Currently, problems of insomnia and sleep disorders affect 10-15% of the adult population. The current pace of life, the use of mobile devices, tablets and hours in front of the computer screen may be having a negative influence on sleep. At the end of the last decade, people began to talk about melatonin as a solution to these sleep disorders, since it is a hormone of natural origin (produced by our brain) that is involved in the process of regulating our circadian rhythm and therefore in the conciliation of sleep. It is precisely for this reason that it is also known as the sleep hormone. Let’s see a little more what melatonin is and what it is for.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by our body. Therefore, melatonin is safe. It is mainly secreted by a gland, called the pineal gland, which is located inside our brain. It is now known that in addition to the pineal gland, there are many other areas of the body where melatonin is also synthesized, although most of the circulating melatonin is from the pineal gland.
We start producing melatonin at 3 months of age, reaching a maximum at around 10 years of age, and then gradually reducing its production as we age.
Melatonin and Tryptophan
Our organism synthesizes melatonin from a neurotransmitter called Serotonin, which is related to our mood and well-being. This Serotonin is in turn synthesized from an essential amino acid called Tryptophan. Therefore, it is through the tryptophan that our body increases the level of seratonin.
Amino acids are small molecules that joined together in a chain form proteins. The essential amino acids are those that cannot be synthesized by our organism and therefore we must ingest them with the diet and/or with some type of nutritional supplement.
The tryptophan, precursor of the synthesis of melatonin, can be found in many foods (fish, eggs, nuts or dairy products) although there are also many food supplements with tryptophan that allow us to ensure their contribution to our body.
The circadian rhythm is our biological clock, which lasts 24 hours and during which a series of processes occur in a cyclical and repetitive manner. The most evident process in this circadian rhythm is the wake-sleep cycle, that is, those two time periods in which we have to be asleep or awake and which are repeated every 24 hours.
One of the fundamental elements in the regulation of this circadian rhythm is melatonin, as this is the hormone whose level in the blood depends on the moment of the circadian cycle in which we find ourselves and that, in fact, its level is regulated based on the signal of environmental light that reaches the brain from our retina. This signal, which indicates the intensity of the ambient light, reaches an area of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus and this in turn “gives the order” to the pineal gland to produce more or less melatonin.
Melatonin for Sleeping
Therefore, melatonin plays a fundamental role in regulating the oscillation of our sleep and the circadian rhythm, that is, it regulates our biological clock and indicates to our organism, among other things, when it is time to sleep.
Its production rhythm in the pineal gland is not constant throughout the day and night. Our pineal gland begins to produce melatonin progressively at the end of the day, as the level of light in our environment decreases and progressively increases its rate of production until it reaches its maximum between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. and then progressively reduces its production until dawn, when its production level is very low.
As we go turning years, our level of production of melatonin is diminishing what causes that this regulation of the circadian rate is not made correctly and ends up affecting of direct form to our cycle wakes up – sleep and therefore it generates problems to us of insomnia and other sleep disorders. It is here where the benefit resides of supplementing to our organism with melatonin, so that thus it helps us to regulate again our circadian cycle and therefore to diminish these sleep disorders and the insomnia.
Melatonin for kids
Use of melatonin in kids should be avoided. We should not use it as sleep aid for kids. The treatment of choice in these cases is to maintain good sleep hygiene by eliminating those habits that may disturb their ability to sleep. Some examples of these bad habits are watching TV before going to sleep or making use of electronic devices such as tablets or cell phones whose blue light inhibits melatonin production and therefore sleep induction.
Although melatonin is a product of natural origin and is therefore should be safe for kids, to date there are no studies confirming the safety and efficacy of melatonin in kids.
For the same reason, we must obviously avoid the use of melatonin in toddlers.
Melatonin is contraindicated in patients with hypersensitivity to this product or due to any of the excipients in the formula.
Melatonin Side Effects
Melatonin usually has no side effects, although some isolated cases (around 0.1% – 1%) of nervousness, irritability, migraine or headache, anxiety, asthenia, drowsiness, dizziness, pain or heartburn, dry mouth, increased bilirubin, hypertension, dermatitis, itching, night sweats, dry skin or chest pain have been described.
Natural Sleeping Pill and Sleep Hormone
Since melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by our body, it is often considered a natural sleeping pill or also known as the sleep hormone.
Melatonin is not a hypnotic that we take and makes us sleep in a matter of minutes, as is the case with some benzodiazepines. Melatonin regulates the circadian rhythm and therefore its effect is visible after several days of taking it, when our circadian cycle is gradually readjusted again. Melatonin is indicated in people who:
- Have low levels of melatonin, basically due to their age, which causes problems with insomnia and sleep disorders.
- People with a jet lag caused, for example, by long trips that cross several time zones or by rotating work shifts in which they work at night only certain weeks of the month.
In addition to these indications, we must always maintain a good sleep hygiene. Some of these basic rules are:
- Avoid copious meals before going to sleep.
- Avoid the ingestion of alcohol or exciting like the coffee.
- Avoid the use of electronic devices (smartphones, tablets) before going to sleep.
- Maintain an adequate temperature in the bedroom, below 68 °F.
- Exercise is also good for sleeping, but we should not do it at the end of the day. We should leave at least 6 hours between the end of the exercise and the time we go to sleep.
Melatonin should be taken about 2 hours before going to sleep and in a dose around 2 – 3 mg/tablet being this the most common dose and it should be enough to help us fall asleep. However, we can even find melatonin at 10 mg/tablet on the market, although we should avoid reaching such high doses of melatonin except in specific cases.
In Europe, melatonin is considered a drug if it has a dose of 2 mg/tablet or more. It can be found on the market as a dietary supplement and purchased without a prescription if the dose is less than 2 mg/tablet. That is, they are much lower doses than those used in the United States.