The Dracula Of Hormones – Everything You Need To Know About Melatonin
What hides from the sun and only comes out after dark? A certain eccentric Transylvanian nobleman and an important hormone called melatonin. In Australia, melatonin is only available by prescription or online, but it’s a regular fixture on health-food store shelves in Canada and the United States. It’s lauded as a natural sleep aid and a jet lag cure, but does it deserve its good reputation?
Melatonin is naturally produced by the body in the pineal (pie-knee-uhl) gland from the amino acids you get in your diet. It’s associated with the onset of sleep since its primary function is to help regulate your Circadian rhythms. Basically, high levels of melatonin tell your body that it’s time to get some rest. Levels of melatonin in the blood are virtually undetectable during the day, rise sharply when darkness falls, and stay elevated for about 12 hours thereafter.
This hormone is extremely sensitive to light. A pathway from the retina to a special part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus tells your body whether your environment is light or dark. Bright light directly inhibits the production of melatonin, which is the main reason that artificial light in the evening spells bad news for quality rest.
The research on supplemental melatonin is inconclusive, to say the least. On the bright side, there are no known cases of toxicity or death via overdose. However, whether or not melatonin actually works as a sleep aid – or whether it’s safe to take long-term – is unknown. Some studies show that it’s no more effective than a placebo, while others show moderate benefits for reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, though not necessarily for increasing overall sleep-time. The results are slightly more positive with regard to its role in resetting your body clock in a new time zone, but even then, it’s not clear whether
plain old light exposure is more effective.
Proper dosage is another problem in countries where melatonin is available over the counter. Supplements range from 0.1-10mg per dose, and given that research results are all over the map, it’s unclear which dose is more effective, let alone safe.
As always, before you consider taking any sleep aid, consult a health professional. With a balanced diet, a true melatonin deficiency is extremely unlikely, so it’s important to account for other potential problems if you have trouble falling asleep.