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What Is Melatonin?

If you have been looking for a natural way to fall asleep faster or improve the quality of the sleep you get, you might have stumbled on the idea of “melatonin supplements”. What is melatonin and why are people saying that melatonin supplements are beneficial?

Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by your body. It is also known as the “sleep hormone”.

How does the “sleep hormone” work?

Hormones are produced by your body’s glands. Different glands produce different hormones, which in turn affect your different bodily functions.

In the case of melatonin, it basically “tells” your body if it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. Melatonin is produced by your pineal gland and, what triggers melatonin production is basically the setting and rising of the sun.

When the sun goes down and your body is “exposed” to darkness, your pineal gland begins producing melatonin and releasing it into your bloodstream. This is your body’s signal that it is time to sleep.

When the sun rises, your pineal gland decreases the amount of melatonin it produces. So, now your body knows it’s time to “wake up”

Since melatonin regulates when you feel sleepy and when you wake up, it is a major factor is establishing your body’s circadian rhythm or “internal clock”. It also regulates your temperature, blood pressure, and some hormone levels.

To help you relax and get sleepy, melatonin binds to certain receptors in your brain to reduce nerve activity. It also reduces the levels of another hormone dopamine, which keeps you awake. Lower dopamine levels ensure that you grow “sleepy”.

The problem with low melatonin levels

Because melatonin levels are considered crucial for preparing a body to fall asleep, it’s believed that people who have low melatonin levels may have trouble sleeping.

There are certain factors that can lower your melatonin levels such as stress, smoking, alcohol consumption, shift work, and aging. But the main factor is usually exposure to too much light (even artificial and blue light from screens) during the night and too little exposure to natural light during the day time.

Why use melatonin supplements?

To counter the effects of low melatonin levels and treat certain sleep disorders, many people are advocating the use of melatonin supplements.

Melatonin supplements are dietary supplements that contain a certain dosage of melatonin. It is believed that taking melatonin supplements can improve the quality and regularity of your sleep and even treat some sleep disorders.

There have been some studies that show that taking melatonin before bed helped reduce the time it took people with sleep disorders to fall asleep. They also reported that they felt that they had better quality of sleep.

There is also some evidence that taking melatonin can help with the temporary sleep disorder known as jet lag.

Jet lag occurs when someone travels to different time zones. Because their natural circadian rhythm may not be in synch with the daylight and night hours of the place they have traveled to, they might have difficulty adjusting. They may feel drowsy during the day and alert during the night.

Taking melatonin can help sufferers of jet lag adjust quicker as it “levels out” their melatonin levels and allows they to synch up their circadian rhythms to their new time zone.  

Melatonin is also thought to be beneficial for shit workers, workers who need to be awake and alert during the night.

Night shift workers might also find themselves feeling drowsy when they need to be awake and having trouble falling asleep after their shift. It’s similar to jet lag in the sense that their rhythms don’t really synch up with the natural rhythms of where they are. 

Taking melatonin when they get off shift and need to fall asleep can help shift workers get a better “nights” sleep.

There are a few other health benefits that melatonin may provide:

  • Supports eye health by protecting the retina and lowering the risk of age-related macular degeneration.
  • Help with ulcers and heartburn. Studies have shown that taking melatonin with a common medication for acid reflux, Omeprazole, makes it more effective.
  • Reduces symptoms of tinnitus
  • Increases human growth hormone levels in men.

Tips on safe melatonin supplement use

Most people take melatonin supplements in capsule or liquid form. In the US, melatonin isn’t considered a drug so it can easily be bought at a drug store, health store, or grocery store. Some other countries such as the EU and Australia however, still consider it a drug, so you might need to get a prescription for it.

While there is no set dosage for melatonin supplements, you can usually find supplements that have as low as 0.5 mg to as high as 12mg. The usual dosage, however, is about 3-5 mg and, if you want to use it for better sleep, take it about 30 minutes before going to bed.

There is currently no evidence that melatonin might have long-term side effects, there are however, some people who might be allergic to melatonin or some medications that might not react well with them.

Melatonin might interact with the following types of medications:

  • Sedatives
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antidepressants
  • Blood thinners
  • Blood pressure medication
  • Diabetes medications
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Immunosuppresents

Because of this, it’s usually best to tell your doctor or a health care professional that you are planning to take melatonin supplements. They can tell you if you are on medication or have any conditions that might be affected by starting melatonin supplements.