What Is Melatonin And How Does It Work?
What is melatonin and how does it work? This question actually has two answers, so this article has two sections. Why two?
- Natural melatonin is produced by our body
- Synthetic melatonin is (usually) a pill people take to help them sleep
I’ll answer the question “what is melatonin and how does it work?” for both natural and supplemental melatonin. I’ll also give you three simple tips on how you can make sure your body is optimizing its melatonin production at the right time of day. This may be more helpful than taking a supplement, so I highly recommend you read to the end to find out what you can do to help yourself.
Melatonin made by our body
Did you know that melatonin isn’t just found in humans? It is actually in every single living organism, right down to bacteria. But we’ll just look at how it is made and works in humans, I don’t think you came here to read about what bacteria do with it!
What is it?
Melatonin is a hormone. A hormone is a molecule that is made in one part of our body, then released into our bloodstream to carry out its function somewhere else.
- Melatonin is made in a variety of places around the body and has a variety of different roles, we will talk about sleep.
- The main site of melatonin production in relation to sleep is the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a small pea shaped gland inside your brain, kind of behind your eyes.
How does it work?
- Melatonin helps regulate or daily biological clock, or circadian rhythm. This is the system that helps you know when to eat, sleep, and wake up.
- As the day ends and darkness descends, the pineal gland senses this, and releases melatonin in response. This is why melatonin is often nicknamed “the darkness hormone”.
- The increase in melatonin going into our blood stream makes us start to feel sleepy, and also has other effects that help us go to sleep, such as helping to regulate our body temperature and heart rate.
- In simple terms, the most significant role of melatonin from the pineal gland is therefore in signalling to our brain and body that it is time to prepare for sleep.
This short video provides an explanation and summary of how melatonin works:
What is it?
Melatonin supplements usually come in the form of a pill, and they come in different doses.
According to Consumer Reports, Americans spent $408 million on melatonin supplements in 2017 ,and a quarter of them felt they got some benefit from it (although research has also shown a sugar pill placebo can have a similar effect).
How does it work?
The aim of taking melatonin supplements is to make up for any deficit of melatonin people may experience for a variety of reasons. Some very common reasons people take melatonin is for jet lag or if they are working night shifts, because their body rhythm can get out of sync and release melatonin at the wrong time.
Taking a supplement at the right dose at the right time in these cases can help signal to the body what the desired time to go to sleep is.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the jury is still out about how helpful melatonin is for other groups, including people with insomnia.
- The reason the research shows melatonin to be most helpful for shift work or jetlag is that melatonin simply lets our body know when it’s time to go to bed. It helps with the timing of our going to sleep, it does not help us actually fall asleep or stay asleep.
- It is important to discuss starting any supplement with a health professional first.
- Trouble falling asleep can be caused by many things, so you will need to work through these with them before you start the supplement. you will also need to work with them to determine what dose and what time to take it as getting this wrong could also impact your sleep.
If you take a dose of melatonin that is too high, you may have trouble waking up. If you take a dose at the wrong time, you may feel drowsy and be unsafe to drive, so it’s really important you get it right (if it is even needed to start with).
How to ensure you make enough melatonin at the right time: three simple tips
Here are three simple things you can do to make sure your body manufactures the right amount of melatonin at the right time. Basically, you are helping your body to know when it’s time for bed.
- Light at night inhibits melatonin production and disrupts sleep, particularly blue light emitted from LED lights and our techonology devices.
- Turn any lights down two hours before you go to bed. It is best to put down your phone/tablet or put your laptop away, but if you can’t (I know I work on this site a lot right up until bedtime, so this is me, too), use blue light filters on the screen. Your device probably has something in its settings you can use.
- If you watch TV within two hours of bedtime, make sure you’re sitting at least 6 feet away from the screen (this is again to do with the light emitted from it). Again, make sure lights are dimmed.
- During the day get some sunlight in the morning and afternoon.This helps your body understand that it is daytime, and NOT to release melatonin at this time.
If you would like to read more articles about sleep, check out my “Sleep Help” articles. There you’ll find helpful articles such as
- Why good quality sleep is so important
- What the different stages of sleep are actually like
- How to make sure your bedroom is the optimal temperature for sleeping