The Healthy Life

Let’s Talk About Melatonin

posted by Heather April 19, 2020 4 Comments

I’ve been doing these weekly Coaches Talks for our CFNE community, and my specialty in the rotation is on sleep. My YouTube Channel holds all 7 of my recent Sleep talks, but HERE is the one that is linked to this post.

That’s not to say I’m a “sleep specialist”, although the title “sleep doctor” does make me sound far more intelligent than I could ever be. It just means that my talks a couple times a week are focused on sleep, versus mindset or nutrition.

So, keep in mind here, and always, that nothing I say is ever factual. Question everything that I am putting out there. And, don’t quote me on anything if you ever want people to believe anything you say again.

Since I’m spending so much time reading and studying the topic, and ultimately pulling together information to share, I figured I might as well add it here in the hopes that it might shed some light on one of our 5 Pillars Of Health: training, nutrition, sleep, mindset, and relationships.

This week’s sleep topic is melatonin. It’s something that I’ve heard talked about a lot, but never really took the time to learn about on my own. Here’s what I found.

Melatonin is a hormone that our own bodies create every day in a funny-named thing called our pineal (“pih-knee-uhl”) gland (heehee). It’s a small pea-shaped gland located deep in the center of our brain. It’s also what many refer to as the “third eye”, where the physical self is connected with the spiritual self.

The pineal gland is largely controlled by light: darkness activates it, while light shuts it down. Consequently, when we are exposed to light, our body stops producing and circulating melatonin in our brain. Darkness triggers it to start producing melatonin. This is why it’s often referred to as the darkness hormone, or even better, the vampire hormone: it only comes out in the dark. Even if the pineal gland is turned “on” by the clock, it won’t produce melatonin unless the lights are at least dimmed.

Our sleep patterns are controlled by 2 things: our circadian rhythms, and sleep pressure.

Our circadian rhythm has to do with our 24 hour clock and the schedule that our bodily functions operate on throughout the course of every day, including everything from our sleep cycles to when we poop.

Sleep pressure has to do with the rising and lowering of a chemical in our brains called adenosine. The daily and day-long build up of adenosine in our brain is what makes us feel more and more sleepy as the day goes on.

The way melatonin fits into all of this is it’s the hormone that tells the brain that it’s time to head to bed. It, essentially, tells the brain to start shutting down so it can restore and recharge for the next day. Melatonin starts being released into our system about 2 hours before bedtime (or, say 8pm), peaks around 3 or 4am, and then plummets about 12 hours later…around 8am.

Many of us have either tried supplementing with artificial forms of melatonin, or use it regularly. What’s important to be aware of, though, is the fact that melatonin is one of those supplements that’s not regulated by the FDA. Because of this, companies can label their products as inaccurately as they want to. What’s been found is that potencies can range anywhere from 80% less than what the bottle is labeled, to 460% more. Even within the same manufacturer, batches of the same supplement can differ greatly. 

Most doctors will prescribe anywhere from .5mg to 2mg of melatonin, claiming those are safe dosages to use for both short (a night at a time) and long term usage (up to 1-2 months). What’s unknown is the effects of overdosing yourself, particularly when you don’t even really know how much you’re taking.

Having said all of that, current studies are showing that supplementing with melatonin has no actual effect on falling asleep faster, staying asleep longer, or being able to fall back asleep when you wake up in the middle of the night.

But, what the “truth” in pharmacology is is this: the placebo effect is as, if not more, important than what any study finds. In other words, if taking melatonin helps you fall asleep faster, then it works. If it doesn’t, don’t bother with it. If you’re going to go the supplement route, I would just avoid any temptation to follow the “more is more” approach. Most melatonin supplements are found in 5-10mg pills. That’s far above what most doctors are prescribing. Lean more towards .5-2mg about 45 minutes before you actually go to bed.

Where research with melatonin supplements have been found to be helpful is when changing time zones and for night-shift workers. It works in these instances to trick your brain into thinking it’s night time. When you’re traveling, take your dosage at the new time zone’s bedtime.

I am almost always a big proponent of avoiding any sort of supplements or medicine to cure something. So, here’s a few things you can try before heading for a pill.

First, shortly after you wake up, try to expose yourself to sunlight. Preferably, go outside in the sun without sunglasses on. Also, if you work in spaces darker than the outside during the day, try to go outside as much during the day as possible (with sunglasses in the afternoon). This will help drop the levels of melatonin in your system and set you up for a successful rise later at night when you need it.

Second, turn off any unnecessary lights in your house around or after dinner time. Dim any other lights that you can until bedtime.

Finally, and the real bread winner: don’t use screens (or, watch television that’s closer than 6’ from your eyes) for at least 1-2 hours before bed.

According to Matt Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at University of California, Berkley, “What we’ve found with studies with one hour of iPad reading versus one hour of just reading in dim light with just a paper book, the iPad actually blocked the release of melatonin by 50 percent – five-zero. So you halved the amount of sleep timing chemical within the brain. And, it wasn’t just that the peak of the melatonin was blunted. But when that spike of melatonin arrived was actually three hours later into the night.”

According to a study performed at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, a backlit device before bed makes your sleep measurably worse than reading a paper book under dim light.

According to the study:

While people are using an iPad at night their body produces 55% less melatonin

After shutting off the lights (and the iPad), they took an extra 10 minutes to fall asleep

When they did fall asleep, they had less REM sleep during the night

The next morning, the iPad readers felt sleepier, and it took them “hours longer” to feel alert. The book readers quickly felt more alert immediately upon waking.

When it was time for bed the next night, the iPad readers’ circadian clocks were delayed by more than 90 minutes. Their bodies began to feel tired an hour and a half later than normal, because they were exposed to alerting light from the iPad the night before.

Each participant was tested with both the iPad and reading a book. Books on paper did not suppress melatonin or cause participants to feel groggy the next day.

If this sounds unimaginable to you, you can download f.lux to your device to allow it to remove the dangerous blue lights as the day goes on. But, if you’d prefer a less permanent option, you can always find blue light blocking glasses on Amazon that you can wear so you can have your cake and eat it, too.