ONCE UPON A TIME, before we had artificial lighting, melatonin really did control our sleep/ wake cycles. And, like Dracula, it only comes out at night!
Now, with irregular hours of work, late night parties, television, air travel across the time zones and the modern “daylight” lamps, melatonin is being challenged.
Your own natural body clock determines how melatonin is produced. Darkness makes the body produce more melatonin, which prepares us for sleep.
Light reduces the amount produced. The pea sized pineal gland, right in the middle of you head, is where melatonin is manufactured from tryptogen. Usually, levels of melatonin start to rise mid to late evening, remain high through most of night and drop in the early hours.
The primary use of melatonin as a supplement is to normalize abnormal sleep patterns. In particular, it helps decrease the time it takes to fall asleep.
Normal levels of melatonin vary throughout the 24 hours. There is still controversy as to the whether it is best to measure the levels in the urine the saliva or the blood. If you are tested for melatonin, the laboratory will be able to tell you if your levels are normal for you.
Young children have the highest levels of night time melatonin. Levels drop with age, some older people make very little, or none at all.
It is possible that the lower levels of melatonin explain why some older people have sleep problems. Going to bed and waking up earlier than when they were younger. But newer research questions this. The older the person the lower the natural level will be.
The amount of melatonin produced is affected by light. When sunlight is scarce, during the short winter days, a seasonal depression may set in, especially at higher latitudes. The levels of melatonin fluctuate at times you are not used to. Serotonin levels are also lower. This is known as the Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD.
To treat SAD light boxes may be bought. They are used for around 30 minutes a day. The light is about 25 times as bright as a normal day light.
Light supresses the secretion of melatonin – but blue light is most powerful. People who are constantly in front of screens and lights (especially before bed) are specially at risk.
Two interesting research projects:
BluBlocker Sunglasses are designed to help increase melatonin production
Blue light blocking goggles may have a place in protecting shift workers – but they are expensive and it is not clear how beneficial they would be.
Use less blue light at night.
Modern fluorescent lightbulbs and LED lights which are much more energy-efficient than the old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs. But they also tend to produce more blue light. The inside of the bulbs can be coated to block off some of the blue light.
Air travellers who cross several time zones frequently suffer from jet-lag. Their bodies are out of sync with the earth time. Melatonin may help them realign themselves with the outside world.
10 trials were reviewed and nine of the ten found that taking melatonin at bed time reduced jet-lag from flights crossing five or more time zones. Daily doses of melatonin between 0.5 and 5mg are also effective. The 2mg slow-release melatonin does not work well.
The more time zones are crossed, the more benefit from melatonin, especially when travelling in an easterly direction. Taken early in the day, it causes sleepiness and delays adapting to local time. People with epilepsy and patients taking warfarin should not take melatonin until more research has been done.
UVA radiation causes tanning. The rays penetrate to the lower layers of the skin. Here they trigger cells called melanocytes to produce melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that causes tanning. It protects skin from burning.
Darker-skinned people’s melanocytes produce more melanin. But even without burning you can still damage your skin and get skin cancers – of which melanoma is the most lethal. While a good dose of sunlight during the day can help you sleep more soundly, tanning in itself does not affect sleep.
If your levels of melatonin are too low, you may have difficulty getting to sleep. But everyone is different, and many people tolerate moderately low levels without problems; we don’t really know about them. Individual sensitivity does play a role, but it makes sense to have the level at which you function best.
Melatonin has a huge effect upon sleep, and if you are having trouble sleeping it is well worth checking your personal levels of melatonin. If they are on the low side, then you may want to supplement your melatonin.
The popular solution is to supplement it, however you can find tiny amounts of it in some foods:
These are the modern answer to controlling melanin levels. They attempt to replace light as the dominant factor in adjusting the levels of melatonin.
Usually, melatonin supplements come in pill form, but there are some you can place under your tongue for speedy results. Smokers tend to be less responsive to supplementation.
Be sure to take the man- made melatonin. Older preparations from ground-up cow pineal glands have the risk of infection with mad cow disease.
Children and pregnant or nursing women should not take melatonin without talking to a doctor first.
There are no hard and fast rules as the correct dose varies from person to person, and the reason for using it.
Doses vary from 0.2 mg to 20.0 mg. Discuss this with your doctor before taking melatonin.
In most cases, melatonin supplements are safe in low doses for short-term use (up to 2 months) and less commonly in long-term use.
Melatonin does have side effects. But they will go away when you stop taking the supplement. Side effects may include:
If melatonin makes you feel drowsy, do not drive or operate machinery when you are taking it.
Melatonin may also interact with some medications:
Like any drug which has beneficial effects, melatonin also has side effects. You need to judge whether the benefit outweighs any risk, and discuss it with your own doctor.
Like Dracula, Melatonin works in the dark. It is affected by light, blue light most of all. It helps you get to sleep more easily. This is especially true when normal sleeping patterns are disrupted.
Melatonin supplements are usually safe, but you should consult your doctor before taking them, as there are some side effects. The dose needs to be adjusted to your individual needs. Taken properly, melatonin supplements can be a great help in getting you off to sleep.