The physiological processes of living beings, including us, are regulated by the circadian rhythm. It’s also called the internal clock. It’s a 24-hour cycle and is responsible for controlling when we eat when we sleep, our body temperature, hormone production, etc. Melatonin is one of the hormones it regulates, which in turn helps modulate our sleep-wake cycles. It’s produced by the body naturally but synthetic forms are sometimes used to treat sleep problems. According to data from National Health Statistics Reports, melatonin use as a sleep supplement by US adults more than doubled from 0.6 percent in 2007 to 1.3 percent in 2012. Does it really work or is it just a passing trend? Are there side effects and do they outweigh the pros?
Melatonin is a hormone that is mainly produced by the pineal gland in the brain. It plays a role in controlling the body’s sleep-wake cycle. It’s released at higher levels at the close of day when it becomes dark, which explains why you feel sleepy at night. Production decreases during the daytime. Melatonin naturally declines with age.
Most people produce sufficient melatonin and don’t need a supplement in order to sleep. However, environmental factors like jet lag or shift work where the body’s circadian rhythm can’t function normally can make sleep elusive. Sleep disorders also call for assistance and melatonin supplements are sometimes used as a sleep aid. They’re available in different forms including pills, chewable and liquid.
One of the attractive features of melatonin supplements is that they’re not likely to be habit-forming. Unlike many other sleep medications, you’re not likely to increase your dosage even if you take them frequently.
Melatonin is believed to be safe for short-term use. However, since there haven’t been studies done on its long-term use, it’s not certain what effect will it have on the body over time. It’s important to note, however, that it can have some side effects with short-term use. These include dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, and headache. Melatonin may also cause mild tremor, stomach cramps, and irritability.
Pregnant women, who often experience sleeplessness, are advised not to use melatonin. Over-the-counter supplements typically contain higher doses of the hormone than the body naturally produces and this could pose a risk. Since we don’t yet know what impact melatonin supplements have on an unborn child, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Melatonin is sometimes prescribed for healthy children who have trouble sleeping. A long-term follow-up of melatonin use in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and chronic sleep onset insomnia (CSOI) found no serious adverse outcomes. The follow-up period was 3.7 years and was done by Elisabeth Hospital, Tilburg. While melatonin appears to be safe for children with these disorders, it’s not known how safe long-term use is in healthy children. It’s also recommended that children with immune disorders should not be given melatonin.
As for melatonin’s efficacy, there are contradicting studies with some saying that it could reduce insomnia and prevent phase shifts from jet lag. However, it’s not known if it initiates sleep and improves sleep quality. Much needs to be done to find out the scope of melatonin and its role in encouraging and promoting better sleep. Until then, it’s wise to stay on the safe side and use it only for short periods of time.
According to sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver of Johns Hopkins, melatonin should be taken two hours before bedtime. He also suggests to stop taking it if it doesn’t seem to be helping after two weeks of use. If it does help, he advises taking it for 1-2 months.
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Relying solely on melatonin to help you sleep probably won’t work. A better solution is to combine it with other tried and true techniques such as those below.
Light influences our night-day cycle. When you expose yourself to daylight, it helps maintain the 24-hour period that you function under. It regulates sleep pattern so that you fall asleep and wake up at the proper times. Try to expose yourself to sunlight in the first hour after waking up. Spend about 30 minutes outside and don’t wear sunglasses.
Naps are a great energizer but they should be taken smartly. Power naps shouldn’t be longer than 20 minutes. However, if you’re very tired and need more sleep, a 90-minute nap will hit the spot. This is the time it takes to complete a full cycle of sleep. Whatever nap you choose, be sure to take it before 3 pm. Any later and it could ruin your nighttime sleep.
Try to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. This creates a habit so when you get to bed at that time, you’ll fall asleep more easily. You’ll also be able to wake up with little trouble. Maintain the schedule each day, even during the weekends and holidays.
No amount of melatonin, sunlight or monitoring naps will help if you don’t sleep on a comfortable, supportive bed. The Nuvanna mattress bridges the two to offer amazing sleep each night. Designed by a materials scientist, it features three layers that all play a role in promoting better sleep. The top layer is infused with phase-changing gel particles that draw out body heat and disperse it. The middle layer isolates motion and allows you and yours to move freely without disturbing each other. The bottom layer prevents you from sinking in and supports each part of your body perfectly.
It will be a while before we know just how effective and safe melatonin supplements are. Until then, focusing on holistic approaches like eating healthy, de-stressing through meditation, and staying away from sleep disruptors like alcohol can go a long way in helping you sleep. They also benefit you in other ways and help you lead a healthier and happier life.