How Does Melatonin Work?

How Does Melatonin Work?

June 27, 2018

Author: Shelly Weaver-Cather

If you’ve ever mentioned trouble sleeping in a group of friends, you surely got an earful of at-home remedies and therapies you can apply to your bedtime routine for better sleep.

If your friend group is like most of America, about 1.3% of them are using melatonin supplements to get better sleep—and you’ve probably heard some pros and cons. Most people do find that they sleep better when taking a melatonin supplement, but others have adverse side effects. What’s the secret to getting better sleep with melatonin?

What really is this magical mystery pill that promises better sleep? How does melatonin work? Is melatonin harmful?

In this article, we’ll answer the question of how melatonin works as best as we can.

The secret to sleep was within you all along At the risk of spoiling the surprise—melatonin isn’t sleep wizardry. It’s actually a naturally occurring sleep hormone that we produce towards the end of our days, thanks to our circadian rhythm. Our internal clocks tell our pineal glands to start cranking on the melatonin once the sun has set, taking a queue from the lack of light exposure that it’s time to start relaxing and sleeping. Melatonin levels rise at night, lulling us into a quieter state and as the morning nears they rise again, prepping our bodies for the day ahead. While other hormones and factors certainly play a role in our sleep patterns, melatonin might be the key to staying asleep.

You’ve probably heard about the light from electronics making it more difficult to sleep, and when you look at the triggers for melatonin production, it makes perfect sense. When light interacts with our optic nerve, melatonin is hardly traceable in our systems. As daylight fades into night, the lack of stimulation to your eyes triggers the production of melatonin. The reason you might struggle to stay asleep when the sun is streaming in through your window is likely due to the light stimulation stopping melatonin production, preventing sleep and waking you up.

What affects melatonin levels? Other than the effect light exposure has on our melatonin levels, environmental factors can impact your body’s ability to produce the necessary level of melatonin for a great night’s sleep.

  • Naturally lowering melatonin levels as you age
  • Sudden change in your daily schedule, like working a new shift
  • Jet lag
  • Certain medications
  • Unbalanced diet
  • Lack of daily exercise
  • Certain foods contain melatonin–cherries, olives, rice, walnuts and many other foods help you sleep

If you’re struggling to sleep and any of these factors might ring a bell, correcting for the lack of melatonin in your body to begin with might solve your sleep issue.

How to take melatonin

If you’re eating right, working out regularly, and cutting out the amount of light in your bedroom with no success, a melatonin supplement might be the answer for you. You should always talk to your doctor before adding any supplements or medications into your daily regimen, as melatonin can interact with certain types of medications you may be on.

If you have the all clear, here are a few tips and tricks to using melatonin to get better sleep.

Because doctors believe melatonin to be relatively safe, you can buy it over the counter. Health food stores, drug stores, and even more grocery stores should have lose-dose melatonin available in their pharmacy or wellness sections. You should keep your dose between 1-2mg unless otherwise determined by your doctor.

There aren’t many known side effects or risks of taking melatonin regularly, but interacting with hormones can impact different bodies in different ways. Always take note of anything that seems odd when trying a new sleep supplement to discuss with your physician.

Melatonin is not regulated by the FDA, so using the lowest effective dose is a good way to avoid flooding your system with sleep hormones and confusing your body—which might actually keep you up longer. Because it isn’t regulated, dosages and quality may vary, so ask your doctor to recommend a reputable brand.

Timing is key Success with taking melatonin is entirely dependent on good timing. Use this guide to determine the best time of day for your needs.

Trouble falling asleep If you just aren’t falling asleep in the first place, taking melatonin before bed could help assist your internal clock with bedtime. Everyone’s body is different, so this might take some adjusting, but generally people find taking their dose 30 minutes before bed is a good window of time. Most people use melatonin take it before bed.

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome—night owls, this one’s for you! Circadian rhythm disorders come in a few shapes ad sizes, but Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome generally refers to those who go to bed much later than the general population by nature. If you typically fall asleep towards the early morning but want to try and fall asleep earlier in the night, you might want to try taking melatonin 2-4 hours before your desired bedtime. This may take a bit more experimenting to get right. Ensuring that you have more light exposure when you want to be awake can also help reset your circadian rhythm and get you on a more regular sleep pattern.

Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome—first to bed, first to rise! If you find that your body naturally prefers to hit the hay several hours earlier than most of the people you know, as well as wake up much too early, Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome could be at fault. In that case, melatonin might be able to help you sleep, but you may try taking it in the morning when you first wake up. This could eventually help reset your sleep schedule so that you’re staying asleep into the morning and waking up at a much more reasonable time. If you think this sounds familiar, consult with your doctor or a sleep specialist before taking things into your own hands, they might be able to help guide you.

Does melatonin give you nightmares? There’s a myth out there that melatonin gives you bizarre, scary, or just downright insane dreams. In fact, it’s one of the reasons several people on the Tuft & Needle team refuse to take it, however, there is no correlation between the hormone itself and the increase in nightmares or strange dreams.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t contributing them, however.

According to an interview in the Huffington Post with sleep scientist Dr. Sanjeev Kothare, melatonin itself isn’t the root of stranger dreams than normal—REM is. People who are taking melatonin aren’t exactly getting the rest they need, and the sudden change in the amount of REM could easily be the culprit for more vivid, memorable dreams, for better or worse.

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