Melatonin is one of the most essential hormones in the body. If you read last week's how to boost your hormones naturally article you would have learned how important hormones are in regulating body functions. Luckily, melatonin is one of the easiest to boost and influence its levels - even more so if you are in the U.S. or Canada.
Learn how sleep, blue light, supplements, and sunlight affect melatonin and what are the ramifications of imbalanced levels. But before we dig into that we have to understand the circadian rhythm... wait what?
Melatonin dubbed the darkness hormone, as its levels rise at night. Evolutionarily, one of its purposes was to signal to the body that it's night time and perform functions that are often synergistic with sleep. It's a powerful anti-oxidant and improves immune function, which is where it gets it's anti-cancer title. One of it's chief functions though is regulating our circadian rhythm.
The Circadian Rhythm, A Biological Clock
Our bodies like order. In fact, without order our bodies wouldn't be able to manage all the infinitely complex processes that are happening. When you have order you also have a rhythm as the same sequence of events keep repeating: breathing, circulation, digestion etc.
The circadian rhythm is essentially our internal clock that our body runs on. This isn't limited to humans but most living creatures even fungi have a circadian rhythm. The reason this clock is so important because different times of the day were advantageous to do different things. For example, plants use theirs to know when is the the best time to flower or go into photosynthesis - wouldn't want to do that at night!.
Circadian rhythmicity is present in the sleeping and feeding patterns of animals, including human beings. There are also clear patterns of core body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities.
In Humans, this clock has been putting us to sleep to recover and waking us up to hunt and gather. So in essence: we are hard wired to sleep at night and be energetic during the day.
The problems start to happen when this cycle is disturbed.
Effects of Circadian Rhythm Disruptions
Since most body functions are affected by the day/night cycle, circadian rhythm disruptions have serious and far reaching effects. It's beyond the scope of this article but the two main ones are Seasonal Effective Disorder (SAD)/Winter Blues and Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder (unable to sleep/wake up on needed time).
Effects of such disruptions
- Increased risk for cancer
- Insulin resistance/diabetes
- Increased overall stress level
- Increased heart disease
- Increased digestive problems
For example, a 2007 study led by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) showed that shiftwork has been associated with cancer. Other studies have reported that night workers have an increased incidence of heart disease, digestive disorders and menstrual irregularities.
Aside from that, it seriously effects your body composition, recovery and energy levels. So not only do you look worse, but it's hard to train and implement a diet consistently.
Where does Melatonin fit in
Melatonin is the main hormone that regulates the circadian rhythm, so addressing any kind of sleep problems has to fundamentally address melatonin. On top of improving sleep quality and quantity, melatonin has these positive effects:
- Triggers 'sleepiness' at night
- Low levels at night can cause insomnia
- Very potent anti-oxidant which reduces inflammation and has anti-cancer effects
- Improves immune function
- Improves sleep quality
In animal models, melatonin has been demonstrated to prevent the damage to DNA by some carcinogens, stopping the mechanism by which they cause cancer Pubmed
So this stuff literally cures cancer and makes you sleep better. How do I maximize it?
Since melatonin is affected by light levels you want to get bright light exposure during the morning/day and avoid lights during the evening - especially before bed.
- Install f.Lux - probably most important thing in this article
- Go out for a walk in the morning and get more sun exposure throughout the day
- Open your shades during the day to let the light in
- If you live in a foggy/overcast area consider moving! Or make an effort to visit nearby places that are more sunny.
Get a sun lamp/light box
If you live in an especially foggy area with a lot of overcast and low sunshine, like we do, then I definitely recommend getting a light box. I've been using the one pictured below for several weeks and have noticed a huge improvement in my mood, energy levels, and motivation - I actually came across it researching for this article and decided to try it. It's especially noticeable on days when it was super foggy and I would normally start dragging. I've also found that I get more sleepy in the evening and my sleep quality improved.
Studies have found significant improvement with daily 20 minute sessions, although the lamp has be within 12 inches and angled downward toward your face. Make sure not to stare at it! Another study found it was more effective than an anti-depressant for the treatment of Seasonal Effective Disorder.
Luckily in Canada and the U.S. you can also take melatonin supplements directly. The standard dose is 0.5-3mg. Some tablets go up to 10mg each and some people take up to 12-15mg of melatonin a night. I've found that all kind of doses work for different people. I personally take 9-15mgs based on how I feel but others find 3mgs plenty. I'd start with the standard dose, evaluate the effects over several days and go from there.
Melatonin doesn't have a lot of negative side effects since it's a substance natural to the body. A big concern with any kind of sleep aid is tolerance and dependence, which one study concluded there wasn't any tolerance built up after 3 months of use - I personally haven't developed any tolerance after 3 years+ of use. There is also some concern for those who have auto-immune problems since melatonin improves immune function.
The most common side effect I've seen is vivid dreams. They seem to happen the most initially and subside after a while. Still they rarely cause serious enough problems. The other common side effect is waking up during the night due to increased REM sleep cycles which increases the brief awakenings. When it has happened to me I'm usually able to fall back asleep right away, it's been very rare though.
Which to take
There are a lot of brands and 'melatonin' supplements to look at. There's two main category, plain melatonin on its own and melatonin + blend of other stuff. Usually, you want to get plain melatonin unless you know what the blend contains. I recommend the Schiff Melatonin Ultra which has a blend of other vitamins and herbs since I've found it very effective.
- Melatonin - 3mg
- B6 - 5mg: Important vitamin, lots of overall benefits.
- L-Theanine - 25mg: "Able to cross the blood–brain barrier, theanine has psychoactive properties. Theanine has been shown to reduce mental and physical stress, and improves cognition and mood in a synergistic manner with caffeine."
- GABA - 25mg: Increases relaxation, Growth Hormone synthesis and overall anti-anxiety effect.
- Valerian Root & Chamomile extract blend - 8.5mg: Helps with sleep and relaxation.
- Amazon link.
If you want a plain melatonin then get Nature's Bounty 3mg - 240 tabs for $7. The Schiff one works much better imo.
Melatonin takes anywhere from 30-90 minutes to achieve full effect so you want to take it that long before bed. Make sure to avoid lights as much as possible during this time and implement it as part of your bed time routine.
Melatonin has been a supplement I've taken and recommended for 3 years with great success. Give it a shot and report back!
Please share any positive/negative effects you've had, I'd love to hear people's experiences.