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How Melatonin Can Help Reset Your Body Clock

Darkness falls…bedtime arrives…sleep releases you to your dreams…then in the morning, you awake rested and refreshed. That’s your night, every night, right?

If not, you’re not alone. In a recent Consumer Reports survey, 68% of people—an estimated 164 million Americans—reported struggling with sleep at least once a week.

That’s where melatonin comes in. Melatonin is increasingly popular as a “natural supplement for sleep”; more than 3 million people used it in 2012, according to a national...

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Darkness falls…bedtime arrives…sleep releases you to your dreams…then in the morning, you awake rested and refreshed. That’s your night, every night, right?

If not, you’re not alone. In a recent Consumer Reports survey, 68% of people—an estimated 164 million Americans—reported struggling with sleep at least once a week.

That’s where melatonin comes in. Melatonin is increasingly popular as a “natural supplement for sleep”; more than 3 million people used it in 2012, according to a national survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s what you should know.

Melatonin Tells Your Body What Time It Is

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland deep in your brain. It helps regulate other hormones and maintains your body’s circadian rhythm (the cycle of sleep and wakefulness, also called the “biological clock”), among other functions.

Leading circadian physiology researcher Professor David Kennaway of the University of Adelaide, Australia, says that “there’s now a considerable body of evidence that disruption of normal circadian rhythms is detrimental”—simply, good sleep is crucial to good health. In its role as the “chemical signal of the time of day,” melatonin stands as a gatekeeper for your body’s sleep-wake cycle.

Melatonin is an example of your body’s natural response to your environment—in this case, the rhythm of light and dark. For most of us, melatonin production increases after dark, about 2 hours before bedtime. The hormone slows down your system, reduces your heart rate and blood pressure, and initiates a state of “quiet wakefulness” that readies you for sleep. Melatonin levels stay elevated overnight and drop as daylight approaches. (In the daytime, your melatonin is almost undetectable.)

Recipe for a Disrupted Circadian Cycle

Getting bright lights at night or too little light during the day—or counter to when your body expects it to be night or day—can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle and melatonin production. This happens to shift workers who start working at night and sleeping during the day; it’s also why you feel jet lag when you’ve crossed several time zones. When your body is no longer synchronized to the light/dark cycle around you, you can have trouble sleeping, difficulty waking up, and feel unfocused and sluggish when you need to be alert and productive.

The same disruption can occur in everyday life after a stretch of long days and irregular hours, or by the transition from vacation back to work or school.

For short-term circadian disruptions like these, you might find that supporting your body’s own melatonin with a supplement can help you get back into a healthy sleep-wake schedule.

How Melatonin Can Help Reset Your Body Clock

Melatonin has been shown to be most effective in situations where your body needs to be entrained—that is, biologically synchronized—to the light/dark cycle of your environment.

As a supplement, melatonin works with your body clock, essentially “telling your brain when it’s time to sleep.” Research shows that melatonin may help you fall asleep more quickly, which can be especially helpful for people who struggle to fall asleep and wake up late the next day.

Some researchers believe that melatonin levels may be related to aging. Children’s levels are highest, and they tend to drop as we age. Some research has found that lower melatonin levels may explain why some seniors have sleep problems, yet newer studies are questioning that conclusion—more research is needed to answer this question.

For best results, you can help melatonin’s sleep signals to work:

  • Lower the lights and stop using electronics 1-2 hours before bedtime; their blue- and green-toned light can disrupt melatonin’s effects. Even better, make “unplugging” part of your relaxing bedtime routine.
  • If you watch TV before bed, stay at least 6 feet away from the screen.
  • Keep the room where you sleep cool, dark, and quiet.
  • In the morning, let the natural light in. Get some daylight several times throughout your day to help re-program your body to produce melatonin at the right time.
  • If you’re traveling, adjust your sleep-wake schedule to the destination a few days in advance. When you arrive, stay awake until your usual bedtime. Outdoor daylight exposure will help, too.

As always when you take a supplement, be aware of how it fits into your wellness routine:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider first if you’re having trouble sleeping to rule out an underlying health condition (such as sleep apnea), if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, if you’re taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications regularly, and before giving it to a child. Don’t use melatonin if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, have an autoimmune or seizure disorder, or depression.
  • When you take melatonin matters. Taking it before your desired bedtime helps it work with your natural body clock; using it at another time of day risks resetting it in the wrong direction.
  • Different people respond to melatonin differently. Begin with the lowest dose to see how it affects you. The right dosage should produce restful sleep with no trouble waking, and no irritability or drowsiness during the day.
  • It’s always healthy to pay attention to the quality of your sleep—because the quality of your sleep literally determines the quality of your health!

 

Resources

Melatonin and how it works in the body is a rich topic and an active research subject. Here are the informative resources that we used for this article.

April Cashin-Garbutt, “Melatonin and the Circadian Rhythm: An Interview with Professor Kennaway, University of Adelaide,” Thought Leaders Series on News-Medical.net, Oct. 20, 2015. Accessed Jun. 23, 2017.
Brent Bauer, “Is melatonin a helpful sleep aid?” MayoClinic.org, Nov. 11, 2014. Accessed Jun. 22, 2017.
Consumer Reports, “Why Americans Can’t Sleep,” ConsumerReports.org, Jan. 14, 2016. Accessed Jun. 22, 2017.
Healthwise, Inc., “Melatonin,” WebMD.com. Accessed Jun. 14, 2017.
Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Melatonin for Sleep: Does It Work?” HopkinsMedicine.org. Accessed Jun. 15, 2017.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, “Melatonin: Not a Magic Bullet for Sleep,” The Sleep Doctor on PsychologyToday.com, Feb. 22, 2011. Accessed Jun. 16, 2017.
National Institutes of Health, “Melatonin: In Depth,” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Apr. 4, 2016. Accessed Jun. 22, 2017.
National Sleep Foundation, “Melatonin and Sleep,” SleepFoundation.org. Accessed Jun. 23, 2017.
National Sleep Foundation, “What Is Melatonin?” Sleep.org. Accessed Jun. 23, 2017.
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, “Melatonin Supplement Information,” WebMD.com, 2009. Accessed Jun. 14, 2017.
Science Daily, “Sleep-Wake Rhythms Vary Widely with Age as well as Among Individuals of a Given Age,” PLOS ONE on ScienceDaily.com, Jun. 21, 2017. Accessed Jun. 23, 2017.
Scott Gavura, “Melatonin for Sleep Disorders—Safe and Effective?” ScienceBasedMedicine.org, Jul. 4, 2013. Accessed Jun. 21, 2017.
Stephen D. Ehrlich, NMD, “Melatonin,” University of Maryland Medical Center, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, Feb. 3, 2016. Accessed Jun. 15, 2017.
Talk About Sleep, “The Importance of Melatonin,” TalkAboutSleep.com, Aug. 23, 2013. Accessed Jun. 28, 2017.
Wikipedia, “Melatonin,” Wikipedia.com, last edited Jun. 14, 2017. Accessed Jun. 16, 2017.

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