By Kelly A. Bennion, Ph.D., Ed.M
Whether we like to admit it or not, the average American adult typically fails to get the recommended 7-9 hours of nightly sleep. For some, this is because of an inability or unwillingness to prioritize our sleep. However, others may try their absolute best to sleep well, yet find themselves wide awake in bed despite their best efforts! For any who struggle with healthy sleep, you will likely benefit from paying attention to melatonin, a hormone produced by the human brain in response to darkness. Here, we will discuss what melatonin is, how it impacts sleep, how we can increase melatonin (both naturally and via supplements), and best practices regarding melatonin supplementation.
What is melatonin, and how does it impact sleep?
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the brain’s pineal gland. It is involved in the regulation of our body’s circadian rhythms (i.e., physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle), helping synchronize the sleep-wake cycle with night and day. Our melatonin production increases during darkness and decreases when it is light, meaning that there is a great deal that we can do to impact our melatonin levels, even without supplements, such as limiting our light exposure in the hours preceding sleep.
As melatonin levels rise in the evening, this initiates many physiological changes that help our body relax, cool down, and prepare for sleep. As melatonin levels rise in the early morning hours, this signals the body to wake up. If our melatonin levels are not sufficiently high when we lay down for bed, it will be difficult for us to fall asleep.
Exposure to blue light, such as that emitted by electronics (i.e., your phone and laptop!), is especially detrimental to melatonin production. Therefore, one essential habit for proper sleep hygiene is to put electronics away 1-2 hours before bed. If it is necessary to use such devices at night, consider wearing blue light-blocking glasses or using a blue-light-blocking app like f.lux. In addition to decreasing blue light exposure, be sure that your sleeping environment is set up for optimal melatonin secretion: your bedroom should be dark (e.g., with blackout curtains, any small LED lights covered, your cell phone should be put away), and you should ideally be able to get to anywhere you need to go without turning on bright lights. This way, if you need to wake up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, you can avoid turning on lights and signaling to your brain and body that it is time to wake up for the day!
Are there foods that have melatonin?
While the best way to regulate our melatonin levels is by controlling our light exposure, certain foods are higher in melatonin that, similarly, can promote sleepiness. Some foods high in melatonin are tart cherries, goji berries, eggs, milk, fish (especially salmon), nuts (especially pistachios and almonds), mushrooms, and eggs. These foods would make a great nighttime snack as you prepare for bed.
Should I take supplemental melatonin? If so, what are some appropriate guidelines?
For most adults, melatonin is a safe supplement, though it is always essential to speak with a physician before making such changes to your lifestyle because the body’s response to melatonin depends on many individual differences. Before turning to melatonin supplements, first, consider making changes to your nighttime routine; you will be surprised what a powerful impact dimming lights in the evening and putting your phone away before bed can do on their own!
Additionally, be sure you are getting enough exposure to bright light during the day, especially in the morning, which will also help regulate your circadian rhythms. If you are still having trouble falling asleep after making these lifestyle changes, you can consider taking 1 to 3mg of melatonin two hours before bedtime, though this may depend on the particular supplement (and again, only if approved by a physician). For trustworthy dosages, consider supplements that have been certified by Consumer Labs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International. Depending on how the melatonin supplements work for you after about a week, you could consider altering the dose or timing (re: when relative to your desired bedtime you take it). Keeping a log of how long it takes you to fall asleep and the amount of melatonin you have consumed will also help you nail down what works best for you!
Sleep deprivation is associated with many negative consequences for our physical and mental health, ranging from relatively minor (e.g., tiredness, irritability) to more serious or even fatal (e.g., increased risk of chronic disease, fatal errors on the job or while driving). Consider your melatonin levels if you need more sleep or wish to optimize your sleep habits! It could make a world of difference.