You may have heard of melatonin, but how much do you understand about how it functions? What type of substance is it? Is it natural or artificial?

We’ll try to answer all these questions and more as we delve into the details of its unique role in human sleep regulation.

What is Melatonin and How Does It Function?
Melatonin is a hormone that helps control your daily cycle of sleep and waking. The pineal gland in the brain secretes this substance in response to a few different factors.

One of these is your circadian rhythm or internal clock. Some people naturally feel sleepy earlier at night and wake sooner than others.

Light exposure also affects melatonin production. Levels of this hormone rise after sundown when it starts to get dark. This increase tends to occur about two hours before bedtime.

Melatonin levels stay high throughout the night while it’s dark outside. When the sun rises, the amount drops and causes you to wake up.

Seasonal Changes in Melatonin Production
If you live somewhere with significant seasonal changes in the amount of sunlight, you may notice differences in your sleep habits. On shorter days with less sunshine, your body may produce melatonin earlier in the day.

Premature secretion of this sleep hormone may leave you tired earlier than usual. Fatigue, lower energy levels, and changes in mood can also accompany shorter winter days. On longer days, you may have trouble falling asleep and getting enough rest.

How to Make Melatonin Work for You
If you tend to have trouble falling asleep, you may need to adjust your environment to help your body produce melatonin. Make sure you get exposure to daylight during the morning and afternoon. Then, closer to bedtime, turn off bright lights.

Illumination from screens of computers, tablets, or smartphones can also interfere with melatonin production. The blue and green tones are the most disruptive. Some devices can switch to a less troublesome night mode that tends toward the redder end of the color palette.

The best way to avoid interference from screens is to stop using the devices close to bedtime. If you choose to watch television, the display should be at least six feet (2 meters) away.

Some foods contain melatonin, and consuming them before bed can help you feel calmer and sleepier. Some examples are cow’s milk, tomatoes, olives, barley, rice, cherries, and strawberries.

Can Melatonin Supplements Help?
You’ve likely seen melatonin supplements at drugstores, natural food stores, or online. Do they work to help people sleep better?

Research has consistently shown that melatonin can help us fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Some specific groups of people may find this supplement especially helpful are those who:

experience jet lag
must sleep during the day because they work nights
have insomnia
have other specific sleep difficulties

Even if you seldom have trouble falling asleep, melatonin can help. You might want to try this supplement if your sleep difficulties last more than a day or two.

How to Use Melatonin Supplements
The melatonin found in supplements is usually synthetic, produced in a lab. It can come in several different forms, including capsules, lozenges, liquid, and chewable or sublingual tablets. You’ll typically find it in dosages from 0.5 mg up.

It’s usually best to take melatonin at least 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, so it can start working by the time you turn the lights out. If this doesn’t seem to give the supplement enough time to work, you can try taking it earlier, up to two hours before you plan to sleep.

The recommended starting dose is 0.5 to 3 milligrams. You can try it for a week or two and stop if it’s not working. Talk with a doctor if your sleep problems continue.

If melatonin does work for you, it’s usually safe to take for a month or two. Experts suggest stopping after this period to see how you sleep without it. Remember to practice relaxing and keeping the lights dimmed before bed.
Who Shouldn’t Take Melatonin?
This supplement isn’t safe for everyone. You probably shouldn’t take melatonin supplements if you:

  • have depression
  • are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • have an autoimmune disorder
  • have received a transplant
  • have a bleeding disorder

If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, you’ll need to talk with your doctor before trying melatonin. This precaution is necessary because the supplement can sometimes increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

If you take any other medications, it’s also wise to check with your doctor before using melatonin. It can interact with some medicines, especially sedatives, that are central nervous system depressants. Moderate reactions may also occur with the following substances:

  • birth control pills
  • caffeine
  • antidiabetic drugs
  • immunosuppressants
  • anticoagulants
  • blood pressure medicines like nifedipine GITS
  • verapamil (Calan, Covera, Isoptin, Verelan)

The Takeaway
Melatonin is a hormone the human body produces to help regulate our sleep cycle. Production of this substance changes based on the amount of light the body receives.

You can optimize melatonin’s functioning by minimizing the light around you near bedtime. Some foods can also help increase the production of this hormone.

If you still have trouble falling asleep, a melatonin supplement can help regulate your sleep schedule. Taking it for a few months while also being careful about light exposure can help you get the rest you need.

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