You may have heard of melatonin before, probably in the context of melatonin supplements. But melatonin is actually a hormone that’s produced naturally by your body. It’s derived from the neurotransmitter serotonin and the amino acid tryptophan and is produced mainly in the brain’s pineal gland. It plays a role in eye health, immune health, and acts as an antioxidant in the body. It’s main job, though, is to regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
It goes like this: In the morning, melatonin levels are low and cortisol levels spike in order to get you up and out of bed. Then throughout the day, melatonin levels start to increase and cortisol levels decrease and eventually, when the sun goes down, melatonin levels surge and help you get to sleep. Every day this cycle happens and it helps you go from alert during the day to yawning as the sun goes down.
In my functional medicine practice, I see melatonin imbalances all the time. Factors like chronic stress, too much screen time, and not enough time outside in the sun can majorly offset the healthy rhythm that’s supposed to exist between cortisol and melatonin.
One of the major culprits behind melatonin imbalance is adrenal fatigue, which occurs when your adrenal glands — the glands above your kidneys that produce your stress hormones — get overworked and confused. This can cause melatonin to be low when it should be high and vice versa. If you’ve ever felt like you could sleep 8 hours at 3 p.m., only to go to bed that night feeling completely wired, you’ve experienced melatonin imbalance first hand!
As we already learned, melatonin does more than just regulate sleep, so the consequences of a melatonin imbalance can be more than just trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Melatonin is a powerful tool against inflammation. It actually reduces the production of inflammatory cytokines such as TNFa, IL-6, and IL-8. It also down-regulates pro-inflammatory nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB). And because melatonin is found in immune cells, an issue with melatonin can contribute to chronic inflammation and even autoimmunity.
Whether you need to boost your melatonin production or make sure you aren’t depleting it, these tips will help keep your melatonin levels balanced for optimal sleep.
1. Take it easy on the screen time
The light that’s emitted from electronics, called blue light, sends signals to your brain that it’s daylight. This inhibits melatonin production in the evenings when you should be winding down. Therefore, one of the best ways to optimize melatonin production is to avoid screens before bed. You can aim for a few hours, but even 30-minutes without staring at a TV, phone, or tablet will help.
2. Enjoy cherries
Cherries contain high levels of tryptophan and serotonin, which as we learned earlier, are precursors to melatonin. I always say that if you’re going to have a late-night snack, make it a bowl of cherries.
3. Go outside first thing in the morning
Your body relies on cues from your environment to tell it what time it is. That’s why blue light in the evenings is such a problem and also why getting direct sunlight in the morning can be so helpful. By going outside in the first half of the day, you’re sending your body an extremely strong signal that it’s now morning and you should feel awake and refreshed.
4. Get rid of light pollution
Getting light in the morning is a great start but to really support melatonin, it’s best to make your nighttime environment completely dark, too. That means getting blackout curtains or blinds, covering up any clocks or devices that emit light, and trying to make it as dark as possible.
You may be thinking: Wouldn’t it be easier to just take melatonin instead of jumping through all these hoops to support natural melatonin production? At first glance, yes it would! But the truth is, even though melatonin is “natural,” it’s also a hormone. Relying on external melatonin instead of the natural melatonin your body produces can cause confusion and alter its ability to regulate your own melatonin production. And since the body is so interconnected, it may disrupt other hormones down the line.
Instead, if you’re looking for help with sleep, I recommend taking magnesium. It has a calming effect and promotes sleep without disrupting hormones. The only exception to this recommendation is when you’re jet lagged. Traveling through time zones can mess with your melatonin rhythms and by taking a melatonin supplement 30 minutes before you want to go to bed in your new location, you can help your body adjust more quickly.
Many people think of melatonin as a supplement, but the truth is, it’s one of the most important hormones in your body. It’s always best to support natural melatonin production before opting for a supplement. The good news is that the tips above can help get your melatonin balanced — STAT!
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