If you want to know what melatonin is, why people take it, how much to take, whether or not it’s safe, and whether or not it can help you sleep, then you want to read this article.
“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
No doubt you were quoted this old adage a time or two (or two thousand) during your days as a child and adolescent when one of the only things you really wanted to do was stay up late and play video games or watch TV on the weekends with your friends.
As you became a teenager and then a young adult, the thought of going to sleep early was an even further afterthought in your mind amidst the freedom (and obligations) that accompany getting older -- parties, dates, cramming for finals, etc.
Entering full blown adulthood, the idea of going to bed early has remained elusive, yet the concept of rising early is known all too well as most adults get their day started rather early due to work start times, lengthy commutes, or infants crying at dawn (or some combination thereof).
With these mounting responsibilities and obligations, why do we as a species still find it so damn hard to get to bed at a reasonable time?
Sure, smartphones, tablets, and Netflix make it difficult to want to go to bed early, as does the constant musings of entrepreneurs reminding us that in order to be successful we have to be willing to work late and wake early.
And, there’s also the simple fact that the majority of us don’t like “missing out”, and when we sleep, we’re missing out on a lot of things happening around the universe.
Or are we?
You see, while we glorify the “all in”, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead mentality” the truth is, if you keep pushing off sleep your meeting with the Grim Reaper will come a whole lot sooner than you’d probably prefer.
Yes, events happen while we sleep, but short of a hurricane, tornado, or wildfire placing your domicile in immediate danger, everything will be more or less the same when you wake up. And if not, that’s what news outlets and the cesspool that is Twitter is for.
But, let’s say that you know that sleep is important, and that you do your very best to try to get to bed early. After all you’ve been led to believe that by doing so, you’ll end up rich, intelligent, and healthy.
Yet, no matter how thick your curtains are, no how dark you make your room, you still toss and turn...and turn...and turn, struggling to get comfortable, shut off your busy brain, and fall asleep.
Rest easy, you’re not alone by a long shot.
Millions of people experience sleep problems, the most common of which are:
- falling asleep
- waking too early
- feeling groggy in the morning
- waking numerous times in the night
While you might think that a lack of sleep just leaves you feeling tired and a bit cranky the following day, that’s the least of your worries. Sleep deprivation has been associated with car crashes, medical errors, and industrial accidents. There’s also the fact that chronic lack of sleep decreases insulin sensitivity, increases cortisol levels, blunts fat burning, and promotes fat storage.
And, if those reasons weren’t bad enough, sleep deprivation also increases the risk of mortality as well as the risk of chronic diseases including hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, obesity, depression, and cancer.
So basically, nothing really good (and a lot of bad) comes out of skipping sleep, that is unless you want reduced productivity and quality of life.
If you’re anything like the other millions of people who struggle to get decent sleep each night, and do all the “standard” steps (blackout curtains, avoid blue light, etc.) to improve your sleep quality, chances are you’ve considered purchasing an all natural sleep aid.
But, which sleep aid should you buy?
Are they safe?
Do they have any side effects?
Do they cause dependency?
These are all valid questions, and ones you should definitely ask yourself when looking to purchase a sleep aid.
Today, we’re going to go in-depth over one of the best all natural sleep aids in melatonin.
We’ll discuss what it is, how it works, where it comes from, and whether or not it has any side effects of which you should be aware.
But, before we get too far into the weeds with melatonin, let’s recap the benefits of sleep for those who still haven’t got the message.
What are the Benefits of Sleep?
Getting night after night of high-quality sleep, can set you up in a number of ways. Studies have shown that getting sufficient amounts of sleep[12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20]:
Improves problem solving abilities
Boosts diet adherence
Lowers levels of inflammation
Bolsters immune function
Enhances athletic performance
In other words, that old adage your parents used to tell you was true. When you get enough sleep, everything is better -- physical and mental performance, recovery, health, and well-being.
With that said, let’s now get into the real “meat” of the article -- the all natural sleep aid melatonin.
We’ll start by answering the first question that you’re probably thinking right now.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body secreted by the pineal gland -- a small gland in our brain that’s often referred to as “the third eye.” It’s best known for its role in sleep and circadian rhythm, but also plays a number of other roles in the body including blood pressure regulation, immune function, reproduction, ovarian physiology, and that of an antioxidant.
This small peptide (short amino acid chain) can also be found in just about any other plant or animal on our planet and is capable of reaching all tissues in the body, and due to its amphilicity (hydrophilic and lipophilic properties) can easily enter the nucleus and mitochondria of our cells.[8,9]
How is Melatonin Made?
You know that our bodies naturally synthesize melatonin, but how exactly does it do that?
Well, like most things, the origin of melatonin production begins with our diet. Now, we don’t directly consume melatonin in the foods we eat, but we do get it indirectly from the essential amino acid L-Tryptophan.
As you probably realize, tryptophan is the same amino acid that’s blamed for the post-Thanksgiving “coma” that most people fall into after spending the better portion of the entire day feasting on all sorts of yummy home cooking.
(Little do they realize that the amount of Tryptophan in turkey isn’t all that different from levels of the amino acid found in other meats.)
What’s more likely the cause of the post-feast nap is the large amounts of food you’ve just consumed, not necessarily the turkey.
L-Tryptophan, Melatonin, & Sleep
While L-tryptophan is one of the nine essential amino acids, and therefore required to synthesize muscle protein, for the purposes of this article, we’re concerned with its role in the synthesis of the sleep hormone, melatonin.
When you consume tryptophan, whether it be as part of a whole food protein (like turkey) or an amino acid supplement, it can be converted to the 5-hydroxytryptophan (or 5-HTP for short). 5-HTP is important because it is the direct precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood, well-being, appetite, and sleep.
Serotonin can then be converted into melatonin as it’s needed to induce sleep.
Now, here’s where things get interesting.
Melatonin is basically always “on” in the body, unless your eyes catch a glimpse of light. When you view light, melatonin production is suppressed and your alertness increases.[5,6]
This is part of the problem with watching tv, checking social media, or reading text messages on your phone right before going to bed -- the blue light emitted from those screens stunts melatonin production, thereby prolonging the amount of time it takes you to wind down and fall asleep.
This also means that anytime you are in darkness, whether it’s day or night, there is a possibility than you can become tired and fall asleep. It’s also why falling asleep in a brightly lit room is exceedingly difficult for most people -- light inhibits melatonin synthesis.
Now, it should be mentioned that this light-melatonin production link is mostly relegated to the brain as melatonin synthesis in other tissues of the body is not overly affected by light. And, in case you were wondering, yes, melatonin does have other effects in the body and affects just about every cell in the body, and plays an important role in bone formation.
The reason for this is that anywhere serotonin is produced, melatonin can theoretically be produced as well since melatonin is one step downstream of serotonin.
Getting back to L-Tryptophan and its role in melatonin production, while most people focus on consuming adequate protein each day to hit their tryptophan needs, sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes, you might want to make more melatonin than your body is normally capable of, or some other situation arises causing you to want to increase melatonin levels in the body. In these instances, a melatonin supplement may be useful.
Why Do People Supplement with Melatonin?
The primary reason people buy melatonin supplements is to improve their sleep, both in how quickly they fall asleep as well as their sleep quality (how “productive” and restorative your sleep is).
If you’re anything like me, when you lay down at night to go to sleep, you don’t fall asleep right away. Chances are pretty good, your mind is still running 100 miles per hour, recounting and analyzing everything you did during the day as well as what’s on the docket for tomorrow.
Despite your best efforts to quiet your mind and calm down, falling asleep quickly is not in the cards most of the time.
In these instances, when it takes 30 minutes or more to fall asleep after laying down in bed, melatonin is a godsend. And, it’s also the best reason to supplement with melatonin -- accelerating the rate at which you are able to fall asleep at night, or more simply put, melatonin improves your ability to fall asleep. This is also known as sleep latency.
Melatonin & Sleep Latency
Now, if you’re someone who can fall asleep the second your head hits the pillow, melatonin might not be as much of a home run, but if you’re like the millions of other people who struggle to turn their minds off at night and get into “sleep mode”, melatonin easily is in the running for best natural sleep aid.
But, melatonin isn’t the only hormone involved in helping you get to sleep quickly, even though it is called “the sleep hormone” by many. (GABA and adenosine also play important roles in sleep latency as does the amino acid glycine.)
Melatonin main contribution is in the area of inducing sleep -- making you feel tired, your eyelids heavy, and kickstarting the entire sleep process so that the other hormones we just mentioned can do their job and keep you soundly sleeping.
It’s in these instances (helping you get to sleep) that melatonin supplementation is most effective.[2,3] Basically, if it typically takes you 30-40 minutes to fall asleep at night, supplementing with melatonin may help you fall asleep in 10 minutes.
Now, if you’re someone who can fall asleep within minutes of putting your head down, adding a melatonin supplement probably won’t decrease sleep latency much further.
Sleep latency is the condition for which melatonin is most often used, but there are several other reason why you may consider using a melatonin supplement, including...
Melatonin & Jet Lag
Every cell in your body follows a circadian rhythm. If you’re not familiar with what the circadian rhythm is, think of it as “the master pacemaker” in the brain that keeps the body on regular 24 hour cycle, and it is set by external light cues each and every day. Also affecting the “timing” of your circadian rhythm are your own daily habits.
For example, if you tend to go to bed at the same time every night, your body adjusts to this routine and naturally starts to make you more and more tired as it nears bedtime.
Now, if you’re someone who follows a pretty typical schedule and has a set routine with little deviation, this is great. 9PM rolls around every night and you start to get sleepy.
However, if you’re someone who tends to do a lot of traveling, say for business, the constant swapping of time zones can play hell with your circadian rhythm and make it very difficult for your body to decide if it should be tired or awake and alert.
This constant time zone hoping can lead to disturbed sleep, daytime fatigue, indigestion, and a general feeling of being uncomfortable or restless. You probably know this group of conditions by its more common moniker -- jet lag.
The more technical name for jet lag is “circadian desynchrony”, but essentially it involves misalignment of your body’s circadian rhythm with that of your surroundings due to rapid travel across several time zones.
Since jet lag basically involves complications with falling asleep, using melatonin would seem like and ideal fit.
Studies have investigated the potential jet lag-combatting abilities of melatonin, and overall, melatonin does appear to be effective for helping your body deal with the large shifts in time zones.[21,22,23,24]
Researchers recommend that when traveling, especially across five or more time zones, travelers should take melatonin on their travel day at the hour they anticipate going to sleep in the new time zone.
And, if you’re traveling across seven or eight time zones, it’s recommended to start taking melatonin 2-3 days prior to your travel day so as to improve acclimation to the new time zone.
Now, let’s look at another case of disrupted circadian rhythm for which melatonin supplementation might be effective -- working the late shift.
Melatonin & Shift Work
Shift work is work that usually occurs outside of the typical 9-5 work day. Generally, when an individual says they work the late shift, it’s usually 9PM to 5AM or 12AM to 8AM, or some variation involving starting work very late at night and finishing right about the time most everyone else is walking into the office.
As you can imagine, anytime you’re staying up when your body is telling you to go to sleep is going to throw off your internal clock, making it incredibly difficult to fall asleep, regardless of how tired you are.
And, it’s not purely because it’s sunny outside.
Research has shown that shift workers and even blind people (who can’t see light) suffer from misalignment of their internal clock with that of their external environment. The good news is that supplementing with melatonin does appear to improve individuals’ ability to sleep despite being on a different “clock” than the majority of the workforce. Some studies even suggest using caffeine in the morning with melatonin at night to help further.[27,28,29]
The takeaway here, is that melatonin can be incredibly effective for any type of problem related to abnormal circadian rhythms. Melatonin works exceedingly well for “resetting” your internal clock and may work that much better when paired with something to wake you up (such as caffeine). Obviously, by “pairing them together” we don’t actually mean take them at the same time, we mean to use caffeine in the morning when you need to be awake, and melatonin and night when you need to be sleepy.
Is Melatonin Safe?
Now, the fact that melatonin is technically a hormone may give some of you pause when considering it as a sleep aid. However, rest assured melatonin is very, very safe to use.
To date, there are no studies of note demonstrating melatonin inherently caused significant damage to users. Furthermore, overdosing melatonin also seems fairly unlikely for adults.
In regards to dosing, melatonin is best kept between 0.3-5mg, as that is the range most studies use for the sleep aid.
Does Melatonin Supplementation Affect Natural Melatonin Production?
It’s perfectly natural to wonder if supplementing with something your body naturally produces causes it to produce less on its own. After all, taking exogenous testosterone leads to downregulation of natural testosterone production.
A few studies have shown that supplementing melatonin does not abnormally affect the body’s production levels. However, if you’re mega dosing melatonin for years on end (something we do NOT recommend), it could reduce natural melatonin synthesis or it might not. We don’t have that research yet, but it’s not worth finding out for yourself.
Suffice it to say that when dosed responsibly and used for its intended purpose, melatonin is completely safe to use and can be an effective means to improving sleep latency.
Are there any side effects to melatonin supplementation?
Despite the safety of melatonin, it’s not completely without side effects, though it’s a pretty laughable side effect at that.
If you happen to take too much melatonin prior to bed, then you may have some grogginess in the morning.
Outside of the occasional grogginess, no studies to date have documented any serious side effects from melatonin supplementation. If you find that the dose of melatonin you are using tends to leave you groggy, consider dialing back the dose a bit or perhaps taking it a bit earlier before going to sleep.
What Form of Melatonin Should I Take?
Melatonin supplements can be found in both instant release and time-release forms.
Instant release (which we use in EAA Sleep) is intended to be taken before bed. Start with taking your melatonin supplement 30 minutes before you want to be asleep, and during the 30 minutes, try to create a perfect sleep environment (dark, cool room, no electronics, etc.) The 30 minutes time frame can be tweaked to your liking after you get a feel for how your body responds to melatonin.
Time-release melatonin is a bit more of a wild card since its effects aren’t “immediate” like instant-release. Due to the delayed release of this form, you won’t “feel” much of anything in the way of lethargy or sedation. In regards to dosing, take it as close to bed as you can so it stays in your system longer.
If you’re one of those people who likes to have a snack immediately before bed, then take your instant-release melatonin (or scoop of EAA Sleep) 10-15 minutes before your snack. This gives the melatonin a “head start” in your system to start working and won’t be delayed by the bolus of food you’re about to eat.
The Bottom Line on Melatonin
At the end of the day, melatonin is about as proven of a commodity as it can be for reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep at night. It’s well studied, free of any major side effects, and all natural.
Despite what other claims you may have heard (boosting growth hormone, improving sleep quality, etc.), the research isn’t there in large enough quantities for those claims to hold water. Melatonin is best suited to decreasing sleep latency, and helping right a dysfunctional circadian rhythm.
The Best Melatonin Supplement
Melatonin supplements are widely available and very inexpensive. As such, if all you’re looking for is a little help getting to sleep faster at night, then buying a bulk melatonin supplement is your best bet.
However, if you’re looking for a more complete sleep aid, one that helps you get to sleep faster as well as improves the quality of your sleep, we suggest you take a look at EAA Sleep.
EAA Sleep is an all natural, non-habit forming sleep aid containing ingredients that help promote a deep, restorative night’s sleep, so that you can recover greater and perform better tomorrow. EAA Sleep also includes a full complement of essential amino acids to provide your body with the vital building blocks it needs to support muscle repair and growth.
Click here to learn more about EAA Sleep and why it’s one of the best natural sleep aids you can find.
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