Melatonin comes and goes in terms of its popularity and usage by the general population. It’s been lauded as a miracle supplement for individuals with sleep issues and yet some report little to no improvement with its administration. So what role does melatonin actually play in regards to sleep, who does it work for and how else can you improve your sleep quality?
What Melatonin Does
Melatonin is a neurohormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. It has various roles in the body, but its primary role is in regulating the sleep-wake cycle (also known as our circadian rhythm). Melatonin is sometimes referred to as the ‘sleep initiation hormone’, because it helps initiate sleep onset and as a result our melatonin levels are highest at night. Melatonin levels are lowest during the day, as melatonin production is inhibited by light exposure. Whilst most of the research on melatonin focuses on its role in regulating sleep and wakefulness, research suggests melatonin may also have antioxidant and immune-modulating effects in the body.
What Affects Melatonin Production
The primary factor affecting melatonin production is our exposure to light; this is part of the reason why staring at a screen before bedtime can delay sleep onset and impair sleep quality. Not only does blue light exposure increase production of cortisol, our primary stress hormone, but it also inhibits the secretion of melatonin in the brain, keeping us awake for longer. For this reason, research suggests we should avoid using screens (including laptops, TVs, phones and tablets) for a minimum of 90-120 minutes before bed. This is in part because our melatonin levels naturally start to rise about two hours before we fall asleep, so we don’t want to be interfering with this pattern.
In addition to light exposure, the production of melatonin is dependent on us having adequate levels of tryptophan; an essential amino acid that serves as the primary precursor to melatonin production. Research has demonstrated that inadequate consumption of tryptophan reduces melatonin production. Dietary sources of tryptophan include lamb, chicken, turkey, pumpkin seeds, cheese, salmon, edamame, oats and eggs. Other factors that are associated with decreased melatonin production include ageing, extreme fasting (calorie restriction), alcohol consumption, being overweight and night-shift work.
Certain foods have also been found to contain small amounts of melatonin, although the physiological significance of this is yet to be determined. Some of these foods include tomatoes, barley, rice, olives, walnuts and certain species of grapes. Interestingly, coffee also appears to contain some melatonin, however any potential positive effects of this would likely be negated by the caffeine content! In addition to tryptophan, specific nutrients required for the production of melatonin include zinc, magnesium and various B vitamins such as folate (B9) and vitamin B6.
Who Might Benefit from Melatonin
The main uses for melatonin are insomnia (difficulty sleeping) and jet lag, as well as to reset the internal body clock for individuals who work night shifts. That said, melatonin should only be used with the advice of a qualified health professional, who can provide guidance in regards to things like dosing, timing, potential drug interactions and other important factors that need to be considered before commencing supplementation. Importantly, melatonin is primarily considered a sleep initiation hormone, meaning it is possibly more helpful for individuals who struggle with sleep onset, as opposed to sleep maintenance. Interestingly, melatonin also appears to be more effective in older individuals, possibly because endogenous melatonin production declines with age. Whilst side effects are uncommon, some individuals may experience side effects such as headaches, dizziness, drowsiness or depression when using melatonin. As melatonin can cause drowsiness, it should never be taken before operating machinery or driving a vehicle.
Melatonin is also being trialled for a number of other uses, such as gastro-oesophageal reflux, endometriosis and depression, however at this stage, most of the research on its use has focused on abnormalities in sleep behaviour or sleep quality.
How Else Can You Improve Your Sleep Quality
One of the issues with taking melatonin is that it may not directly address the cause of your sleep disturbance and rather, serves as a band-aid approach. For this reason, melatonin is generally not our first go-to when it comes to sleep issues; rather, we focus on investigating and correcting factors that may be disturbing sleep in the first place, and implementing healthy strategies to improve sleep quality and/or quantity. Naturopathy is centred on the philosophy of treating the cause of dysfunction, and so working with a naturopath can help you get to the bottom of your sleeping issues, whether this refers to difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, or waking unrefreshed in the morning.
In addition to working with a naturopath to identify possible underlying causes, some of our other tips to improve your sleep quality include:
- Sleeping in a cool, dark and quiet room (the darkness is very important for melatonin production)
- Avoiding caffeinated beverages after midday (caffeine has a 6-9 hour half-life!)
- Using a blue-light filter (such as Night Shift) on your laptop and phone (or using blue-light blocking lenses)
- Avoiding screens for at least 90-120 minutes before bedtime
- Implementing stress management techniques
- Engaging in regular exercise (ideally in the morning or afternoon, but not too close to bedtime)
- Sticking to a sleep routine (‘sleep hygiene’)
- Addressing other factors that may be contributing to fatigue and/or a disturbed sleep-wake cycle