The Dracula of Hormones: Melatonin
In the U.S. alone, over half of adults have trouble sleeping at least a few days a week (1). Trouble sleeping, also called insomnia, can be found in mainly two different forms. Mild insomnia (insomnia only lasting for a week or two) is most likely caused by sadness or anxiety. Chronic insomnia can be a result of depression or other psychiatric illnesses. More and more in the last decade, insomnia sufferers have been turning to the hormone melatonin for relief.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain’s pineal gland – a small gland located towards the center of the brain (2). Melatonin gets released when light does not reach the retina and therefore cannot travel to the hypothalamus where both the pineal gland and the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SNC or the body’s clock) are found. It is believed that when the SNC registers this lack of light, it urges the pineal gland to secrete melatonin, which makes us drowsy (3) and advances the dream-wake cycle (4).
Therefore, people who suffer from insomnia – or even just jet lag – are turning to the sleeping power of melatonin. Melatonin comes in two types: natural and synthetic. Natural melatonin is extracted from bovine brains and, because it comes from animal tissue, might actually be carrying a virus or unwanted proteins. Synthetic melatonin is more adamantly recommended. Synthetic melatonin – identical to the hormone produced in our bodies – is produced from pharmaceutical grade ingredients so should not have anything extra in the mix and therefore be safer (2). Melatonin is the only hormone sold without a prescription in the U.S. This is because melatonin can be found in many different food products already, so is considered a dietary supplement (4). It’s usually sold in health food boutiques and vitamin stores.
The hormone melatonin is released at different rates by different people. Consensus claims that the younger you are, the more melatonin your pineal gland will secrete. But the older you are, the more your sleep-wake cycle will respond to extra melatonin supplements (4). Side effects of melatonin supplements are said to include: potential morning drowsiness – though not to the extent of sleeping pills – stomach ache, depression, or a lowered sex drive. But none of these side effects have been entirely validated. It is also claimed, that melatonin will help us live longer and even help deter seizures, but, yet again, this stands pretty much as here-say. It has been proven, though, that melatonin can act as an ant oxidizer for the body’s pH. So when our bodies have an excessive amount of OH – originally caused by unpaired electrons – melatonin can combat this (5).
Melatonin can be bought mainly in one to three milligram tablets. Doctors advise to generally start with the one-milligram tablet and move-up to the three-milligram tablet if the one-milligram tablet doesn’t seem to be aiding with sleep. But experiments have proven that as little as 0.1 milligrams before bed can help with sleep, so the maximum of three milligrams should most-definitely work (6). Doctors suggest that one melatonin tablet should be taken twenty to forty minutes before bed to help insomniacs sleep and to aid in the correction of sleep cycles. Melatonin has been preferred over regular sleeping pills because it has not been proven to cause as many serious side effects and because people cannot develop a tolerance of melatonin (6).
There are many more experiments needed to fully understand the side effects, amount needed, and relief that melatonin offers. But for now, melatonin is our – well, at least my – favorite natural sleep aide.