Sleep is one of the most important things for our health. Without adequate amounts of it, our body quickly looses its ability to function optimally. Sleep deprivation studies clearly show the negative impact on brain function, heart health, immune function, cognition, coordination and health in general. Meanwhile, insomnia is one of the most common complaints of patients to their doctors. For many people, a simple, natural solution is out there and often worth a try.
Melatonin is an important hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain and has been identified as the key player in signaling the natural sleep/wake cycles of our body. The pineal gland, a pea sized gland located at the base of the brain, makes melatonin from the commonly known mood hormone, serotonin.
Melatonin synthesis is triggered by darkness and suppressed by light. It continues to be secreted throughout the night as long as darkness is maintained. Sleeping with the television on or in a room with too much light is thought to disrupt melatonin synthesis and lead to less restful sleep.
Melatonin use has a long safety record and therefore makes it a great option for people looking for a natural sleep aid. In addition, this hormone is known for other beneficial effects. Melatonin shows very strong anti-oxidant properties and there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that low melatonin levels are correlated to increased risks of heart disease and certain types of cancer (particularly hormone sensitive cancers like breast and prostate).
Research has shown particular value for the use of melatonin in children and the elderly. As we age, natural hormone levels begin to decline. When measured, a large percentage of older people show decreased plasma levels of melatonin. This is frequently correlated to poor sleep habits. Using melatonin in individuals over 50 with sleep disturbances and low plasma levels of melatonin has shown significant improvement in quality and duration of sleep.
Children, specifically those with ADHD, seem to have an overwhelmingly positive response to melatonin supplementation. Trouble falling asleep and increase nighttime activity is a trait commonly seen in children with this condition. Melatonin offers a safe, gentle, non-sedating way to help these children fall asleep quicker, improve quality of sleep and therefore become more rested. This often results in an increase in positive behavior. Children with insomnia who do not have ADHD also respond very positively to melatonin supplementation.
Melatonin is commonly dosed as 1mg – 3mg tablets/capsules. Superior absorption can be obtained by using a sublingual form as melatonin is highly processed by the liver when swallowed orally. Time release preparations have also shown some benefits, but the non-time release counterparts also have yielded excellent clinical results. For those people who do not need melatonin to sleep but are interested in getting the other beneficial properties it is recommended to take micro-doses in the amount of 300-600 micrograms each evening around 8pm.
More is not better with melatonin. If good sleep is not obtained with a 3 mg dose, it is unlikely that a 6mg dose will yield any better results. In fact, similar results with sleep are commonly seen with people taking 0.3mg, 1mg and 3mg. The only situation in which melatonin seems to be more helpful in higher doses is when it is used in cases of cancer where it may be given in doses ranging from 10mg – 40mg.
Most studies have shown that melatonin works best in individuals who have decreased levels of the hormone. When given to people with normal melatonin levels, extra melatonin supplementation rarely resulted in improved sleep patterns. However, due to its safety, low cost and other benefits it is a great first line therapy to try when experiencing sleep disturbances. Melatonin deficiency is more common than previously thought and a trial period of 2-3 weeks with melatonin should be enough to determine if it may be beneficial. If no results are obtained it is likely that melatonin levels are normal and sleep disturbances are due to something else.