When you hear the word melatonin, what comes to mind?
It’s safe to say that most of us think about a supplement that has been touted as a natural remedy for getting a good night’s sleep… and you certainly wouldn’t be wrong!
With over ⅓ of Americans reporting less than 7 hours of sleep each night, melatonin is one of the most commonly used sleep-aids in all of North America (1).
As most of us are aware, getting a good night’s sleep is critical for keeping anxiety levels at bay!
In fact nearly 1/3rd of our population also struggles with anxiety! Could there be a correlation? We say – YES!
Now back to melatonin … did you know that it is actually a naturally produced hormone in the body?
Yep, it’s true. That’s exactly why it’s advertised as a ‘natural dietary supplement.’ Scientists synthesize melatonin in a lab, creating an easy-to-use supplement that in theory, should act similarly to our body’s own melatonin.
However, boosting melatonin levels in order to help you get a good night’s rest is not as simple as just taking it in supplement form.
Here’s what you MUST KNOW about supplementation…
Unfortunately, these supplements are not tightly regulated, meaning what’s on the label might not actually be legitimate – big red flag.
In fact, studies have shown that a large portion of these products contain exceptionally less melatonin than what is advertised on the label… or worse, none at all (2). We’ll get into that more later though… so keep reading with us!
But first let’s get to know melatonin a little better…
What does melatonin do and how does it work:
Melatonin plays a direct role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle, helping us fall asleep faster, and stay asleep through the night. If melatonin levels are low, sleep troubles are nearly a given.
Melatonin is one of those hormones that thrives on ROUTINE. Because of that, there are SO many opportunities throughout the day to support our body’s own natural production of melatonin – starting from the moment you wake up! These tools (listed below) will help you feel at-ease during the day knowing that you can avoid feeling wide awake at night and anxious about falling asleep – a very real thing.
Melatonin is naturally produced by the pineal gland found in your brain.
As we briefly mentioned, it helps regulate our different circadian rhythms in the body – the sleep-wake cycle being one them. This cycle follows a 24 hour clock, responding to light, or the absence of it (3).
As the evening approaches and light disappears (usually a few hours before bed) the pineal glands spits out high amounts of melatonin, causing us to feel sleepy. At the same time, cortisol begins to drop.
Melatonin levels rise into the night, helping us to stay asleep. As light peeks through in the morning, levels begin to drop and cortisol rises, triggering our body to slowly start waking up.
Aside from sleep, research shows that melatonin supports in many biological functions such as (3, 4, 5):
- Menstrual cycle regulation
- Boosting fertility
- Reducing inflammation / free radical damage
- Acts as an antioxidant
- Protects the loss of neuron function – present in many conditions like Alzheimer’s / Parkinsons
- Improves insulin resistance
- Supports gut health
- Many more – we’re JUST starting to uncover all melatonin can do!
One last thing to know is just how important melatonin is for regulating our circadian clock! It’s huge.
This clock affects so many systems within the body (temp, hormone release, sleep, digestion, etc) and when these are imbalanced, we throw off homeostasis and our health takes a hit. Risk of neurological, metabolic, and cardiovascular diseases can spike if we don’t manage these systems.
Why Does Melatonin become Dysregulated (or low)?
For the average person, melatonin levels stay relatively low throughout the day, waiting on stand-by for a signal that it’s time for bed. But sometimes, melatonin sits there waiting and waiting and waiting without that necessary signal…
What disrupts this?
Light. We’re talking TV screens, phones, computers, lights in the house, etc, these all delay the release of melatonin.
This is also why traveling across time zones can leave your body feeling groggy and confused – aka jet lag. Exposure to light when you would normally be sleeping, will put a hold on melatonin and therefore, sleep.
Shift workers are another group of people susceptible to melatonin dysregulation – their bodies have to be awake during hours melatonin would normally run loose.
Changes in melatonin can also occur due to (6):
- Aging – levels slowly decrease with age
- Regular moderate exercise – may increase nighttime melatonin levels
- Intense exercise before bed – may decrease melatonin
- Menstrual cycle – levels fluctuate throughout each phase
- Stress and anxiety – can delay melatonin release
- Body temperature – lower body temps signal a rise in melatonin
So, Here’s the Deal with Supplementation:
Marketed quite well, melatonin is advertised as a natural sleep aid, offering a sense of security thinking “I’m buying a natural product.” Although many of these supplements contain natural ingredients, it is still made in a lab, often using additives that are not so friendly for the body.
Additionally, melatonin supplements are not closely regulated, nor any supplement for that matter. Product testing is often not mandatory which begs one to wonder if what they are taking is actually legit?
The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published a study showing that 71% of over-the-counter melatonin supplements did not contain the amount indicated on the label.
They also discovered that nearly a quarter of melatonin supplements actually contained serotonin – which can be dangerous taking unknowingly, especially if someone is taking antidepressants that already alter serotonin levels (2).
That said, studies have shown that high quality supplementation, taken in the short term, can be useful for those with disrupted sleep cycles. For example, jet lag, shift workers, older adults, those with insomnia, or those going through a very stressful period in which sleeping becomes difficult (grief, intense anxiety, big life changes, etc.).
Sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver from John Hopkins recommends starting between 1-3mg about 2 hours before bed (7). Timing is key. You may need to play around with this to know what works best for you.
To combat jet lag, take melatonin 2 hours before your preferred bedtime at your final destination. But the key is to begin this a few days leading up to your trip to prepare the body! That said, it’s suggested to not take melatonin for more than 1-2 months (7).
There’s another reason as to why melatonin supplements are not recommended as a first line of defence for sleep challenges…
Taking a melatonin supplement does NOT actually address the root issue of why you aren’t sleeping well!
For starters, as mentioned above there are many factors that can impact our sleep. For example, blue light before bed, anxiety, vigorous exercise in the evenings, poor diet, etc. – all of which should be addressed!
However there’s another big issue that isn’t often talked about in the sleep world…
The precursor to melatonin is serotonin. Within the pineal gland, serotonin is acetylated and then methylated to yield melatonin (10). This means if serotonin levels are low – your body might not be able to produce adequate levels of melatonin to ensure a restful sleep.
The bottom line is this: it’s best to talk with a practitioner if you’re having trouble sleeping and thinking of taking melatonin. Ideally, before looking at supplements, it’s best to find ways that work with your body’s natural melatonin production. This involves looking at dietary and lifestyle factors.
However, it should be noted that sometimes a good nights sleep is what we need most (and life isn’t always easy/ conducive to this).
In the short term, if melatonin is helping you to get a much needed good nights sleep during a difficult time in your life – that is okay! Accept this is where you’re at, go easy on yourself, and slowly take time to get to the root of your sleep issues when you are in the place to do so.
There is still a lot we don’t know about melatonin supplementation – the effects of taking it long term is one of those missing pieces. I really can’t emphasize it enough, supplement quality and duration matters.
Ways to work with your melatonin, not against it (5, 8, 9) :
- Roughly 2 hours before bed, consider dimming lights around the house and silencing devices. If you need to be by a device for work, school, etc., turn down the screen-light, put on night shift, install f.lux, and put on a pair of blue-light blockers if you have them!
- Open a window before bed, let the cool breeze in! Melatonin likes colder temps 🙂
- Go for an evening walk – supports lower body temp / aids in digestion
- Go for a morning walk – sunlight helps rest your body’s circadian rhythm
- Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon / evening – remember, caffeine has a half life of 5 hours!
- Avoid intense exercise late in the evening
- Add pistachios, seeds, organic soybeans, mung bean, black rice, barley, mushrooms, into your diet
- Eat wild fish and pasture raised organic eggs often
- Stop eating a few hours before bed – this way your body can direct it’s energy to melatonin release, not directed to digestion
- Try waking / falling asleep around the same time – remember, melatonin likes routine!
- Keep your bedroom, a bedroom! Avoid watching TV or doing work there
- Read this blog post on serotonin – serotonin is a precursor to melatonin so starting there can be helpful!
As you can see, there’s a lot to know about melatonin!
However, there’s a few things to take from this article, let it be this:
- Sleep is a very important aspect of anxiety management and melatonin is our naturally produced sleep aid!
- Melatonin is not just responsible for our sleep-wake cycles, but performs MANY functions within the body
- Supplementation is not always your best bet – look to working WITH your melatonin levels rather than against
- If you are at a time in your life where sleep has been very challenging – supplementation might help for the short term – but no longer than 1-2 months is recommended
- Light is one of the most disruptive aspects of melatonin production – do your best to keep lights low (including those on devices) at least 2 hours before bed
Alright, that’s all for now! Thanks for reading and as always – reach out if you have any questions by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A huge thanks to McKenna Garrison for all her work on this blog post.