Melatonin: The brain’s sleeping giant

woman sleeping on bed under blankets
Photo: Gregory Pappas/Unsplash.

IF YOU could take a pill that promised better, more restful sleep, enhanced immunity, naturally improved moods, and alleviation of endometriosis, do you think you might be tempted to take it? What if I said you already have this substance at your disposal, no pill required?

I’m talking about melatonin, a naturally-occurring hormone that plays a key role in regulating circadian rhythms or your body clock.

To understand how it works and how you can help it to work for you, let’s take a look at the origin of the word.  ‘Melas’ in Greek means dark or black, and melatonin is derived from serotonin, hence the ending ‘-tonin’.

We spend much of our waking days indoors under artificial lights and looking at screens, be they laptops, mobile phones, or TVs. Adding to that is the fact that we tend to blink a lot less than we should while we’re staring at screens. Blinking acts like a shutter on a camera and the brain can regulate itself each time we blink.

Anyway, back to those artificial lights and screens. Are you inclined to take your phone to bed with you, scrolling into the wee hours? If you’re in the habit of doing this and find that your sleep is very broken, there’s your answer.

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Melatonin needs darkness to be produced. In your bedroom, aim for as near to pitch darkness as you can to encourage the release of melatonin and all the health benefits that come with it.

At this time of year, when it gets bright so early and stays bright quite late, it’s already a challenge to get enough hours of total darkness. Supposing then you work night shifts. Or maybe you have a baby waking during the night and needing your attention. These are all potential interruptions to sound sleep.

Some people take melatonin supplements a couple of hours before going to bed to encourage sound sleep but, honestly, this is exactly what your body will do naturally if you let it have some darkness in the lead-up to bedtime. And yes, that means no screens in the bedroom.

If you can tolerate it, an eye mask is a further step you can take, or blackout curtains, if they are an option.

Let’s go back to what melatonin is, a hormone. Your body doesn’t produce hormones in isolation, so if your stress levels are through the roof, your blood sugar levels are unbalanced, or your thyroid hormones are excessive or deficient, any of these factors can impact on melatonin.

The gland which produces melatonin, the pineal gland, is an exceptionally small but mighty part of the brain. All the other factors which interfere with optimum brain health will have a negative effect on your pineal gland too and its ability to produce melatonin.

Consider some of the barriers to melatonin production: uncontrolled stress, spikes in blood sugar levels, lack of sleep, lack of essential fatty acids, lack of hydration, and excessively sedentary lifestyle.

If you have addressed all these steps and still can’t see an improvement in your sleep quality, then perhaps consider a supplement. But as hormones are all intrinsically linked, adjust one artificially and you’re bound to affect the others.

My advice would be to get your sleep hygiene in order first by banning screens and welcoming darkness and see how you feel. If you’ve had poor sleep for some time, you might find it takes a while to restore balance to your sleep routine.

Melatonin is also produced in the gut, so dealing with underlying digestive issues helps too. The gut-brain connection is very strong, so this works in reverse too. Sort out sleep issues and you should also see your digestion improve.

In monitoring how you’re responding to a better sleep routine, don’t just observe how many hours you’re sleeping. Look for other changes too.

Ask yourself: Are you waking more refreshed? Is your focus and memory better during the day? Is your mood more stable?

If you suffer from PMS or endometriosis, are you noticing any improvement in symptoms? Painful conditions like temporomandibular disorder (TMD), which impacts on the jaw muscles, might even feel better, as can other conditions of an inflammatory or hormonal nature.

Sleep is not just wasted hours when you could be working, gaming, or socialising. It’s when your body carries out much of its vital growth and repair work.

Your brain undergoes its own version of a carwash while you sleep, when your glial cells, the brain’s immune cells, perform their work. Sex hormones are regulated then too, so if you’ve been dealing with fertility issues due to irregular cycle, you’ll definitely want to look at prioritising sleep.

Give your body its wake up cues in the morning, such as exposure to daylight, breathing exercises, movement, listening to uplifting music, and so on. Then, come evening, start to wind down a few hours before you intend going to sleep. No big meals, breaking news, stimulating action films, sugary snacks, or alcohol late at night. If you’re trying to tell your body to prepare to power down, all these cues will have the opposite effect!

Considering just how tiny the pineal gland is, it would be easy to dismiss its importance in regulating the whole body clock. Sleep deprivation has very real and drastic consequences for your health and vitality as a whole. Once you become aware that fertility, immunity, cognition, digestion, and cellular repair are all intrinsically linked, largely due to melatonin, it might become that bit easier to hit the ‘off’ switch on your device.

Sleep well!