Melatonin for Sleep - How It All Works
Are you thinking about taking melatonin for sleep but unsure how it all works? Melatonin is an effective sleep aid that replicates the activity of our natural hormones. But taking melatonin for sleep isn’t just for people with insomnia. It can be beneficial for sleep disorders but can also help reduce jet lag and ensure people who work late shifts still get a good sleep. It’s also at the heart of problem between blue light screens (from smartphones and laptops) and poor sleep quality. In this article, we explore how melatonin affects our sleep cycles and who can benefit from taking it as a supplement.
What Is Melatonin?
Natural melatonin is a hormone that’s produced by the body's pineal gland. During the day this pea-sized gland is inactive, but once the sun sets and things get darker, it gets to work on manufacturing melatonin. The pineal gland is located just above the middle part of the brain and is activated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) which is also in the brain. For most of us, this usually happens around 9pm, at which point active melatonin production occurs and the hormone is released into the blood. As our melatonin levels increase, we begin to feel less alert and our core body temperature decreases. We then become increasingly drowsy and the idea of sleep becomes more appealing.
Our blood melatonin levels usually stay high all through the night and then drop once daylight appears. By 9am our melatonin levels can barely be detected, and they stay that way until the evening.
According to the Society of Endocrinology, melatonin is responsible for both initiating and maintaining sleep. So, it's role is to keep us asleep all night as well as help us to nod off in the first place. if you have trouble getting off to sleep, or wake often and find you don’t sleep well throughout the night, then taking melatonin supplements may help.
How the Sleep Cycle Works
The sleep cycle is regulated by an internal clock and sometimes referred to as circadian rhythm. This circadian clock is located in the SCN which contains ‘clock genes’ that oscillate throughout the day. This rhythm is synchronized with daytime by the sunlight that enters through our eyes. This is how the brain knows to stop melatonin production during the day and then ramp it up at night.
Light is an important component in the regulation of melatonin production. It’s able to reset the SCN clock which can alter the time at which we produce melatonin. Even if you’re asleep and your eyes are closed, your body can sense light as the sun rises. This is why we often wake up early if our curtains are left open as the sunlight stimulates our waking hormones and melatonin is inhibited.
Melatonin for Sleep - How It Supports the Sleep Cycle
Melatonin is at the heart of the sleep cycle so it’s vital for a restful night of slumber. If your melatonin production is inhibited, either due to your biology, working hours, or travel across time zones, then your sleep can be affected.
Without melatonin, it can be very difficult to both fall asleep and stay asleep. A reduction in this hormone means there are fewer signals to your body that it’s time to rest. Your mind will stay active and body temperature won’t change, so you’ll be less inclined to fall asleep. If you can lie in the next morning, then it may not be a problem. But if you have to work, take the kids to school, or attend appointments, then it can be really frustrating.
Who Can Benefit from Melatonin for Sleep?
The Society of Endocrinology recommends the clinical use of melatonin to treat ‘age-associated insomnia, jet lag, and shift work’. Lower doses of melatonin for sleep can reset the circadian clock while higher doses can also lower our core body temperature and induce sleepiness. Certain groups of people are at higher risk of melatonin inhibition and can, therefore, benefit from supplementation. Let’s look at a few of them;
People with Age-Related Insomnia
People with age-related insomnia or sleep disorders may benefit from taking melatonin supplements. As we age, our production of melatonin decreases which means there are lower levels of hormones circulating that tell us it’s time to sleep. It’s also one of the reasons that older people tend to sleep for less time than their younger counterparts. A typical 70-year-old produces 25% of the melatonin that a teenager does.
It’s important to note however that not all insomnia is caused by a lack of melatonin hormone. Other causes include anxiety and stress, so if you feel like this could be affecting you then it’s important to seek professional help. Melatonin isn’t a suitable treatment for these types of situations so you’re better off speaking to a qualified healthcare practitioner.
People Who Use Smart Phones or Laptops At Night
OK, so this one covers pretty much all of us. The best solution is to avoid technologies that emit blue light before bed (like smartphones and laptops). Our night-time production of melatonin for sleep gets suppressed by dim light if the pupils are dilated. This is why it’s been suggested that long-term use of laptops and smartphones before bedtime can disrupt our sleep cycles.
The thing is, not all of us are able to avoid screens in the evening (or want to for that matter). We might have to work late or search for a travel route that we’re taking early in the morning. Although most of us probably use technology a little more than we should, it also has some necessary uses that can’t be avoided. So, if you find yourself in the situation where you’re using screens at night, then try upping your melatonin intake to compensate.
People Who Work Shifts
People who work shifts as part of the job often suffer from poor quality sleep. Fighting our innate circadian rhythms can be incredibly difficult and many people resort to sleep medicine to knock them out during the daylight hours. However, using melatonin as a sleep aid is a more natural way to reset your internal body clock and enjoy a full 8 hours of shut-eye. Taking melatonin for sleep will help you nod off even during the day.
People Who Travel Across Time Zones
If you travel long distances that cross times zones, then you’re probably all too familiar with jet lag. It’s that horrendous feeling when you feel like your body has hit a brick wall. It desperately wants to sleep but can’t, maybe because you’re in that important business meeting or at the wheel of a hire car on your fly-drive vacation.
They say that it takes one day to adjust for every hour of time zone that you cross. So even if you’re just taking a domestic flight, it might take your body six or more days to reset itself. If you’re flying internationally then your entire body clock is turned on its head and unless you’re there for a fortnight then it’s unlikely that you’re going to recover in time. Jet lag can make a long-haul trip even more grueling, so it makes sense to pack some melatonin and give your sleep-wake cycle the best chance of adjusting.
Melatonin for Sleep - Summary
Poor quality sleep affects every aspect of our lives. If we sleep badly then we spend the next day feeling like a zombie. We struggle through our tasks with the sole aim of making it to bedtime, only to find that we can’t seem to nod off. Lack of sleep increases our risk of making mistakes, bad decisions, and even having accidents. Everything just feels harder and we lack the energy to do basic everyday activities. But poor-quality sleep isn’t something you need to suffer through in the hope that it’ll eventually go away.
Taking melatonin for sleep can be an effective way to give your body the rest it needs. It’s popular with people who travel frequently on businesses as it helps them avoid jet lag and perform at their best. It’s also ideal for people with age-related insomnia who struggle to get to sleep and then stay asleep for the recommended 8 hours. For people who work unusual shift patterns and need to sleep during the day, it can be the difference between a decent rest and no shut-eye at all. So, if you’re struggling to get the nightly rest you need and are fed up of feeling tired all the time, then taking melatonin for sleep may be a practical solution.
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