Melatonin Keeps You Healthy

man and woman exercising in park during the day
March 6, 2015
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

When you think of hormones, the first ones that likely come to mind are estrogen, testosterone, and perhaps progesterone—the so-called sex hormones. That’s pretty natural considering you hear about the effects of sex hormone deficiencies all the time. But your body produces another very important hormone that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, even though a large portion of the population is deficient. I’m talking about melatonin.

Generated by the pineal gland, melatonin regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Light controls how much melatonin your brain releases.

During the brightness of the day, levels are barely measurable. But as the sun sets and darkness takes over, higher amounts of melatonin are released to prepare your body for sleep. During the middle of the night (when it’s the darkest), levels peak, then slowly fall again as dawn arrives, helping to nudge us awake.

Just as we see drops in sex hormones as we age, melatonin production slowly declines, too. Without adequate levels of this key sleep-promoting hormone, insomnia and shallow or disrupted sleep often plague older adults.

Unfortunately, though, what I’m finding in my practice is that most people, regardless of age, don’t make enough melatonin. I hate to say it, but modern-day conveniences (lamps, computers, TVs, alarm clocks, etc.) are to blame. With constant exposure to light at 10:00, 11:00, 12:00 at night, the brain doesn’t get the proper signal to increase melatonin, disrupting the natural sleep-wake cycle.

While sleep is melatonin’s main role, the importance of this hormone extends far beyond that.

Mighty Melatonin

Along with regulating sleep, melatonin is a powerful antioxidant that fights inflammation and boosts immunity.

Studies have also found a link between melatonin deficiencies and Alzheimer’s disease, various forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, and even type 2 diabetes. And the latest research reveals that low melatonin affects bone health as well.

In a study involving aged rats, those treated with the hormone had greater bone volume and thickness than untreated rats. This showed that supplementing with melatonin may prevent age-related bone loss and osteoporosis—a condition that affects 200 million worldwide, mostly women.

Boosting Melatonin

Now that you understand the far-reaching effects of this important brain chemical, let me tell you how you can enhance your levels naturally.

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Secrets Behind Getting a Great Night's Sleep

Create the right environment for a good night’s sleep. In your bedroom, close the curtains completely (or get black-out blinds). Eliminate or minimize artificial light from electronics. And if you get up in the middle of the night, use as little light as possible to get around.

Exercise during the day. Daytime workouts (preferably in the sun or in a bright room) help promote a regular circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock). This helps induce higher nighttime secretion of melatonin.

Avoid melatonin-inhibiting drugs several hours before bed. These include beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, anxiety meds, and NSAIDs. If you have to take these, opt to do so in the morning or early afternoon.

Make some additions to your diet. Certain foods may positively affect melatonin production…not dramatically, but it doesn’t hurt to give them a try. These include pineapples, bananas, oats, rice, barley, and tomatoes.

In addition, eat tryptophan-containing foods a few hours before bed. Your body uses the amino acid tryptophan to make the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin, in turn, is needed to make melatonin. Some popular foods rich in tryptophan include turkey, seafood, nuts, eggs, and sunflower seeds.

Take these supplements. Be sure to take a high-quality multivitamin that contains plenty of vitamin B6, folic acid, and magnesium. These nutrients are important in the creation of melatonin.

Finally, I suggest taking supplemental melatonin. The sad reality is that so many people—including a lot of my patients—are so deficient in this hormone that the only way to restore healthy sleep (and benefit from all the other protective qualities) is to take it in supplemental form.

Start by taking about 1 mg just before bedtime and see how that helps. If you need more, slowly increase your dosage up to 3 mg per day.

Whether you’re looking to get some much needed Z’s or safeguard against some of the most debilitating diseases of our time, you can’t go wrong by adding this miracle nutrient to your daily regimen.

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