Sleeping is an essential human function, and at the heart of it is your circadian rhythm, also known as your body clock. It's a natural, biological timer that helps your body recognize sleepiness and wakefulness over a period of 24 hours.
By sticking to a regular bedtime schedule, such as sleeping and waking up at the same time each day, you can maintain a steady circadian rhythm that will allow you to maximize your productivity while you're awake, and get the right amount of sleep when nighttime arrives.1
Your circadian rhythm is largely dictated by your pineal gland. This gland is located near the center of your brain, with a shape that looks similar to a pine cone, hence the name. It's estimated to be one-third of an inch long, and is made up of unique pineal cells and neuroglial cells that help support the gland.
Despite its small size, it plays a crucial role in your health because it produces a single hormone called melatonin, which is vital for controlling your body clock and, ultimately, your sleeping patterns.2
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin, or N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, is a hormone mainly produced by the pineal gland, although other organs in your body (but in smaller amounts) including your eyes, gastrointestinal tract, bones, skin, lymphocytes, platelets and thymus gland, can also produce melatonin.3
Your brain usually starts secreting melatonin around 9 or 10 P.M., which is the time most people go to bed. By increasing the amount, your body begins to recognize that bedtime is fast approaching, allowing you to sleep at an ideal time.4 To do this properly, you need to be aware of your exposure to light throughout the day and especially at night, because melatonin production depends on how much light your body absorbs.
If you stay awake past dark, light emitted by electrical devices hampers your body's ability to produce melatonin. Ideally, you want to stop using gadgets an hour before sleeping to help increase melatonin and maintain a steady circadian rhythm. Nightshift workers usually have it worse and constantly suffer from disrupted body clocks, because of their poor melatonin production.
The Different Uses of Melatonin in Your Body
What is melatonin used for anyway? Based on published research, it has been discovered to perform three main functions:
- Controls your circadian rhythm. Melatonin is commonly used as a sleeping aid by normalizing your circadian rhythm by convincing your body into preparing itself for bedtime.5 In this regard, melatonin is a hormone that only "signals" your body to prepare for sleep, not one that actually makes you fall asleep.
- Functions as an antioxidant. Recent studies have found that melatonin not only affects your body clock, but it also functions as an antioxidant that can help support your health. Specifically, it may help different aspects such as your brain, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health.6 It may even function as an anticancer tool in certain cases.7
- Boosts your immune system. Melatonin may benefit your immune system in various ways. In one study, researchers suggest that melatonin may help improve the treatment of bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis.8 In another study, melatonin has been suggested as a potential tool against inflammation, autoimmune diseases and type 1 diabetes.9
How to Optimize Your Melatonin Levels Naturally to Improve Sleep Quality
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans are suffering from a sleeping or wakefulness disorder.10 As a result, many of them turn to various remedies, such as behavioral and environmental changes, to get a good night's rest.11 One of the first things you can do is to make sure that your body is producing enough melatonin.
Optimizing your melatonin levels naturally is important because it helps keep your body functioning normally without relying on outside factors. So instead of immediately relying on melatonin supplementation, here are a few lifestyle changes I suggest you try first to boost your melatonin production:
Avoid using electronic devices an hour before sleeping. Gadgets such as cellphones, TVs and computers emit blue light, and exposure to it tricks your body it's still daytime. By avoiding gadgets an hour before bed, your body can produce the melatonin needed to help you sleep at your intended time.
Make sure to get regular sunlight exposure. Getting regular sun exposure in the morning or noontime helps your body reduce its melatonin production, so that when nighttime arrives, your pineal gland produces the correct amount to induce sleepiness.
Try to sleep in complete darkness. If possible, try to remove immediate light sources from your room to help improve your sleep quality. The slightest exposure to light can interfere with your body's melatonin production and keep you up later than you need. Keep gadgets 3 feet away from your bed or use blackout window shades.
Remove sources of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in your bedroom. EMFs emitted by certain devices such as Internet routers can disrupt your pineal gland's melatonin production. Ideally, you should turn off your wireless router, as well as other wireless devices connected to the Internet before sleeping.
If you need a nightlight, use a low-wattage yellow, orange or red bulb. Low-wattage bulbs with a yellow, orange or red color do not interfere with melatonin production the same way that white and blue bulbs do.
Wear blue light-blocking glasses. This special device can help keep your eyes from absorbing blue light that can affect your melatonin levels. It can be a useful tool to have around the house, especially if you're constantly surrounded by gadgets and artificial light sources.
In addition, the following foods are known to contain small amounts of melatonin. Making them a part of your regular diet while practicing the aforementioned sleeping tips may help improve sleep quality:12,13
But what if you've already tried everything, and you're still having difficulty getting quality sleep? Then maybe it's time you should consider taking a melatonin supplement. In 2016 alone, 3.1 million adults in the United States used this over-the-counter product to help them sleep peacefully.14
Studies Regarding the Use of Melatonin Supplements
Since the discovery of melatonin, various studies have been conducted to discover how it benefits your health. According to the Journal of Pineal Research, the melatonin secreted by your pineal gland enters every cell in your body and can even cross morphophysiologic barriers. As a result, not only may it help you improve sleep quality,15 but it also has certain anti-inflammatory compounds that may help reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as atherosclerosis and hypertension.16
In addition, a study in the Endocrine Journal reports that increasing melatonin intake may help improve your overall health, as this hormone can be an effective antioxidant that can help fight free radicals in your body.17
Another study suggests that melatonin can help obese people manage their weight. The researchers indicate that certain lifestyle factors suppress melatonin production, which results in sleep disruption that can lead to weight gain. By increasing melatonin production, adequate sleep can be reintroduced as part of a healthy lifestyle (along with other positive lifestyle changes) to help curb obesity.18
How Can Melatonin Benefit Your Health?
Melatonin may help boost your health in various situations, as shown in the table below. While each benefit is backed up with scientific research, always consult with a doctor first before giving melatonin a try.
Melatonin is primarily used to help treat people who have sleeping disorders by inducing sleepiness quicker.19
Melatonin may be used to help treat jet lag by adjusting your body to a new time zone. However, it's generally recommended only for travelers who cross four to five time zones.20
People who are struggling with heart disease may benefit from melatonin. A study has found that it may help lower your bad cholesterol levels by as much as 38 percent.21
Increasing melatonin consumption in menopausal women 42 to 62 years old may help improve mood and stave off depression.22
Children diagnosed with autism who are also plagued with sleeping problems may benefit from melatonin supplementation.
Research indicates that taking the hormone can lead to deeper sleep and better daytime behavior.23 (However, consult your healthcare provider before giving any melatonin supplement to children)
People affected with fibromyalgia are believed to have lower levels of melatonin.
Operating on this hypothesis, a group of researchers found that increasing the melatonin levels of fibromyalgia sufferers through supplementation helped alleviate their symptoms and improved sleep quality.24
Melatonin can help lower your risk of developing gallstones by inhibiting cholesterol absorption across the intestinal epithelium, as well as increasing the conversion of cholesterol into bile.25
If you have tinnitus, slightly increasing your melatonin may improve your symptoms.
In one study, participants who took 3 milligrams of melatonin supplements every night noticed a decrease in tinnitus intensity after the testing duration.26
Essential Melatonin Dosage Reminders
The important question is, how much melatonin should you take? This is a common concern of first-time users and because of misinformation and inexperience, they take more than they should. In addition, many melatonin supplements sold today come in high doses, which the human body doesn't really need.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, people usually take a high dose of melatonin because they believe that it will help them fall asleep faster, but this can actually cause unpleasant side effects.27
The ideal melatonin dosage for adults is 0.25 milligrams for starters and work your way up to a higher quantity. 28 High doses (3 milligrams and above) can possibly make you more wakeful, negating the supplement's benefits and usefulness. I suggest that first-time users always start with a low dose to allow your body to adjust to the supplement.
Furthermore, taking a high dosage can lead to a melatonin overdose. While it isn't considered fatal, you may experience unpleasant side effects, such as daytime drowsiness, mood changes and possibly hallucinations or paranoia.29 I urge you to visit a doctor first to get their recommendation on the ideal dose specific to your needs.
Do Not Take Melatonin If You Have These Conditions
Here's a crucial question you should ask yourself: Are you fit to take melatonin? While there are valid reasons for taking this supplement, remember that it can exacerbate certain health conditions as well. If you have any of the following conditions, you should not take melatonin:30
• A blood clotting disorder
• Currently using other sedatives or tranquilizers
• Currently taking a medicine to prevent organ transplant rejection
• Currently taking a coagulant, or blood-thinning medication
Taking melatonin while pregnant should be avoided as well. It is believed that it may interfere with your pregnancy or fertility.31 If you've recently developed pregnancy-related sleeping problems, I advise you to consider behavioral and dietary changes first before considering melatonin or other similar types of supplement. Refrain from giving melatonin to children, including babies and toddlers, as well, unless approved by your physician.
Side Effects of Melatonin You Should Know About
Some of melatonin's potential side effects include:32,33
Vivid dreams, or possibly nightmares
Body clock disruption
If you are already taking a melatonin supplement and begin to experience any of the mentioned side effects, stop taking it immediately and consult with a doctor for safer alternatives. In addition, melatonin and alcohol should not be taken together, as is the case with other supplements. When taken together, both products can disrupt your sleep instead of making it better. There's also a chance that you may develop headaches and even nightmares.34
Remember: Consider Optimizing Your Melatonin Levels Naturally Before Taking a Supplement
Melatonin is a crucial hormone that performs few but important functions. Low levels of it can lead to sleep disruption, increase your risk of certain diseases and lower your antioxidant capabilities. However, remember to always try and improve your sleeping habits and environment first before attempting melatonin supplementation.
While there's an abundance of scientific evidence that suggest melatonin can be beneficial to your health, too much of it can actually make you more wakeful. By focusing on natural strategies first, you forego this risk, as well as the chances of developing unpleasant side effects that can further disrupt your quality of sleep. If you do decide to take a melatonin supplement, always start with a very low dose under the guidance of a doctor.
Frequently Asked Questions About Melatonin
Q: Is melatonin addictive?
A: Currently, there's very little information regarding melatonin supplement addiction. However, beware that it can still be abused, although the chances of becoming dependent are lower compared to other types of medications or supplements.35
Q: How long does it take for melatonin to work?
A: The average time for melatonin supplements to work is generally 20 minutes. If you're about to take melatonin for the first time, it's recommended that you take it one to two hours before your bedtime.36
Q: Can you take melatonin supplements while pregnant?
A: As of the moment, there is a lack of scientific evidence regarding the use of melatonin supplements on pregnant women, but it's theorized that it may hamper sex drive, reduce ovarian function and increase the risk of developmental disorders. If you're pregnant, it is best that you avoid using this supplement and resort to natural remedies to correct sleeping problems.37
Q: Is melatonin safe to use for kids?
A: Melatonin supplements are found to cause side effects such as bedwetting, diarrhea and dizziness in children. If your child absolutely needs to take melatonin, try the lowest recommended dosage first under the guidance of an experienced doctor.38
Q: How much melatonin is safe to use?
A: You only need to take small amounts of melatonin, initially as low as 0.25 to 0.5 milligrams.39 Most melatonin supplements sold today are three to 10 times higher than the recommended range, which can cause side effects.40
Q: When is the ideal time to take melatonin?
A: Most people can typically take melatonin between 30 to 60 minutes before going to sleep...41
Q: How long does the effects of melatonin last?
A: The half-life of melatonin is very short, around 20 to 50 minutes only. Afterward, melatonin levels in your body normalize until you take your next dose again42
Q: Can you overdose on melatonin?
A: Yes. While there are no reported deaths related to overdosing from melatonin, consuming more than the recommended amount can cause unpleasant side effects.43