Melatonin is a natural hormone secreted by the Pineal gland deep inside the brain and circulated throughout the body. The human brain begins to produce this sleep inducing hormone when the sun sets which tells the body it’s time for bed. Because it comes out at night, sometimes its referred to as the “Dracula Hormone”. In an ideal world, you fall asleep because of that cue. But some nights (because of deadlines, dinner, classes, chores, and family commitments etc), it just doesn’t happen on time. On those nights, taking melatonin supplement seems like a viable option to get a good night’s rest.
Here are some facts you should know before you pop that pill in your mouth.
Functions of Melatonin:
Melatonin helps control your daily sleep-wake cycles (One of the circadian rhythms)
Melatonin also helps control the timing and release of female reproductive hormones.
Melatonin has strong antioxidant effects. Preliminary evidence suggests that it may help strengthen the immune system.
Factors influencing the Melatonin levels in your body:
- Your Circadian rhythm: Your body’s internal clock influences how much melatonin the pineal gland makes. During the day the pineal is inactive. When the sun goes down and it starts to get dark, the pineal is “turned on” and begins to actively produce melatonin. Usually, this occurs around 9 pm. Melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert. Sleep becomes more inviting and most people accept the invitation. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for about 12 hours – all through the night. The levels begin to drop in the early morning as the sun rises, causing you to awaken and by daytime, the levels of melatonin are barely detectable.
- Amount of light exposure: In order for the brain to secrete Melatonin, one has to be in a dimly lit room. In a scenario where its dark outside and the gland is switched on by the internal body clock, but the person is inside in a brightly lit room, there won’t be much melatonin In his system.
- Blue light: With the recent technological advances and a vast array of smartphones, kindle and ipads, virtually everyone goes to bed with one of these devices. Exposure to light from these self-luminous displays has been linked to increased risk for sleep disorders because these devices emit optical radiation at short wavelengths, causing melatonin suppression. Turn off these devices an hour before going to bed. Some companies have devised special goggles that cut out the blue light to help with insomnias.
- Seasonal influences: During the shorter and darker days of winter, your body may produce melatonin earlier or later in the day, which partly throws off your natural sleep cycles. As a result, you may experience fatigue, a drop in energy, mood changes, or other symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
- Your age: Melatonin levels have been suspected to decline with age. Young children have the highest levels of nighttime melatonin and these levels drop as we age. Some people think lower levels of melatonin may explain why some older adults have sleep problems and tend to go to bed and wake up earlier than when they were younger. Newer research has however called this theory into question.
- Certain types of foods: Foods such as tomatoes, walnuts, olives, rice, barley, strawberries,cherries, and cow’s milk contain melatonin. When your body absorbs melatonin from these foods, you may begin to feel calm and sleepy.
How does Melatonin work?
The powerful hormone is naturally produced in your brain and sends the message to your body that it’s nighttime and time to hit the hay.
Interesting to note that Benzodiazepines (eg, valium) also cause sleepiness but they increase Stage 2 sleep, while decreasing the other stages, including Slow Wave Sleep and REM sleep. Unlike sleep induced by benzodiazepine drugs, melatonin-induced sleep does not suppress Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and slow-wave sleep — and does not result in “hangover” feelings the next day.
A few clinical studies suggest that when taken for short periods of time (days to weeks) melatonin is more effective than a placebo in reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, increasing the number of sleeping hours, and boosting daytime alertness
One study of 334 people aged 55 and older found that sustained-release melatonin seemed to help people fall asleep faster, sleep better, be more alert in the morning, and improve quality of life in people with primary insomnia.
In 2015, according to research published in open access journal Critical Care, Using melatonin provided more and better quality sleep compared to using an eye mask and earplugs in a simulated noisy and illuminated environment in healthy subjects. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-03/bc-mch031615.php
How much Melatonin should you take?
For melatonin to be helpful, the correct dosage, method and time of day it is taken must be appropriate to the sleep problem. Taking it at the “wrong” time of day may reset your biological clock in an undesirable direction.
Keep the dose close to the amount that our bodies normally produce (< 0.3 mg per day). You should only use the lowest amount possible to achieve the desired effect.
Between 0.5mg to 5 mg about 60 minutes before bedtime is a typical dose for adults, while children should take a smaller dose.
People commonly make the mistake of assuming that taking higher doses of melatonin will lead to better shut-eye. But the opposite is true: Too much taken at once can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, or irritability, all of which can disrupt your sleep.
Who should take Melatonin?
*For occasional insomnia and sleeplessness: Short term help for certain insomnia such as delayed sleep disorder or other sleep disorders affecting circadian rhythm. Some report that Melatonin helps reduce the time it takes for them to fall asleep.
*Children with neurodevelopmental disorders
- As an adjunct while weaning off benzodiazepines. Melatonin may help elderly people with insomnia who are tapering off or stopping benzodiazepines. This should only be done under the strict supervision of a health care provider.
- Others: Some other conditions where Melatonin has been successfully used include Menopause, Breast cancer, Prostrate cancer, ADHD, Autism, Fibromyalgia, Sunburn, epilepsy etc. Further details of how Melatonin helps in these conditions should be obtained from your health care provider.
What are some cautions while taking Melatonin?
- Avoid activities that require alertness — such as driving or operating heavy machinery — for four to five hours after taking melatonin.
- Duration of use: melatonin is generally recommended only for short-term use — up to two months.
- Listed doses may not be controlled or accurate, meaning the amount of melatonin in a pill you take may not be the amount listed on the package. Most commercial products are offered at dosages that cause melatonin levels in the blood to rise to much higher levels than are naturally produced in the body. Taking a typical dose (1 to 3 mg) may elevate your blood melatonin levels to 1 to 20 times normal.
What are the different types of Melatonin?
- Quick release vs sustained release. Some studies claim that sustained release tablets form had produced better results with more sustained sleep time.
- There are two kinds of melatonin: synthetic or natural. It is recommended to take the synthetic time release formula. It is the closer to the molecular make-up of melatonin and is made with pharmaceutical grade ingredients. Natural melatonin may contain animal parts through which viruses and diseases can be carried. Herbal/health supplements should be purchased from a reliable source to minimize the risk of contamination.
What are the side effects of Melatonin?
Although uncommon, allergic reactions to melatonin have been reported. Stop taking melatonin and seek emergency medical attention if you experience symptoms of a serious allergic reaction including difficulty breathing; closing of your throat; swelling of your lips, tongue, or face; or hives.
The more common melatonin side effects include:
- Daytime sleepiness
Other, less common melatonin side effects might include abdominal discomfort, mild anxiety, irritability, confusion and short-lasting feelings of depression.
Decreased libido, breast enlargement in men, and decreased sperm count
Who should not take Melatonin ?
- Pregnant or nursing women should not take melatonin because it could interfere with fertility.
- people with depression should consult their doctor before using melatonin supplements.
- Drug interactions with the following drugs has been reported:
Blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants)
Medications that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants)
Birth control pills
Blood Pressure medications
Other — Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol can all lower levels of melatonin in the body.
Caution regarding synthetic Melatonin:
While it appears to be safe, Melatonin has not been evaluated by the FDA for safety, effectiveness, or purity. All potential risks and/or advantages of melatonin may not be known. Additionally, there are no regulated manufacturing standards in place for these compounds, so synthetic melatonin is made in factories that are not regulated by the FDA. While there are real concerns about the widespread use of melatonin sold as a consumer product, there have not been any reported cases of proven toxicity or overdose.