Melatonin is a hormone produced from the neurotransmitter serotonin and secreted by the photosensitive pineal gland in the brain. It is a time keeper in the body, has a daily rhythm that peaks at night (regulating the circadian rhythm) and is also involved with the longer seasonal rhythms.
The retina (in the eye) and the gut both play a part in its production – the messages passing through the body via the autonomic and enteric nervous systems (both systems affected by stress).
Its functions go beyond inducing sleep. It helps regulate other hormones, strengthens the immune system, has temperature-lowering effects and is an anti-inflammatory and potent antioxidant.
Based on this information here are some practical things to do today to help you sleep better:
1. Melatonin likes the dark. In our lifestyles now we don’t actually go to bed when it gets dark and get up with the morning light – but it is a good idea to try to observe more of that rhythm in your life if you are having difficulty sleeping. Turn the lights down low in your home at night creating a quiet ambience.
2. Blue light is worse than red light for producing melatonin. Blue light is what is emitted by our computers and laptops, so if you are working long hours on your computer, and especially late into the night, you are disrupting your natural sleep patterns. Turn the computer off earlier than you normally would and/or move away from the computer screen (if you leave your computer on overnight). Experiment and document exactly how the reduced hours on your computer affect your sleep.
3. Download the f.lux software on to your computer to reduce the bright lights it emits at night (Mac and PC compatible).
After downloading the program, remember to set your time zone so that it knows what part of the world you live in, and adjusts the light accordingly. It is quite fun, especially at sunset time when the subtle pinkish glow comes across your computer – could become your reminder that it’s time to stop work?
4. Use incandescent light rather than fluorescent light.
5. Walk for 40 minutes or more at least 4 times a week, preferably in the morning – to reset your rhythm and wake you up properly (particularly if you didn’t sleep well the night before). It is preferred to not wear sun-block (to let the vitamin D in), and without sunglasses. The morning light will reset your rhythm for the day, allowing your body to feel tired at the end of the day, based on this rhythm. Other advantages of walking are that it is proven to relieve stress and anxiety, is a natural anti-depressant, and gives you some physical exercise and exertion which will improve your health and attitude generally. (Good exercise will help you regulate your weight which affects other sleep disorders including snoring and sleep apnea.)
6. Melatonin has temperature lowering effects. It has been shown that a normal good night’s sleep is spread 6 hours before the point of your lowest body temperature, and two hours afterwards. Sleep cool, rather than being too hot in bed. When your core body temperature is reduced by 0.3°C you can fall asleep. Work with cool temperatures for your best night’s sleep. Do not sleep under heavy doonas/duvets which cause overheating. Sleep temperatures over 32°C start reducing your beneficial rapid eye movement sleep – which is 5°C cooler than normal body temperature!
7. Any stress reducing activities will improve the body’s neurological messaging systems. Have a look at your relaxation times, giving yourself some creative, fun time every day. Ensure that your life is meaningful, contributory and personally rewarding.
There are many other ways, apart from the methods suggested here, to sleep better without using supplements and drugs – and we suggest you try them first. E.g. it could be that you are intolerant to a food additive or coloring, your insomnia might be a side effect of a medication you are taking, etc. Get informed from a reliable source.
We suggest trying the above solutions before supplementation as it may not be necessary.
Melatonin is used as a chronobiotic (time shifting medicine), and has been shown to help with jet lag, shift work, blind subjects, delayed sleep phase (particularly relevant to teenagers) and the elderly (who produce less as they get older). If you are going to trial this supplement, timing is important – look at 7 pm or dusk as starting times. And of course, if you are a shift worker or have jet lag, those times may not be appropriate. According to the respected medical research publication Elsevier, no long term data exists on its use.
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