How Does Melatonin Help Sleep?
We all need our beauty rest. If we don’t get it, our mornings can be one ugly beast. A lack of sleep can negatively impact your life in many ways.
For some, it may cause unsightly bags under the eyes and a grumpy temperament. Others will struggle to focus throughout the day, so they hype themselves up on coffee and are forced to fight the jitters during the inevitable crash. Whatever the case may be, you need your sleep! Melatonin may help. But just how does melatonin help sleep?
What is Melatonin?
You may have seen melatonin supplements in the vitamin aisle and might already associate them with sleep. However, a lot of people aren’t quite sure why. It’s a tidbit that’s often taken for granted.
Melatonin is an endogenous hormone. When you buy melatonin, you are purchasing a supplement that mimics the hormone our body creates on its own. This is ideal for those with sleeping problems because melatonin helps with the timing of your circadian rhythm.
How Does Our Body Produce Melatonin?
It’s amazing how complex and self-sufficient the human body is. Sleep is a necessity and our body has evolved to ensure we get it. Far back in our skull lies a nut-sized organ known as the pineal gland. This influential part of our body has a unique relationship with the sun that keeps our batteries charged all day long.
Just as the earth revolves around the sun, so does our sleep-wake cycle. If you ever noticed, waking up is a gradual process. Around the same time every day, you ease out of a dream. Perhaps you hear the birds sing? Maybe one eye will open and notice the room is a little brighter? That’s the sun at work, making sure you’re getting up for work, too!
When the sun rises, the light inside shines in through your window. Sun rays penetrate through the eyelids. A study with blind rats found that lightness increases serotonin levels in the pineal gland. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that gives us energy and makes us feel happy.
So, after a good night’s rest, your pineal gland rewards you with serotonin to make you attentive and maybe even a little excited for the day ahead. That will train your mind to be more cognizant of how much rest you get, making you more likely to get adequate sleep. In other words, this little boost of serotonin is like rewarding your dog with a treat for performing a trick so they’ll do it on command in the future.
Consequently, serotonin levels go down as the sun does. That’s when your pineal gland secretes melatonin. It’s also the reason why your eyes get heavy on the third episode of a TV binge-athon.
How is Melatonin Made?
Research suggests, “Endogenous melatonin release ﴾melatonin made by our bodies﴿ is increased each day in response to darkness, peaking between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. at roughly 200 picograms ﴾pg﴿ per mL.” For this to happen, your body needs a few things to fall into place.
Your body uses the amino acid tryptophan as a catalyst for secreting melatonin. Yes, that’s the same tryptophan that makes us sleepy on Turkey Day. Now you know why!
The system converts tryptophan into 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan). Based on the time of day, 5-HTP will convert to either serotonin or melatonin. Studies suggest that we produce less melatonin in the long days of summer. Meanwhile, we feel a bit more tired during short winter days. However, the seasons changing are not the only factors that disrupt our melatonin production.
What Throws Off Melatonin Levels?
If our body produces melatonin naturally, then why do approximately 70 million people have a sleep disorder? There are a lot of factors that are disrupting our melatonin levels. Many of them are things that we do in everyday life without a thought.
Smart Device Usage
One of the biggest disruptors of our sleep-wake cycle is our smart devices. From our televisions to Kindles to Androids, every screen we look at has blue LED lights. These lights are less harsh on eyes that are staring at screens all day, but they’re faking out the pineal gland.
Blue LED lights mimic the rays the sun emits when it first rises in your neighborhood. By staring at a blue-light screen with your two open eyes, your pineal gland believes the sun is out, even if it’s 11 p.m. Turn off the gadgets so your pineal gland gets the memo. That way, it can start producing melatonin and you can get some shut-eye.
Perhaps the largest culprit of sleep deprivation is stress. Anytime we are under pressure, manageable or catastrophic, our body produces cortisol. Like melatonin, cortisol is a hormone.
In a moment of crisis, cortisol is like breaking the glass to get a fire extinguisher. When cortisol hits the bloodstream, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Your system knows the situation is severe and that you need to make a swift decision with little room for error.
That moment may cause a boost of adrenaline to power you through victoriously. On the other side, cortisol can also make your mind lock up in fear. In turn, you produce more cortisol and hide from the situation in front of you.
Cortisol is meant to be a fleeting hormone. However, in our fast-paced lifestyles, many factors can cause stress:
- Stagnant career
- Rocky relationship
- Money problems
- Mean boss
- Poor personal health
- Long commute to work
- Never-ending bills
- Work-life balance
All of these are situations that require cortisol production. For those who dwell on these issues, it’s like opening the levee for a cortisol flood. As more cortisol enters your system, it continues to let your body know that you’re stressed. In turn, you don’t produce other hormones, including melatonin.
How Does Taking Melatonin Help You Get Sleep?
Melatonin supplements are formulated to mimic the naturally occurring hormone in your system. When your endogenous system is under the rule of cortisol, sometimes it needs to call in a little backup.
Supplements containing melatonin help replenish a crucial hormone in your system that your body is sorely lacking. Naturally, the extra melatonin will make you feel groggy. As you sleep, your cortisol levels will deplete. After all, what’s there to be stressed about when you’re not awake and dealing with everyday stressors?