Anyone who has trouble sleeping has probably heard of melatonin. This substance has been increasingly marketed as a food supplement and even serves as a basis for some medications. But there is still little information about its real effects in the treatment of insomnia. In this text we'll cover everything you need to know about melatonin.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal, a bean-sized gland located inside the brain. This is a very common hormone throughout biology and virtually every animal is capable of producing it. Once produced, it immediately falls into the bloodstream and is transported throughout the body.
This hormone has a very specific pattern of activity: its blood levels are extremely low during the day and rise sharply at night. The next morning the levels go back to being very low and this is repeated every day. This is because the dark is the main stimulus for melatonin to be produced and released.
Our body uses light as the main synchronizer of our circadian rhythm. This goes for both natural light (sunlight) and artificial lights (such as light bulbs or cell phone screens). When our eyes capture light (or, more specifically, some cells called “photoreceptors” in our retina), neuronal information passes through some regions of our brain, until it reaches the pineal, inhibiting its action.
When we are in the dark this inhibition no longer occurs, allowing the pineal to activate and secrete this hormone. It is because of this pattern of activity that melatonin has always been considered the “sleep hormone”.
Role of Melatonin
It is undeniable that melatonin plays an important role in sleep. However, be careful in stating that it is the sleep hormone. People who have had a pineal injury do not lose the ability to sleep. In addition, other brain regions and other neurotransmitters appear to be more important in promoting sleep.
More modern interpretations are that this hormone does not necessarily regulate sleep, but our rhythmicity! Almost all of our biology is governed by a circadian rhythm (ie, a 24-hour rhythm) and melatonin seems to be responsible for organizing various functions and ensuring that each one occurs at its correct time. This is important for sleeping and waking times, but it also has important impacts on our metabolism, immune function, appetite, and more.
In some visually impaired individuals, it is possible for the sleep and wakefulness rhythm to become a little “messy”, causing the person to sleep at different times each day. Still, it is possible that the total sleep time is not altered as much. This is a good example of how melatonin can be more important to our biological rhythms as a whole, than simply to sleep.
In conclusion: it is not wrong to say that melatonin is the sleep hormone. However, we need to be careful what this means. It is not the main sleep stimulator, but controls several functions that vary throughout the wake and sleep cycle.
Treatment for sleep disorders
There is a lot of talk about the effects of melatonin for the treatment of sleep disorders, especially insomnia. Based on this, supplements have become increasingly common. But what is the role of sleep disturbances?
Recent studies have shown that melatonin may not be as useful as a treatment for insomnia. She's even able to make sleep come a little faster. On average, its use makes people fall asleep 10 minutes faster than if they didn't. However, it does not increase total sleep time during the night, nor does it increase sleep quality. In other words, melatonin doesn't make us sleep any more or better, it just makes us sleep a little faster. Also, with continued use it may simply cease to take effect.
Due to its small action on sleep and losing its effect with continuous use, melatonin is not recommended as a treatment for insomnia. Although it doesn't cause many side effects, it won't bring significant benefits.
There are a few situations where melatonin may be indicated. These are the cases where the problems are not only related to sleep, but to rhythm. An important example is Jet Lag. This situation happens when we travel to a country with a different time zone from ours. In these cases, our “biological clock” may be out of step with the time of the place we are, making us feel sick, nauseous, have a headache, tired and have difficulty sleeping. Melatonin can cause these clocks to reset.
Another example is Circadian Rhythm Disorders. People with this disorder may tend to delay their sleep a little each night, or to maintain a sleep pattern that is way behind other people. In this case, melatonin can cause bedtime to be regularized and brought forward.
After all, can I take melatonin to improve my sleep?
It can, but it shouldn't. The risk of adverse effects is small, but the potential for improving your sleep is very small too! Sleep medicine societies around the world agree that melatonin has no significant benefit in the treatment of insomnia. Also, remember that any medication or supplement should only be taken under professional guidance. It is recommended that you seek referral from a health professional with training or qualifications in Sleep Medicine.
In the end, there is no magic pill to make us sleep better. Melatonin has been touted as the solution to all sleep problems and insomnia, but it turns out not to be able to solve them all. Plus, it has no more effect than the melatonin you already make!
To ensure a quality night, rather than trying to induce sleep, it would be better to get out of the way the factors that prevent us from getting adequate sleep. If we can identify all the behaviors, beliefs, anxieties and habits that prevent us from sleeping, we will be able to make sleep appear and occur naturally. No melatonin, no medications.
SleepUp can help you with that! learn about Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for insomnia and download our App to test it.