If you’re lucky, you spend about ⅓ of each day sleeping, but 30-40% of North Americans say they get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. If you’re having trouble getting some quality shut eye - a quick google search for a natural sleep aid will almost definitely bring up melatonin, but it’s certainly not the only option and not necessarily the best choice for every sleepless situation.
What’s the Deal with Melatonin?Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, regulates our circadian rhythm, also known as our internal clock or sleep/wake cycle. Melatonin signals the body to go to bed and wake up. It also affects our blood pressure, bowel movements, body temperature, coordination, and homeostasis of our bones. Melatonin is derived from the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is derived from the essential amino acid tryptophan.
Melatonin is often synthetic in supplement form but it can also be found in nature. Tart cherry juice, goji berries, eggs, milk, fish, pistachios and almonds naturally contain melatonin. Eating foods high in tryptophan can help to stimulate your own melatonin production. Tryptophan can be found in turkey, fish, chicken, eggs, tofu, soy, pumpkin and sesame seeds, real chocolate.
The Pros and Cons of Melatonin SupplementationAs with most things in life, melatonin has its pros and cons. Let’s dig in!
Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant which helps scavenge and destroy free radicals floating around the body wreaking havoc. Melatonin may also have some unintended positive consequences in the realm of vision care, anti-aging, cancer cell apoptosis, mood management and weight loss.
It can take many nights of trial and error to get the right dose of melatonin. The wrong dose can come with side effects like vivid dreams and extremely groggy next mornings, hormonal fluctuations, headaches and nausea. More is not necessarily better. Melatonin supplementation can interact with some medications. In some instances, taking a melatonin supplement may help get you to sleep, but it’s not addressing the root cause of WHY you’re not sleeping in the first place.
Getting to the Root CauseUnderstanding the root cause of your sleep disturbance is the first step in managing it. The number one cause of insomnia and sleep disturbance is stress, but sleep can be affected by any number of things.
- Jet lag and shift work
- Melatonin deficiency and sleep disorders
- Physical circumstances: temperature, noise, pain, discomfort
- Exposure to blue light emitted from devices
- Neurotransmitter or hormonal imbalance (menopause, thyroid, postpartum, serotonin imbalance)
- Caffeine intake and nutrition
- Activity levels during the day
- Certain medications and drugs
Stress and Sleep
With stress as the number one cause of sleep disturbances we can’t just slip by without addressing it! Cortisol, one of three main stress hormones, and melatonin are ideally in opposition. Cortisol should be higher in the morning when melatonin secretion is decreased, and cortisol should be lower in the evening when melatonin is secreted. During stressful periods, or chronic stress situations cortisol may be high in the evening, which is not ideal for quality sleep. Stress often results in trouble sleeping and trouble sleeping can result in an in appropriate stress response, making this quite the vicious cycle.
Melatonin supplementation might be helpful in this scenario, but again, it’s not treating the root cause. Using stress management techniques and adaptogenic herbs found in Daytime Zen during the day can begin to help normalizing sleep patterns at night.
If stress during the day turns into a racing mind at night, passion flower is the perfect herb for easing a racing mind. In our melatonin-free natural sleep aid Sleep Like Buddha, passion flower is paired with 5-HTP which helps you produce your own melatonin, and l-theanine which decreases racing thoughts and calms feelings of overwhelm.
So, when is melatonin a good option?Melatonin supplementation is most appropriate when adjusting the circadian rhythm to match that of a new time zone (jet lag) and adjusting to shift work.
For other causes of sleep disturbance, take a few extra steps before resorting to melatonin.
Narrow down the root cause of your sleep challenges on your own or with the help of a practitioner and decide on the best course of action from there. Treating the root cause could involve implementing sleep hygiene and stress management techniques, or improving your nutrition and exercise regime. Other supplementation options might include natural relaxation promoting passion flower and l-theanine, or stress reducing herbs like ashwagandha, bacopa, and rhodiola.
Managing sleep issues can involve a lot of trial and error. Keep us updated on your journey in the comments - have you tried melatonin? What sleep hygiene and stress management techniques work best for you?