If you’re the type of person who has a hard time falling asleep, you may be familiar with the nightstand star melatonin. But did you know that melatonin is naturally produced in the body and is important to many bodily functions? If you’ve been relying on melatonin as a supplement, there are actually lifestyle changes you can make to ensure your body is producing melatonin at optimal levels and at optimal times. This is ideal, since that melatonin supplement at bedtime may not be great for you in the long run.
Read on to learn all about melatonin and how to support its production naturally by getting to the root of imbalance for long term health.
What is melatonin, and why is it important?
Melatonin is a hormone that is synthesized and secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. The precursor to melatonin is serotonin. Enzymes within our pineal gland transform serotonin to melatonin before it’s systematically released into our bodies. Serotonin is also responsible for prompting our REM sleep cycle. The main function of melatonin is to help regulate our circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms (or internal clocks) include the sleep-wake cycle, body temperature fluctuation, the hormone cycle, and even eating habits. Our melatonin production and release responds directly to light and darkness. When it gets dark, more melatonin is released and signals our body that it is time to sleep.
The effects of melatonin extend far beyond just impacting our circadian rhythms. Melatonin is also key in the detoxification of free radicals from the body, immune system enhancement, bone development and protection, body weight regulation, and cardiovascular health. An unhealthy circadian and melatonin release cycle can increase one’s overall predisposition to illness.
If I take a melatonin supplement to help me fall asleep, is that ok?
Taking melatonin as a supplement to address irregular sleep disturbances such as jet leg or a particularly stressful day is common, but daily use could lead to habit forming dependency. There is very little research about the possible long term side effects of consistent melatonin supplementation use over time. What is clear is that consuming high amounts of this hormone regularly can disrupt our natural circadian rhythms. There are several reported short term side effects such as dizziness, irritability, and headaches. Over-the-counter melatonin capsules can also contain up to 20 times the amount of melatonin that is actually needed in our bodies.
Are there factors that affect optimal melatonin production?
As we age, melatonin secretion naturally decreases. By the age of 40, your body produces up to 40% less melatonin as compared to in youth. Other key factors that play a role in decreased melatonin production include the blue light emitted from screens in the evening, alcohol and caffeine consumption, night shift work, and as a side effect of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or cancer. Nutritional deficiencies, such as insufficient zinc, magnesium, folate, and vitamin B6 levels have also been linked to lower melatonin levels. There is also a connection between reproductive hormones and melatonin cycles. If you get a period, the natural fluctuation of hormones at different phases of your cycle (from menstrual through luteal) can influence melatonin concentrations. Overall melatonin production also decreases during menopause.
How do I boost or support melatonin production naturally?
We should all aim to support our bodies’ natural melatonin production by making small lifestyle changes throughout the day and at bedtime, as opposed to relying on hormone supplementation in the evening. There are many ways to boost and support your body's production of melatonin naturally:
- Limit your screen time 1-2 hours before bed. The short wave blue light emitted by screens can interfere with a healthy sleep cycle.
- Try to wake up and fall asleep around the same time everyday.
- Avoid consuming caffeine after 1-2 pm. Caffeine has a half-life of up to 9 hours in our bodies.
- Take a hot bath in the evening. Current research suggests relaxing in a hot bath can actually increase melatonin production.
- Consume melatonin rich medicinal herbs and foods!
What foods and herbs are rich in melatonin?
The generative organs of plants (those responsible for reproduction) are particularly rich in melatonin–think seeds and fruits! Tart cherries, oranges, tomatoes, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and oats are all great melatonin sources. Many animal proteins contain natural melatonin including turkey, chicken, and fish. Foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which you might have heard of in association to turkey, increases serotonin levels and in turn supports the production of melatonin. Some of the foods rich in tryptophan include chickpeas, potatoes, bananas, and raw honey. Since raw honey actually helps your brain release melatonin, including it in your nightly beverage can help encourage more restful sleep.
Many medicinal herbs are also rich in melatonin and can assist in elevating its production. Some of these herbs include goji berries, fenugreek, cinnamon, coriander, anise, feverfew, maca, spirulina, Mucuna Pruriens, and lucuma.
One of Apothékary’s blends with some of these beneficial herbs is Do Not Disturb. This blend is packed with herbs that are well-researched and traditionally used to support restful sleep. Mucuna Pruriens contains naturally occurring melatonin as well as L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine. Dopamine plays a key role in promoting relaxation and achieving deep REM sleep. Cinnamon, the superfruit lucuma, and holy basil support healthy blood sugar levels. Fluctuations in blood sugar at night can greatly impact sleep. Holy basil is an adaptogen that has been long revered in India to calm the mind and help us better adapt to the stressors keeping us awake at night.
It’s important to note that if your body has become dependent on melatonin supplementation for falling asleep, making the shift to Do Not Disturb and other herbal approaches may take time. Your body may need a transition period of 1-2 weeks to adjust to an herbal approach to support natural melatonin production.
Another favorite Apothékary blend to support melatonin production is Stop Your Wine-ing, our herbal wine-alternative blend to help take the edge off your day. These melatonin-boosting ingredients work to enhance the sedative properties of the calming nervine motherwort and the traditional Chinese herb jujube date, which has been known for centuries to support restful sleep.
In conclusion, taking supplemental melatonin long term can lead to habit-forming dependency and is not actually getting to the root cause of our sleep disturbances. Taking steps to improve our "sleep hygiene” routine and including foods and herbs that boost melatonin naturally can assist in supporting healthy circadian rhythms overtime.