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Melatonin Benefits, Side Effects and Everything You Need to Know for Sleep

Melatonin benefits

How important a role does Melatonin play in our sleep patterns will surprise you

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.

Main Uses of Melatonin

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.

Insominia

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Quality of sleep
  • Associated with ADHD
  • Beta blockers used to treat high blood pressure
  • Children with autism,cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities if there are sleep problems
  • Adjust body’s internal clock
  • Jet lag
  • Shift workers
  • Blind people to help establish a day/night cycle
  • After stopping benzodiazepines (prescribed for sleeping)

and also

Other Benefits of Melatonin

  • Powerful antioxidant
  • Preliminary evidence suggests that it may help strengthen the immune system
  • Melatonin also has several anti-cancer properties, and is currently being investigated for its role in fighting breast cancer
  • Potentially stops your body from gaining more fat
  • Delays age related loss of vision
  • Reduces tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
  • Reduces side effects when stopping smoking
  • Said to prevent premature ageing
  • Improves mood (by helping you get better sleep)
  • Reduces chronic cluster headaches

Possibly even more benefits of melatonin, but these need vindicating by more and better research:

  • Calms people before surgery
  • Calm agitation caused by anaesthesia
  • Alzheimer's disease or memory loss (dementia)
  • Bipolar disorder,
  • Mild mental impairment
  • Migraine
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease
  • Endometriosis,
  • Depression
  • Non-alcoholic liver disease,
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS),
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Tardive dyskinesia – a disorder of movement
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Enlarged prostate tissue
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Ulcerative colitis – an inflammatory disease of the bowel
  • Acid reflux disease, Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
  • Exercise performance
  • Epilepsy
  • Menopause
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Bone loss (osteoporosis)
  • Stress
  • Difficulty in controlling urination
  • Pain in the jaw
  • Birth control
  • Infertility

What is a healthy level of melatonin?

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.

Some cause of low melatonin levels:

  • Age
  • The Seasons
  • Exposure to light – especially blue light
  • Shift workers where melatonin levels are highest when they are working at night time

Age

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 SeasonsSeasonal Affective Disorder – SAD

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.

Exposure to 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:

  • Havard researches did an experiment comparing the effects of 6 ½ hours of exposure to blue or green light. They found that blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light. This altered the circadian (body clock) rhythms by up to 3 hours.
  • University of Toronto researchers assessed the use of goggles to block blue light in brightly lit areas and found that melatonin levels were similar to that found in dim light without wearing goggles. This suggests that blue light does inhibit the production of melatonin.

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.

How You Can Help Yourself Get To Sleep At Night

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.

  • Night lights, if used, should be a dim red.
  • Avoid looking at bright screens beginning two to three hours before bed. Read a book instead or go for a walk
  • If you do use a lot of electronic devices at night, consider wearing blue-blocking goggles
  • Night shift workers might benefit from blue-blocking glasses
  • Bright daylight not only helps you keep alert in the day time – it also helps you sleep

People who suffer from Jet Lag

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.

Does tanning affect sleep?

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.

A word about the right level of Melatonin for you

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.

How do you increase your levels of Melatonin?

The popular solution is to supplement it, however you can find tiny amounts of it in some foods:

  • Meat
  • Grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

Supplements

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.

Melatonin Dosage – How much should I take?

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.

Side effects

Melatonin does have side effects. But they will go away when you stop taking the supplement. Side effects may include:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Lower body temperature
  • Vivid dreams
  • Headaches
  • Small changes in blood pressure

If melatonin makes you feel drowsy, do not drive or operate machinery when you are taking it.

Melatonin may also interact with some medications:

  • Anticoagulants – blood-thinning medications
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Birth control pills
  • Medications for diabetes

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.

Conclusion

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.

References

[1] Original Paper European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience November 1999, Volume 249, Issue 5, pp 256-262 A multinational study of the relationships between nighttime urinary melatonin production, age, gender, body size, and latitude L. Wetterberg, Trond Bratlid, Lars von Knorring, Göran Eberhard, Arthur Yuwiler

[2] www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

[3] AbstractSend to: Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(2):CD001520. Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag. Herxheimer A1, Petrie KJ.

[4] J Clin Sleep Med. 2008 Feb 15; 4(1): 66–69.PMCID: PMC2276833 Measuring Melatonin in Humans Susan Benloucif, Ph.D.,1 Helen J. Burgess, Ph.D.,2 Elizabeth B. Klerman, M.D., Ph.D.,3 Alfred J. Lewy, M.D., Ph.D.,4 Benita Middleton, Ph.D.,5 Patricia J. Murphy, Ph.D.,6 Barbara L. Parry, M.D.,7 and Victoria L. Revell, Ph.D.5

[5] Journal of Gerontology: BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES 1998, Vol. 53A, No. 4, B293-B298 Copyright 1998 by The Gerontological Society of America Endogenous Melatonin Levels and the Fate of Exogenous Melatonin: Age Effects Irina V. Zhdanova, Richard J. Wurtman, Aygul Balcioglu, Alex I. Kartashov, and Harry J. Lynch Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

DISCLAIMER: This web site does not take the place of your usual medical practitioner, it is intended to give information only and not to diagnose or provide medical treatment. It cannot cover all possible uses, interactions and adverse side effects. If you are at all worried about your health - please see your own doctor. Do not delay this as a result of anything you may have read about on the web. Many symptoms can result from a variety of causes, some may require specialist diagnosis and treatment. You should also consult your medical practitioner before taking any supplements as some of them may react with essential medicines or have harmful side effects.