- The Sleep Hormone: Melatonin is most well-known for its role in inducing sleep.
- Melatonin secretion is disrupted during jet-lag and stress.
- Low levels of melatonin is a common cause for insomnia.
- Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant that protects the brain from damage by free radicals.
- Natural levels of melatonin decline during aging, increasing risk for neuro disorders.
- Melatonin is produced from tryptophan found naturally in turkey, bananas, and chicken.
- Melatonin is also available in supplement form as a tablet or liquid.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine) is a hormone that is mainly produced in the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a pea-sized organ found in the middle of the brain.
Quick Fact: The pineal gland is comprised of cells that respond to light and darkness.
The pineal gland secretes melatonin and acts as the timekeeper of the human body. Melatonin signals the brain and other organs regarding the active and resting periods. Hence, melatonin is also known as the “sleep hormone”.
Generally, melatonin levels are low during the day and peaks at around 2-3 am in the morning and starts declining until morning. However, this may vary depending on the age of the individual.
Low levels of melatonin are usually a sign of aging. This could also indicate a malfunctioning pineal gland.
Quick Fact: When the melatonin cycle is disrupted by jet-lag, aging or stress – your ability to think clearly, memory, and decision-making abilities can suffer.
How It Works
The exact mechanism by which melatonin helps inducing sleep in unclear. However, this hormone does promote activities in the body that helps people fall asleep.
How melatonin works in the body:
Increased melatonin = Better Sleep
Decreased Melatonin = Poor Sleep
- Calms down nerve activity in the brain by binding to receptors which help reduce nerve activity
- Induces sleep by reducing dopamine levels in the eye
- Induces sleep in dark environments by increased melatonin production
How does melatonin promote sleep?
Melatonin promotes sleep by regulating the body’s circadian rhythm (Sleep-Wake Cycle)
- A Duke University Hospital study showed that children with ADHD, taking 3-6 mg of melatonin, had improved quality of sleep.
- Quality of sleep improved in people with insomnia, with jet lag or with irregular shift work, by consuming melatonin.
Another study showed how the use of melatonin improved quality of sleep in individuals with insomnia and those with erratic circadian rhythm either due to work shifts or jet lag.
Quick Fact: The pineal gland responds to darkness by producing melatonin. Blood levels of melatonin are low during the day, and peaks between 2 to 4 am.
Melatonin and neurodegenerative disorders
Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant. It is an efficient free radical scavenger, and protects the brain from oxidative damage in healthy individuals as well as those recovering from stroke or traumatic brain injury.
Melatonin deficiency is linked to various neurological conditions:
- Melatonin deficiency is one of the earliest indicators of Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Low melatonin is linked to Parkinson’s disease via abnormal oxidation and inflammatory protein accumulation.
- Low melatonin is linked to increased risk of stroke due to increased free radical production and oxidative damage to the brain cells.
What are the natural food sources of melatonin?
The chemical precursor of melatonin is the amino acid tryptophan. Some important sources of tryptophan include:
Melatonin is also available as supplements tablets or as a liquid.
Why take melatonin supplements?
Although the body produces melatonin, this may not be sufficient for individuals with insomnia. Providing an external supply of melatonin may help in better sleep.
Quick Fact: Melatonin can cross the blood-brain barrier, and takes around 90 minutes to produce an effect.
Uses and Benefits
What are the benefits of melatonin?
- Reduces insomnia
- Lowers cholesterol
- Relieves MCI
- Good alternative to benzodiazepines
Melatonin helps Reduce Insomnia
Insomnia is the persistent inability to fall and stay asleep. Doctors consider insomnia chronic, if it occurs for three nights per week for three months or longer.
Research has shown that insomnia affects 20% of the world population and around 50- 70 million Americans in a year.
Quick Fact: Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, and affects 6 – 12% of the adult population.
- A double-blind placebo-controlled study on 244 adults with insomnia showed that melatonin helped relieve symptoms of insomnia.
- The study also reported that there were no major side effects or withdrawal symptoms when the participants stopped using melatonin.
Melatonin Lowers Cholesterol
Quick Fact: Individuals with cardiovascular disease have decreased melatonin levels.
Scientific Research shows how Melatonin reduces Heart disease risk factors:
- According to research, people with heart disease have high levels of LDL-cholesterol; and supplementing with melatonin reduced these levels by 42%. In addition, the study reported that taking melatonin supplements also lead to decrease in the level of cholesterol by 38%.
- Another study showed that 1 mg of melatonin reduced blood pressure within 90 minutes of taking the supplement.
Melatonin Relieves Mild Cognitive Impairment
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is often considered the intermediate stage between cognitive decline due to aging, and the more severe dementia.
Quick Fact: Approximately 12% of the individuals with MCI eventually end up with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia every year.
Studies show that individuals with MCI, who took 3-9 mg of melatonin supplements for 9- 18 months, performed better in cognitive tests compared to the individuals who did not.
Melatonin Replaces Benzos for Sleep
Benzodiazepines are a well-known class of drugs that reduces anxiety. Some of the popular “benzo” drugs are Xanax and Valium. However, these drugs are also known to have strong side effects. Moreover, “benzo” drugs are also known to reduce natural levels of melatonin, which is required for sleep in the first place.
Studies have shown that melatonin is a good alternative to benzodiazepines to induce sleep.
Quick Fact: Benzodiazepines deplete natural melatonin levels
Individuals who are relying on “benzo” drugs solely for sleep are often advised to switch to melatonin for better results and no side effects.
There is no standard recommended dosage for melatonin supplementation. Different people respond differently to its effects.
Low doses of melatonin like ½ mg is sufficient for particularly sensitive people. In such cases, higher dose may cause anxiety and irritability.
As with most over-the-counter supplements, it is better to start with a very low dose and observe the response from your body.
The best dose is one that would provide adequate sleep without irritability or fatigue. Individuals anticipating jet-lag are usually recommended to take 0.5 to 5 mg of melatonin one hour before bedtime at the destination.
Quick Fact: Melatonin is especially helpful to those dealing with jet lag or shift work that has you working nights. Disrupted natural circadian rhythms can be normalized by supplementing with melatonin.
AIWO Recommendation: Melatonin 1 – 3 mg per day. We recommend using melatonin as a nootropic supplement.
We suggest trying a melatonin supplement first at a dose of ½ – 1 mg taken 90 minutes before bedtime. And see how you feel. If you readily fall and stay asleep until morning you know you’ve got the dose right.
Most individuals do not need more than 3 to 5 mg per night.
Safety and Side effects
What are the side effects of using melatonin?
- No major side effects in low doses
- Side effects when used indiscreetly:
- Abdominal cramps
- Decreased libido
- Breast enlargement in men
- Reduced sperm counts
Melatonin is generally considered safe to use when taken in low doses, although there have been reported cases of nightmares or vivid dreams on taking melatonin.
Who should not take Melatonin?
- Those trying to conceive: Melatonin may interfere with fertility if you’re trying to get pregnant. Do not use melatonin while you’re pregnant.
- Individuals with hormone irregularities: Melatonin is a hormone. Individuals with hormone irregularities are advised to exert discretion while using melatonin.
- Individuals with depression: Melatonin may increase symptoms of depression.
- Individuals on anticoagulants: Melatonin may increase the risk of bleeding. Individuals on anticoagulants or those who are anticipating surgery are advised to avoid them.
- Individuals on steroids and immunosuppressants: Melatonin may interfere with steroids and immunosuppressant medications and reduce their effectiveness