Produced by the pineal gland in the brain, melatonin is also known as the sleep hormone. This is because it is produced by the body to encourage drowsiness (1), as natural light fades at the end of the day.
Melatonin production peaks between 2am and 3am, before gradually falling in the hours that follow, as levels of cortisol (also known as the ‘stress hormone’) rise. As night draws to an end, the crossing of the melatonin and cortisol curves prepares the body to be roused from sleep (2).
Melatonin is thus directly related to circadian rhythms, the alternating sleep/wake phases in a 24 hour cycle: this is the famous body clock which can be disrupted, for example, by travel to other time zones or irregular working hours.
A lack of melatonin primarily affects sleep quality:
What’s more, as melatonin is similar to serotonin (known as the ‘feel-good hormone’), a lack of melatonin can cause mood problems, exacerbated by lack of sleep: it’s a vicious circle (3).
Similarly, a lack of melatonin can have a negative impact on our libido and sex life, which can also lead to mood problems, which in turn exacerbates the sex life issues, etc: it’s another vicious circle (4).
A melatonin deficit is therefore not something to shrug off lightly: it can have a significant effect on quality of life in general.
If you often feel tired in the morning, it could be a sign of a sleep problem, potentially one caused by a lack of melatonin.
Tests are available to measure your melatonin levels. You can even buy home testing kits on-line which involve taking saliva or urine samples at various times during the day to establish your hormone levels (cortisol and melatonin) over a 24 hour period. However, their usefulness is limited, and if you’re suffering from persistent sleep problems, it’s best to seek advice from a health professional.
As we’ve seen, melatonin and cortisol are antagonist hormones: they have opposite effects. So it’s obvious that even though high levels of stress do not directly affect melatonin levels, they can reduce its potential, and thus cause the symptoms of melatonin deficiency (5).
While melatonin levels do not necessarily decline with age, several studies have found low melatonin levels in older people as well as in those suffering from sleep problems. However, this correlation has not yet been established as a causal link (6).
Conversely, menopause-induced hormone changes have been shown to affect melatonin production (7).
Furthermore, both shift work and jet lag disrupt our body clocks, producing the same effects as a lack of melatonin. In reality, it’s more a misalignment between circadian-governed melatonin levels and an imposed shift in the timing of sleep (8-9).
Finally, chronobiologists have in recent years demonstrated the impact of light on melatonin production. Our eyes are naturally ‘programmed’ to receive blue light in the morning. As the day progresses, this light gets warmer until it reaches ‘peak warmness’ at the end of the day, as the sun goes down. It’s this organisation of light throughout the day that controls the brain’s production of melatonin (10).
As a result, exposure to blue light in the evening from computer, tablet and smartphone screens is recognised as having a direct effect on melatonin levels and sleep rhythms.
One of the first things to do to address a lack of melatonin, or disruption to its production, is to adjust your light exposure. Instigating a self-imposed ‘screen curfew’ in the evening should be seriously considered. Or, at the very least, installing software filters on computers, tablets and smartphones to ensure more blue light exposure in the morning and more warm light in the evening.
In addition, melatonin is synthesised by the body from an amino acid called tryptophan. To naturally boost your melatonin levels, it can therefore help to eat foods rich in tryptophan such as bananas, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc, as well as tuna, mackerel and wholegrains. (11)
Tryptophan can also be taken in the form of a dietary supplement (such as L-Tryptophan).
Last but not least, a course of melatonin supplements is often recommended to help cut the time it takes to fall asleep and alleviate the subjective effects of jet lag.
Melatonin can be taken in the form of a water and glycerine sublingual spray (such as Melatonin Spray). This under-the-tongue method of administration ensures fast, effective absorption through the oral mucosa.
It’s easier to take a precise dose with melatonin capsules, (such as the product Melatonin 1mg). The recommended dose is normally 2 capsules in the evening, an hour before bed, though this dose can be adjusted if waking up is difficult. A dose of just one capsule the following week should suffice.
Many people who suffer from anxiety, who are frequently stressed and who find it difficult to fall asleep, opt for a formulation that combines melatonin with CBD, to obtain the benefits of both the sleep hormone and cannabidiol (such as the supplement CBD+ Melatonin).
There are also many individuals who benefit from synergistic formulations combining melatonin with valerian, hawthorn and hop (a plant from the same family as hemp), which promote good quality sleep, as well as passiflora and California poppy, which induce relaxation. Together, and in synergy with melatonin (as in the supplement Advanced Sleep Formula), these calming plants help to restore a better quality of sleep – and life.
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