You’ve heard of catching your Zzzs, right? Try catching your Mmms. Today, we’re going to take a look into what melatonin is, and the role it plays in our sleep.*
Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally in the brain. It’s stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light—tying it closely to the circadian rhythm (the body’s internal 24-hour clock) and the sleep-wake cycle. Once secreted into the blood, melatonin is on the job, sending the message to cells that it’s time to snuggle up for some rest.*
The Science Behind Melatonin
Melatonin is produced and secreted in the pineal gland, and stimulated by neural input from a structure known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (say that three times fast), or SCN for short. The SCN is the master circadian clock for the brain.
Melatonin secretion increases soon after it gets dark, reaches a peak between 2am and 4am, and then gradually decreases until morning. (2) Production of the hormone is inhibited by light, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends creating a dark, relaxing space for sleeping and leaving blue light-emitting screens and devices in another room—even if you’re tired, it’s hard for the body to listen to those cues without the help of melatonin.
Did You Know Melatonin Decreases in Our Body As We Age?
If you’ve ever wondered why babies' sleep is so finicky and teenagers seem like they could sleep 23.9 hours of the day, there’s a reason. Babies are born with very low levels of melatonin, which rise steadily until they peak in early childhood or puberty before gradually declining as we age. While melatonin drops as we get older, so does the efficacy of sleep and circadian rhythms. Aging — which is always fun and has never been an inconvenience until now — causes a decrease in melatonin (3) Melatonin production can also be stalled when the body’s internal clock doesn’t match up with the environment around us—jet lag, shift work, or interrupted sleep can all inhibit melatonin production, which means the pineal gland doesn’t send the signal to sleep when you really want or need to. This is where melatonin supplements might be useful.*
Is It Ok to Take Melatonin Every Night?
It’s usually safe for adults to take melatonin every night for short periods of time. (6) Best practice is to take a melatonin supplement around the same time it’s released in the body, and for most people, this is about an hour before bedtime. This allows for the melatonin to be released into the bloodstream and sends the message to the body that it’s time to hit the hay. Supplementing with too much melatonin can disrupt the circadian rhythm and have the opposite effect on sleep, which is why it’s important to start slow and find the dosage that works for you.*