Quality sleep is so crucial for our health and overall brain function. Think about a time when you got barely any sleep and then tried to work the next day. You more than likely had difficulties concentrating. Many individuals who suffer from sleep difficulties are now taking melatonin supplements.
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is naturally produced within our body. It is a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland, which helps regulate our sleep patterns. Basically, it helps maintain our internal biological ‘clock.’ Our natural circadian rhythm is what allows us to fall asleep at night.
Melatonin production is influenced by light. When it is dark outside, the body produces more melatonin. This is what makes us feel sleepy, just as light makes us feel more awake. However, it is not only natural light that affects melatonin. Stress, aging, medications, and lights turned on within the night, can all interfere with melatonin production.
History of Melatonin
We have known of the pineal gland for thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that melatonin was discovered. In 1958, Aaron Lerner from Yale University isolated melatonin from the pineal gland. In the 1960’s, it was found that melatonin responds to light.
In the 1980’s, melatonin was intensely studied. It was during this time that researchers made the connection between melatonin and sleepiness. After several books and articles were written, it was discovered that melatonin could be found in nuts, carrots, and tomatoes. It then became available as a supplement in the 1990’s.
How Does Melatonin Work?
Melatonin production is controlled by light perception. Therefore, when it is dark outside, the pineal gland produces and releases melatonin. Once the optic nerve detects lights, the pineal gland then inhibits production. This is all done through signalling from the optic nerve, to the brain.
Do you often get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom? When you get up, do you turn the light on? If so, you may have trouble falling back asleep. This is because the cycle has been interrupted. Once you turn the light out, melatonin production is not automatically turned on. The pineal gland will shut down production, making it hard to fall back asleep.
It is believed that melatonin levels decrease as we age. When an individual has low levels of melatonin, sleep problems may occur. This may explain why older people go to bed and wake up earlier.
When you take a melatonin supplement, it crosses the blood-brain barrier. It easily diffuses into cells, effectively entering the central nervous system. This also makes it easy for melatonin to attach to neurons.
How Does Melatonin Benefit the Brain?
Melatonin plays a role in our brain health. Since melatonin is an antioxidant, it helps to protect your brain against free radicals. This helps decrease the effects of aging and disease. For instance, melatonin has been shown to reduce the risk of stroke, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
In fact, when individuals suffer from a stroke, they can benefit when given a dose of melatonin. This helps reduce tissue damage, and reduce both cell and neuron death.
In terms of sleep, melatonin increases healthy sleep patterns. This is generally for people that are on an odd schedule, working irregular hours. For these individuals, they can have difficulties falling to sleep naturally. When taking melatonin, they can fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer, increasing the quality and duration.
Melatonin is grouped within cognitive enhancers because it can encourage deeper REM sleep. REM sleep is extremely important for cognitive functioning, especially in terms of your memory. During this time, your brain consolidates memories. For example, declarative memory and long-term retention is highly reliant on sleep.
Basically, during your REM sleep, short-term memories from that day, are redistributed, becoming long-term memories. When you have a good night sleep, you also wake up feeling sharper. You experience a greater sense of clarity, which helps with your mental performance. So although melatonin does not have a direct impact on cognitive functioning, it is still related to memory and learning.
Are there any risks associated with melatonin? It appears as though the effects are fairly mild when targeting jet lag. It is most beneficial when taken for sleep issues (i.e. delayed sleep disorder). When users take melatonin for these issues, what are the side-effects?
The most common side-effect include: sleepiness during the day, dizziness, and headaches. Although uncommon, it’s possible to experience anxiety, confusion, irritability, short-lived depression, and stomach discomfort.
It has been documented that various medications may interact with melatonin. If you’re taking blood-thinning medication, immuno-suppressants, diabetes medication, or birth control pills, please check with your doctor before beginning usage. You should also refrain from driving or using heavy machinery up to five hours after you have taken a melatonin supplement.
The recommended dose of melatonin is approximately 1 to 5 mg per day or night. The dosage depends on what your intended use is. If you suffer from a circadian rhythm sleep disorder for instance, 0.5 mg a day may be more than enough. You wouldn’t generally take 5 mg unless you were trying to combat jet lag or reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep.
It is most beneficial is you take this supplement at night, approximately half hour before you go to bed. It is not recommended that you take melatonin with alcohol or any other sedating supplements. It is also only recommended for short-term use, at no more than two months. Once again, this depends on your situation.