Your alternating pattern of sleeping during the night and staying awake during the day is known as your sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm. This is controlled by a hormone called melatonin.
The correct level of melatonin at the appropriate time helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Scientists have discovered melatonin plays other roles, too.
In this blog we’ll take a look at the importance of melatonin and find out how you can optimise your levels.
Melatonin is produced by the brain’s pineal gland, a tiny gland in the middle of the brain. During the hours of daylight this gland is inactive, but once it becomes dark it’s stimulated to produce melatonin by a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus which detects light coming in from the eye.
Melatonin is manufactured from serotonin, more commonly associated with mood. This in turn is made from the amino acid tryptophan, obtained from protein. Melatonin is released into the bloodstream and travels around the body. It’s also produced by the gut and the retina.
As blood levels of melatonin rise, we start to feel sleepier. If they fail to rise during the evening, we’ll find it harder to drop off to sleep and we will tend to wake up during the night.
Typically, melatonin levels remain elevated for around twelve hours, being highest between 2am and 4am, before falling to low daytime levels at around 9am. The amount of melatonin in our bloodstream is typically ten times higher during the hours of darkness.
Melatonin has other roles apart from helping us sleep. It’s a potent antioxidant, protecting cells from free radical damage, it can combat inflammation, influence the immune system, reduce stress hormones and has been seen in test-tube research to prevent cell division in some cancers. Low levels of melatonin have been correlated with Alzheimer’s disease, mood disturbances and Type 2 diabetes
Because melatonin secretion usually falls with age, some researchers believe it may play a role in the ageing process.
It’s likely we don’t yet fully understand all the ways in which melatonin influences health.
Functional Medicine recognises how important both sleep and melatonin are to your health, so let’s now look at some strategies you can take to support your melatonin levels
Getting out and about in sunshine, especially in the morning, can not only shut down your daytime production of melatonin, causing you to feel more alert, but can also encourage the production of serotonin, your feelgood chemical. Because melatonin is produced from serotonin, this can boost the amount of melatonin produced in the evening, promoting more restful sleep.
It’s no secret caffeine from coffee, tea and cola drinks can keep you up at night. Caffeine is a stimulant but also interferes with melatonin production. Caffeine can affect sleep many hours later in sensitive people.
Electronics with a screen emit light at the blue end of the colour spectrum. This type of light, which boosts attention and reaction times during the day, sends signals to the brain to slow down melatonin release if we are exposed to it at night.
It’s advisable to avoid checking your devices during at least the hour before you go to bed. Apps are available to reduce blue light after a set time in the evening.
Melatonin is produced in response to falling light levels so light from outside streetlamps or even night-lights inhibits its production. Invest in dark curtains or blackout blinds or wear an eye mask.
The pineal gland, often called the third eye chakra, is thought to be our connection to spiritual awakening and enlightenment.
Certain yoga poses have been found in studies to boost melatonin production. A quiet mind before bedtime, encouraged by meditation, can calm the nervous system and promote the release of melatonin, because melatonin release is inhibited by stress.
The body needs certain nutrients such as B vitamins, zinc and magnesium to produce melatonin from tryptophan because they form part of the enzymes needed for its conversion. Low blood levels of omega 3 fats have been linked with reduced melatonin secretion.
Chicken, turkey, eggs and pumpkin and sesame seeds all contain tryptophan, the building block of melatonin.
Other foods such as salmon, eggs, grapes, cherries, strawberries, pistachios and tomatoes contain melatonin itself, although amounts vary widely.
Melatonin is a potent inhibitor of NLRP3 inflammasomes.
Generally referred to as the “hormone of darkness”, the ability of melatonin to regulate both pro- as well as anti-inflammatory cytokines in different pathophysiological conditions has only been extensively studied in the past several years. NLRP3 inflammasomes is a direct target of melatonin. Animal models of sepsis showed melatonin’s ability to maintain mitochondrial homeostasis, reduce reactive oxygen species and lower production of proinflammatory cytokines.
If you are having problems sleeping and would like to explore how to naturally support your melatonin production, a Functional Medicine consultation can help you reach your health goals as well as naturally improve your sleep. Contact me to find out more.
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