You’ve probably seen it in other stories about sleep or heard about it through friends as a way to cure all your sleeping woes. Melatonin has entered the sphere of common knowledge, but many of us aren’t sure what it means, or if it’s good for us. Our resident sleep expert, Dr. Roy Raymann, explains the truth around melatonin and lays to rest some common fallacies.
What is melatonin?
Often referred to as the ‘sleep hormone’, this is actually not an entirely accurate descriptor. It’s really a hormone of darkness, created by your body and released at night when it’s dark or you are wearing a sleeping mask. “Essentially, this hormone tells your body and brain when it’s daytime and when it’s nighttime, helping us prepare for either sleep or waking up.” says Dr. Raymann.
How and when is melatonin released?
It all has to do with your body clock. That clock is orchestrating the release of melatonin and the timing is impacted, either by light or absence of light. In general, melatonin release will start 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. As the day draws to a close and light gives way to darkness, your eyes notice the absence of light and send a signal to your master body clock in your brain (a tiny structure called suprachiasmatic nucleus, in short SCN) which triggers the pineal gland to release melatonin. “This tells all your organ body clocks that that evening is approaching, so now both brain and body know it is night time and time to shift gears.” Dr. Raymann continues.
When it’s dark and your body clock is ready for evening, melatonin is released into your body. It continues releasing throughout the night and then begins to taper off as morning approaches.
What happens when melatonin is released?
Part of the sleep-inducing effect melatonin has is explained by the fact that your blood vessels widen due to the melatonin in your blood. Because of this, you feel comfortably warm, which has been shown to put you in a more sleep-friendly state.
What about taking melatonin?
There are only a few instances where taking additional melatonin via over the counter supplements is recommended, according to Dr. Raymann.
- To prep for or deal with jetlag– Instead of relying solely on your travel pillow, taking melatonin at certain times to help your body adjust to new time zones prior to traveling is a great way to stay ahead of jetlag and prevent time change tiredness.
- For the elderly– As you grow older, your pineal gland becomes more calcified, which means less melatonin is released. Additionally, your eye lens is yellowed, which means your eyes are less able to determine lightness from darkness, further inhibiting melatonin production.
- Those with low melatonin levels– Through testing of your nighttime melatonin level, a doctor may determine you are low in melatonin and prescribe the right treatment plan for you.
Can you have or take too much melatonin?
“There is no such thing as an acute melatonin overdose if you take the pills as prescribed, even for the 20 mg pills,” continues Dr. Raymann, “Even taking a very high dosage of melatonin (up to 1000 milligram) frequently does not result in toxicity in adults.”
But too much melatonin can derail the delicate balance of different hormones in your body.
“It has been shown that very few people report adverse effects from taking melatonin, ranging from headaches to seizures. If you take melatonin orally, you’re essentially taking away the need for your body making melatonin on its own. This then throws off your natural production of melatonin and might lead to consequences when you forget to take the supplement.”
Are there melatonin ‘best practices’?
Dr. Raymann addresses a few key things to keep in mind if you’re thinking of taking melatonin.
- Watch for the right dosage– Look for dosages that fall between 0.5-3mg. Dosages any higher won’t have any additional positive effects, only negative ones; you may just end up paying more money for it and disturbing your sleep.
- Look for time release pills, that release the melatonin throughout the night. This mimics what your body would naturally do throughout the night, as opposed to standard melatonin pills which give you a peak dose just after ingestion.
- Look for well-established brands– Melatonin as a sleep supplement is currently not well regulated, so any number of other things could be in your melatonin supplement.
SleepScore recommends REMfresh– a 2mg dosage that actually time releases the melatonin.
If you’re looking for a way to magically fix your sleep problems, sadly melatonin supplements won’t be your answer. But, in the right circumstances, it can be used to help maintain our natural body clocks. Have more melatonin questions? Tweet us @sleepscore!