like lavender, in a warm bath is another great way to unwind. Make sure to set the bedroom’s temperature at a comfortable level and to wear cool, breathable clothing to prevent night sweats.

There are also things you can do throughout the day to ensure you don’t have trouble falling asleep at night. Reducing your caffeine intake is a quick and easy way to fix any sleep problems you may be having. Avoid caffeine at least seven hours prior to bedtime to ensure it’s out of your system and won’t affect your sleep. Sticking to a healthy diet and incorporating physical activity into your daily routine have both been proven to increase melatonin levels.

Keeping stress to a minimum is also important for promoting better sleep because the same pathways in the brain controlling stress also control sleep. Achieving a balance between work and home life, along with learning how to manage anxiety will both lead to less stress and better rest. Various ways to do this include finding an outlet for stress, like through exercise or music; setting manageable goals at work and home; not over committing yourself to social activities; and taking small breaks throughout the day.

What foods are rich in melatonin?

A few foods with particularly high levels of melatonin include mushrooms, pistachios, eggs, and fish. Overall, many grains and nuts are naturally rich in the hormone as are fruits and vegetables.

It’s important to note, eating a surplus of one particular food likely won’t increase your melatonin too much. Rather than focusing on consuming a single food, it’s better to adopt an overall diet rich in vegetables, grains, and fruits to increase melatonin levels. A diet like this also helps in maintaining a healthy body weight, which can also increase melatonin.

Can melatonin help with jet lag?

We don’t recommend taking melatonin supplements because they can cause undesirable side effects like headaches, dizziness, and nausea. For a more natural solution, light therapy is effective at combating jet lag.

Jet lag happens when our internal clock (circadian rhythm) responsible for telling us when to sleep, eat, and wake, is out of sync with the time zone we’re in. Jet lag often occurs when people travel across time zones for things like vacation and work. In a new time zone, our bodies will eventually readjust but it often takes a few days, which we may not have. The side effects of jet lag can also be less than pleasant because our mind and body is in conflict with when to eat and sleep. Daytime fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and reduced performance are just some of the common side effects.

Light is the most important factor in signaling to our brain it’s time to sleep and wake, and effects when melatonin is released and suppressed in our brains. Light therapy involves using artificial light—typically via a light box—to mimic natural light and help reset the sleep-wake cycle.

Before traveling across time zones, light therapy can be useful in preventing jet lag by shifting our circadian rhythm to where we’re going. By exposing yourself to the bright light of a light box in the days prior to your trip, it gradually readjusts your natural sleep-wake clock. You’ll want to time the use of the light box to align with the time zone you’re traveling to. For example, if you’re traveling east where the time zone is three hours ahead, and you normally wake up at 8 a.m., you can use the light box starting at 5 a.m. to begin shifting your internal clock to the time zone where you’re headed.

Why does melatonin help with sleep?

Melatonin is a hormone that tells our brain when to sleep and wake. It’s a major component affecting our “internal clock” that regulates our 24-hour cycle.

Our melatonin levels are most influenced by the amount of light we’re exposed to, changing the message it sends to our bodies as light changes throughout the day. When the sun sets and it becomes dark out, our brain begins releasing melatonin, signaling to our bodies it’s time to get sleepy. We typically reach peak melatonin levels in the middle of the night. When the sun rises in the morning and we’re exposed to light, our melatonin levels drop and our bodies know it’s time to wake up.

Conclusion

The natural hormone melatonin plays a key role in controlling our sleep-wake schedules, with our body generally releasing the most in the middle of the night when we’re asleep. While supplements of melatonin are available, the lack of long-term studies prevents us from fully understanding the risks associated with long-term use. However, there are many alternative ways to safely raise our melatonin levels naturally and achieve better sleep.

While daily habits will lay the foundation for better sleep, creating a peaceful environment in the bedroom and treating yourself to a soothing nighttime routine will further encourage you to unwind and de-stress. Eliminating clutter and work from your bedroom will ease anxiety while a quality mattress and bedding will help you relax. A nightly ritual of calming habits like a warm shower, gentle stretching, journaling, and powering down electronics will all help to ready the mind and body for restful sleep.

Implementing these good habits in your daily routine can lead to increased melatonin levels and overall improved health, a key factor in getting quality rest. When we’re able to get a good night’s sleep, our daily performance is enhanced, both physically and mentally.

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