Diary / Wellness / Sep 26, 2022
Functional Medicine Guide to Melatonin
Written by: Dr. Will Cole
We all sleep, but not everyone gets good quality sleep. Many things can decrease our sleep quality, but a big factor that often gets overlooked is the production and function of our “sleepy-time” hormone.
Melatonin is derived in the body from the neurotransmitter serotonin, and the amino acid tryptophan. It is produced in various organs of the body but is primarily produced in the pineal gland in the brain. While melatonin’s main function is to help regulate your sleep cycle, your body utilizes it for other things as well including eye function, healthy immune system, and balanced oxidative stress levels.
At my functional medicine telehealth clinic, I see melatonin imbalance play a major role in people’s health around the world. And when you aren’t sleeping well it throws off your hormones and your overall health. Let’s take a look at how melatonin works in our body so we can all start getting the sleep we deserve!
Melatonin and sleep
In a healthy individual, cortisol is higher in the morning to help with waking, and slowly lowers throughout the day. Melatonin, your “sleepy time” hormone, is inversely proportional to cortisol, so when cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa. Problems occur when there is an imbalance between these two hormones. Adrenal fatigue (HPA axis dysfunctions) happens when melatonin is low when it should be high or high when it should be low causing that mid-day slump many people experience after lunch.
Melatonin and immune health
Melatonin is found in immune cells and is considered immunomodulatory to help reduce overactive immune function. For those with inflammatory autoimmune conditions this can be extremely beneficial for boosting their immune system.
Melatonin and inflammation
Melatonin is a powerful tool against inflammation. It actually reduces the production of inflammatory cytokines such as TNFa, IL-6, and IL-8. It also down-regulates pro-inflammatory nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB).
How to balance and boost melatonin
Whether you need to boost your melatonin production or make sure you aren’t depleting it, these tips will help keep your melatonin levels balanced for optimal sleep.
1. Snack on cherries Cherries are packed with tryptophan and serotonin - two of the requirements for melatonin production - as well as melatonin itself. This unique combination interacts with cherry phenolics to help regulate your sleep cycle, making them the perfect snack before bed.
2. Limit screen time before bedtime Electronic devices, like smartphones and computers, emit a powerful blue light that actually increases alertness and inhibits melatonin production. The best way to avoid this is to simply stay off of electronic devices the few hours before bed. In our culture limiting screen time at night gets a lot of push back, but it really can make a big difference. Even just limiting screen time for the last 30 minutes or hour before bed can help.
3. Sleep in a dark room Since any sort of light, not just blue light, can alter your melatonin levels it’s important to sleep in a dark room. While it may be tempting to keep a light on or even sleep with the tv on, if you want the best sleep turn off all lights and cover your windows with blinds and curtains that prevent the early morning light from waking you before you’re ready. Unless you are an early bird!
4. Spend time outside Your body relies on cues from nature to signal when you should be awake and when you should be sleeping. Since darkness triggers melatonin production, spending time outside will help your body register that it’s time to be awake. For years we woke up with the sun, worked the land outside, and returned inside to sleep once the sun went down. Natural light will help you feel more awake and refreshed during the day.
What about supplements?
While melatonin supplements may seem like a great natural solution to your sleep woes, they aren’t always the best decision long-term. Even though it’s “natural” melatonin is still a hormone. Relying on melatonin supplements can alter your body’s own ability to regulate melatonin production and disrupt other hormone production as well. Because the body is so interconnected, when one thing is off, you are more likely to experience other imbalances.
Magnesium would be a better option for continued use as it has a calming effect and promotes better sleep. Most people are actually deficient in magnesium anyway so getting in this mineral through supplementation can be beneficial in more ways than just sleep, as it is responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. You can find magnesium in powdered form to mix with a glass of water right before bed.
However, melatonin may be useful in some cases, especially for jet lag. Traveling through time zones can mess with your melatonin rhythms. By taking a melatonin supplement you can help signal your body that it’s time for sleep, regardless of what time it is back home so you can get on a normal sleep schedule based on the timezone you are currently in.
Melatonin is so beneficial for jet lag, one review paper showed that in nine out of ten studies those who took melatonin close between 10PM and midnight at the destination decreased jet lag from flights crossing time zones. Having about 5mg, 30 minutes before bedtime is generally good practice.