Sleep is a tricky thing. Some of us are naturals—we easily wake to light and sleep with darkness like gold medalists, as if sleep were an Olympic sport—while others are not. The American Sleep Association estimates that 50-70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. And according to a 2017 article in the Journal for Neurological Research, individuals with sleep disorders can spend an average of $2,000 more a year in medical expenses, compared to those without sleep interruption.
Anyone who has suffered from too little sleep knows it adversely impacts much of life, like emotional and physical well-being. People who don’t get enough sleep are more vulnerable to delayed reaction times, depression, obesity, and maybe even heart complications. So, how do we fall and stay asleep when counting sheep and other common tactics just don’t work? The answer may be a dose of melatonin.
What is melatonin?
Simply put, melatonin is a hormone your body naturally produces. It’s a chemical messenger, per say, that responds to some sort of stimulate (in this case, darkness) that affects other parts of the body. Melatonin is synthesized and released from the pineal gland, located in the middle of the brain.
How does it work?
Actual darkness signals the pineal gland to awaken and release melatonin into the bloodstream. While the clock may indicate it’s bedtime, bright light (natural or fluorescent) may inhibit the production and release of melatonin. Therefore, avoiding bright screens before bed or pulling the shades may help you get more Z’s.
When do you use it?
Knowing when to ingest extra melatonin will require a conversation with your medical provider. However, the National Sleep Foundation says intervention may be needed to aid sleep when behavioral changes have proven ineffective, completing daily tasks become difficult, or when lack of sleep is leading to stress. Also, melatonin may do the trick to improve sleep onset, duration, and quality, when other pharmaceutical interventions have proven ineffective. And it does it with less measurable side effects (yay!).
Increasing consumption of melatonin-containing foods may promote healthier sleep cycles. Cherries, nuts, mushrooms, fish, and eggs are good dietary sources. However, if you’re looking for a quick and easy route, you can also get melatonin supplements without a prescription. According to an article in the Nutrition Journal (2014) titled “The effectiveness of melatonin for promoting healthy sleep: a rapid evidence assessment of the literature,” it’s the most frequently requested over-the-counter sleep aid because evidence has shown its effectiveness getting individuals to sleep more quickly, and resetting sleep cycles.
Risks Associated with Melatonin Supplementation
Melatonin is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so there may be some risks associated with taking the supplement. For example, the dosage listed on the package may not accurately reflect what is in the pill. You must also be mindful of when and how much you take, as supplemental melatonin increases the body’s level of the hormone higher than what’s naturally occurring. This may cause a reset in the body’s natural clock to an undesirable rhythm. That said, there have been no cases of toxicity or overdose on melatonin recorded at this time, according to the National Sleep Foundation. More research is still being conducted regarding its long-term effects. It’s always best to consult your healthcare provider prior to starting supplementation.
Disclaimer: The statements made in this article are NOT intended to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Always check with your medical provider or registered dietitian before making dramatic shifts in your lifestyle.
Sources: American Sleep Association – Sleep Statistics / Journal for Neurological Research (2017) – A Review of Sleep Disorders and Melatonin / National Sleep Foundation – Sleep and Melatonin / Journal of Nutrients (2017) – Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin / Nutrition Journal (2014) – The effectiveness of melatonin for promoting healthy sleep: a rapid evidence assessment of the literature