Melatonin is a hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycles and is produced by a small rice-sized gland in your brain called the pineal gland. It’s most recognizable though as the massively popular “natural” sleep aid supplement that can be purchased practically anywhere in stores and online.
When the pineal is “turned on” at night, it begins to release the hormone into the bloodstream, making the body feel more relaxed and less alert. However, even when the pineal gland is switched “on” at night, it won’t automatically produce melatonin unless you’re in a dimly lit environment. Even sunlight and artificial indoor lighting can be bright enough to prevent the release of the hormone. Melatonin hormone levels rise in the evening around 9 pm and stay elevated until it falls back to a normal daytime level around 9 am.
In the winter there is less exposure to natural light, so our bodies adapt by changing the internal clock to produce melatonin earlier or later than usual. This can throw off natural sleep cycles and sometimes causes fatigue, low energy, mood changes, or other symptoms that are found in Seasonal Affective Disorder (non-clinical) – also called “winter blues” or melatonin depression.
Melatonin is not always naturally produced in the body, which is especially true for people 60 years of age and older. There can be several causes of low melatonin that influence hormone production like age, stress, not enough natural light during the day, exposure to light at night, working the night shift, time zone changes (jet lag), lack of sleep, leaky gut and nutrient deficiencies.
When people have trouble sleeping, often they turn to over-the-counter sleep aids. Synthetic melatonin, which is not categorized as a “drug,” has been available as a supplement to consumers for over three decades and is made in factories that aren’t regulated by the FDA. Makers of the supplement claim synthetic melatonin to be a natural, non-addicting hormone supplement that helps you get to sleep faster and sleep longer.
It may not be widely known, but synthetic melatonin bought over the counter may contain a variety of fillers that could cause some side effects not likely with “natural” melatonin.
“Most melatonin supplements sold over the counter do not contain the amount of the hormone listed on the label, and about 25 percent contain unlabeled serotonin” according to new research from the University of Guelph. The study tested 30 common melatonin supplements, sold as capsules, tablets, liquids, and strips, and showed about 71 percent of the products did not meet the label claims. About 12 to 25 percent contained nearly five times more of the melatonin hormone than was labeled.
According to experts, taking synthetic melatonin can shorten how long it takes you to fall asleep and may reduce how many times you wake up – but may not necessarily improve your total sleep time. Some studies suggest that prolonged use of melatonin can actually amplify insomnia and that also, ingesting too much melatonin will overwhelm the receptors and can change your body’s reaction to the hormone. Surprisingly, other studies showed taking the supplement showed no benefit at all. These divided debates prove much more research is needed to help completely understand the effects of taking melatonin supplements.
Depending on your sleep needs, the amount you take can vary. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following doses:
For general help falling asleep, 0.3 and 10 mg.
For insomnia in older adults, 0.1 and 5 mg may be enough.
To combat jet lag, 0.1 and 8 mg taken close to bedtime at your destination and then daily for a few nights.
Parents should take caution when giving melatonin to children on an ongoing basis simply because the concentration of melatonin can vary so widely. Some animal studies show melatonin can affect puberty-related hormones; however, there is little evidence yet to say this is completely true in humans.
Possible Side Effects
Melatonin supplements at any dose could still cause some side effects including headaches, short-term feelings of depression, mild anxiety, irritability, daytime, sleepiness, dizziness, and stomach cramps.
Because melatonin is unregulated (and can be made in higher dosages than what is written on the label) overdoses are possible but not highly likely. Some signs of overdose are hypothermia, drowsiness, confusion, reduced blood flow and joint pain, irritability, mood changes (sadness, worsening depression, anxiety), hallucinations, paranoia, nightmares, disorientation, a decrease in blood pressure, stomach problems and risk of seizures and liver damage.
You can increase melatonin levels in your body naturally before going to bed by reducing exposure to different types of lighting. For example, a couple of hours before you usually go to bed, dim the lights, watch TV in moderation, limit your time on the computer, avoid any bright lights – and if possible wear blue light blocking glasses at night a few hours before bedtime.
To find out if your body has too much melatonin (from supplements you’re taking) or too little (not producing enough naturally) you can test your levels by visiting a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine practitioner (Normally most general practitioners don’t perform this test). They will be able to give you results and insight into your personal levels and make proper medical recommendations. The test is reasonably simple: a test strip that requires a small amount of saliva. If you would rather test it yourself, check out the in-home melatonin test kits available online.
There you have it. Go spread the good word: Melatonin.