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What is Melatonin and How Does It Help Me Sleep?

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You’ve probably seen a bottle of Melatonin in the supplement aisle of your local supermarket or know someone who takes it for a sleep aid. But what exactly is melatonin? Can a bottled form actually help you sleep?

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland of your brain in response to darkness. Also known as the Hormone of Darkness, melatonin helps prepare us for bedtime and regulates our sleep-wake cycle. It takes about two hours after melatonin is released before we are ready for sleep. In the morning when the sun comes up, or when you are exposed to light, melatonin levels fall. This cues your internal clock that it’s time to wake up.

Melatonin is made from serotonin, which in turn is made from tryptophan. Melatonin helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle by acting on a specific region of our brain responsible for being the Master Clock. It helps synchronize our circadian rhythm by regulating how our brain neurons fire.

What are melatonin supplements?

The brain only makes about 0.2 mg of melatonin. For some people, this is not enough to help them get the sleep they need. Melatonin supplements are akin to the natural chemical our body makes. Melatonin supplements have been shown to reduce the time it takes for a person to fall asleep, help fight jet-lag or reset the body’s internal clock to support a better sleep-wake cycle1. Melatonin is also shown to help treat circadian rhythm disorders in the blind, who often lack the ability to detect light-dark cues from the environment.

Do I need supplemental melatonin? How do I use it?

Most people’s bodies produce enough melatonin but taking supplemental melatonin may be helpful if you are experiencing insomnia, overcoming jet lag or want to help reset your internal clock. However, if you are considering using melatonin, you should learn to work with your natural melatonin signals.

First, less is more – the timing of when you take melatonin matters more than dose. A low 1-3 mg dose of melatonin is good enough to start. Second, since melatonin levels rise at sundown to prepare your body 2 hours before bed, you should create optimal conditions for melatonin to do its job. Melatonin works best if you take it 2-4 hours before bedtime. You should also start dimming lights in your home and avoid using your computer, smartphone or other technological screens, or else the light from such devices will neutralize melatonin’s effects.

When should you stop or skip melatonin?

Melatonin taken orally in appropriate amounts is generally considered safe for most people for short term use. If melatonin isn’t helping your sleep after a week or two, stop using it. If your sleep problems continue, you should talk to your doctor. Again, it is important to create optimal conditions for melatonin to work such as keeping lights low, sleeping in a cool room, and practicing relaxing rituals at night. Melatonin should not be used if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have an autoimmune disorder, seizure disorder, or depression. You should consult your doctor if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, as melatonin may raise blood sugar levels and increase blood pressure.

Dietary sources of melatonin

Another way to support sleep is to eat melatonin-rich foods. Melatonin has been identified in a variety of animal and plant-based foods2. Eggs and fish are rich in melatonin in animal-based foods, whereas nuts are the highest in plant-based foods. Certain mushrooms, grains and seeds are also good dietary sources of melatonin. For example, a dinner consisting of salmon, black rice, a salad topped with pistachios, and a glass of cherry juice will boost you with 2.3 mg of melatonin!

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[1] Auld F, Maschauer EL, Morrison I, et al. Evidence for the efficacy of melatonin in the treatment of primary adult sleep disorders. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2017; 34;10-22.

[2] Meng X, Li Y, Li S, et al. Dietary sources and bioactivities of melatonin. Nutrients. 2017; 9(4): 367.

Dr. Linda May-Zhang has over 10 years of research experience in nutrition, chronic diseases and pharmacology. She has published over 20 peer-reviewed academic papers in scientific journals. She is also a science writer with a passion for educating the lay public.

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