Yesterday I talked about the importance of sleep, some common causes of insomnia, and a few nutrients that can benefit those who are having trouble sleeping through the night. Today I want to focus on a hormone that is critical for proper sleep: melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by our pineal gland, located in the brain. Although many don’t think of it as one, melatonin is actually an extremely powerful antioxidant – more so than vitamin C, vitamin E or beta carotene. It has the ability to prevent oxidation reactions, which can eventually lead to health issues such as heart disease, cancer, and more. Melatonin also stimulates the immune system; helps with production of estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones; supports reproductive health; and can even slow the growth of existing cancers.

The most commonly understood role of melatonin, however, is to regulate sleep. It is secreted in response to darkness at the end of each day, and these hormones are what help slow our bodies down before bedtime. When daylight hits our retina as the sun comes up in the morning, neural impulses cause melatonin production to slow and we naturally begin to feel more awake. While lightness and darkness both play extremely important roles in melatonin production, there are other things that influence it as well:

  • Eating regular meals helps keep your body in sync with the rhythms of the day. A fairly regular routine, including time of day meals are eaten, will strengthen melatonin production.

  • At nighttime, as melatonin production begins, digestion slows. Eating a lighter meal at night and waiting a couple of hours between dinner and bedtime can help with proper melatonin production. If you happen to eat a large meal right before bedtime, melatonin production will actually slow or stop the digestion process, causing digestive discomfort and difficulty sleeping.

  • Avoiding stimulants such as coffee, soda, and other energy drinks will help support and protect your melatonin production process.

  • Late night exercise or other forms of intense activity can actually delay melatonin production at night. The best time to exercise for those who have insomnia is in the morning light.

Supplementation with melatonin can be very helpful for those who are not producing enough on their own. There are many reasons someone may not be producing enough melatonin, including poor diet, blood sugar issues or hormonal imbalance. Melatonin supplements can be taken by both adults and children who suffer from insomnia, and there are very few side effects. They are also used to ease PMS symptoms, boost immunity, prevent memory loss, and support those who have heart disease, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Supplements should be taken within 2 hours of bedtime, and should sustain you throughout the night without making you feel groggy in the morning. If you do feel groggy, you are taking too much and should reduce your dosage.

Note: Although there are not necessarily toxic levels of melatonin, some people should talk to their doctor before taking it. Pregnant or nursing women should avoid taking melatonin, as well as those trying to conceive, as it is known to act as a contraceptive. People with severe allergies, autoimmune disease, lymphoma, or leukemia should also avoid taking melatonin. Finally, melatonin supplements can suppress your natural production of melatonin, so if you do not have difficulty sleeping I don’t recommend taking melatonin supplements or it will throw your natural rhythms off.

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