Melatonin & Sleep: How the ‘darkness hormone’ controls your sleep
Melatonin is the single most-used natural sleep aid in existence. It is found in practically every pre-made sleep stack, it is a top-selling standalone supplement, and it is the first thing that people try to manipulate when they try to improve their sleeping patterns.
This makes perfect sense.
When it comes to naturally enhancing sleep, melatonin should be one of the first things you think about, if not the first.
It is without question one of the biggest determinants of your sleeping patterns.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes for a good sleep aid.
Just because something has a certain role in the body does not mean that supplementing with said substance produces those same effects.
Like with so many other substances, there is nowhere near enough information online regarding melatonin supplements, how they work, and how well they work compared to other natural sleep aids!
We’re going to try to rectify that.
In the article below we will explain exactly what melatonin is, what it does in the body, and what that means for your sleeping patterns. We will discuss the use of melatonin as a supplement; using the latest scientific literature as a guide, we’ll tell you whether or not melatonin supplements work, and how well they work compared to placebo.
If you have any questions about using melatonin for sleep, please post them in the comments section at the end.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is the hormone which governs your sleeping and waking cycle.
Of course other hormones and neurotransmitters are involved in regulating sleep, but it is melatonin which has the biggest influence on your sleeping patterns, and it in large part dictates how good your sleep is, when it takes place, and how long it lasts.
Melatonin is released from the pineal gland at set times.
You get a small spike of melatonin around 3pm (postprandially); this dissipates quite quickly thereafter. Brain melatonin concentrations will then steadily rise from about 8pm, with a sudden spike around 1am. This elevated melatonin level lingers until around 3am; after that, levels of the hormone quickly drop off, reaching near 0 by 7am.
Looking at these times, you should already have quite a good intuitive understanding of what melatonin does to the body and the mind.
Melatonin makes you feel drowsy. Serum concentrations of melatonin directly correlates to how drowsy you feel; the more melatonin you release from the pineal gland, the sleepier you feel.
Melatonin levels also directly control the stages of your sleep.
To put it another way, melatonin dictates the depth of your sleep, and how long you spend at each depth. So the more melatonin you release, the deeper the sleep.
Your melatonin levels peak at around 1-3am, which is the time most of us spend in the deepest stages of sleep. Lower concentrations of melatonin bring you into lighter stages of sleep, such as vital REM sleep. These occur later in the night as you approach waking time.
Here is a graph showing a normal, healthy melatonin release schedule:
And here is a graph showing the different stages of sleep in a normal, healthy human sleeping cycle:
As these graphs make patently clear, melatonin is a principle regulator of sleep. It controls how sleepy you feel, it dictates what stages of sleep you spend the most time in, and it works with cortisol to control when you wake up.
Melatonin is among the most important hormones in the human body, and its effects cannot be underestimated.
Melatonin’s effect on sleep
It’s time we got stuck into some human clinical studies.
After all, looking at the mechanisms of a certain substance can only tell us what it does naturally in the body. It is not obvious that consuming the substance orally – or even intravenously – will have the desired effects.
To find out if it does, we need to look at clinical trials conducted on large groups of humans.
Luckily for us, there have been a lot of studies done on melatonin’s effect on humans. These studies have used diverse populations, and their results have been quite conclusive We’ll now take you through the most compelling studies, what they say, and what that might mean for you.
A study published in 2007 in the Journal of Sleep Research found that 2mg of slow-release melatonin significantly reduced sleep latency and improved sleep quality in people struggling with primary insomnia (source). The researchers gave 170 participants aged 55 years or older 2mg of melatonin or placebo each night. These were primary insomnia outpatients. The researchers measured the patients’ sleep quality, morning alertness, rebound insomnia and withdrawals.
They found that melatonin supplementation improved sleep quality and morning alertness in the participants without causing any side effects or withdrawals after discontinuation of treatment.
So right away, we see that melatonin – at just 2mg per night – is able to help older people with primary insomnia get a better night’s sleep. That’s pretty incredible for a naturally occurring hormone that causes no side effects and no withdrawals!
These results have been replicated in a number of other studies using different populations.
In one study, carried out on older people wit insomnia, melatonin supplementation was shown to dramatically improve sleep quality and latency. Over half the patients using the melatonin reported significantly improved sleeping patterns compared to 15% of those using placebo. What’s more, the participants using the melatonin showed improved psychomotor responses in the days following melatonin use (source).
The researchers found melatonin to be well tolerated. It caused no side effects and did not produce any rebound effects or withdrawals after the study was finished. This is significant, as it is in older people or people with severe sleep disorders that we would expect the largest rebound or withdrawal effects.
Another interesting study, published in 2006, found that melatonin is effective at improving sleeping patterns in adults with tinnitus. Researchers gave 24 tinnitus patients 3mg of melatonin for 4 weeks. They found that melatonin improved sleep quality in patients, and that the biggest improvements were seen in patients with the worst sleep quality at the outset of the study (source).
In this clinical trial, researchers found that 3mg of melatonin improved sleep quality in children struggling with excessive sleep latency and sleep onset insomnia.
Finally, we come to the main reason why people use melatonin – jet lag.
Melatonin is extremely effective for preventing, alleviating, and in some cases even completely curing jet lag. This shouldn’t come as a major surprise given what you now know about melatonin, what it does, and its relationship with sleep.
Multiple clinical trials have shown that melatonin supplementation helps people suffering with jet lag. A look at these studies reveal several interesting facts about melatonin and its relationship to jet lag.
For one thing, it is clear that melatonin is effective at reducing the time it takes for a person to get over jet lag and to adapt to a new time zone. In one study, cabin crew members were found to be less sleepy after a long-haul flight when they had taken melatonin at the correct time (source).
In this very similar study, researchers found that sleep latency was significantly shorter 6 days after a flight in people who had been taking melatonin. Basically, the use of melatonin helped people get back to their regular sleeping schedule much faster than placebo or no treatment at all.
Another thing that becomes clear after reading the scientific literature is that melatonin dose is important, up to a point. This trial found that there was no significant difference between 0.5mg and 5mg of melatonin. People using 5mg did fall asleep faster and report higher quality sleep than people using 0.5mg. But aside from that, every other measure asleep was practically the same between the two groups.
One final thing to mention is the risks involved with using melatonin that the studies on jet lag discuss.
There do not seem to be any serious side effects associated with melatonin use, particularly not in amounts ranging from 0.5mg to 10mg. Even mild side effects are rare.
No, the risks are that people will take melatonin at the wrong time, making themselves excessively sleepy during daylight hours and actually lengthening the amount of time it takes to get back onto a normal sleeping schedule.
If you use melatonin improperly, you could actually make jet lag worse!
The correct way to use melatonin for jet lag is to consume about 2mg when it is midnight at your destination. The idea is that you then fall asleep on the flight and get a good few hours of sleep in. When you arrive, you should already be partly on the right clock.
You should then take another 2-5mg for the first few nights at your new destination; take it whenever you want to go to sleep, but we recommend taking it at midnight (12am-8am is the best sleep schedule for health and productivity in our opinion).
Who should use Melatonin?
What should be very clear from all of these studies is that melatonin is a fantastic sleep aid for people who are either struggling to get to sleep on time each night, people who do not get enough deep sleep, or people who are suffering with jet lag.
Older people with insomnia, business travellers, adolescents with sleep disorders – all of these people seem to benefit massively from melatonin supplementation.
For those of you who don’t have these sleep issues, then melatonin is not necessarily going to make an enormous difference to your life.
It will promote deeper, more restful sleep. Melatonin can definitely help you get onto a healthier, more productive sleeping schedule. It can significantly reduce sleep latency in people who lie awake at night for hours on end.
On top of all of that, melatonin is a very powerful antioxidant. Lower melatonin levels during sleep are correlated with reduced physical and mental performance, as well as the onset of various diseases.
So while melatonin is especially useful for people with insomnia, people suffering from jet lag, or people who get little deep sleep, it can help anybody who wants to create heathier sleeping patterns.
Can I change my sleep schedule?
Some of you may be wondering why melatonin is released at a set time each day.
Shouldn’t it just be released according to our sleep schedule?
Can’t you manipulate melatonin release to suit your sleeping patterns?
These are good questions, but things are never that simple. Our bodies have been slowly amalgamated over millions of years; if you think you can reset your biological progresses at will, you’re very much mistaken!
Your circadian rhythm has been established over an exceptionally long period of time – roughly 3 million years.
Your body has evolved to function on a sleeping/waking cycle that has you sleep for a period of 8 hours sometime between 9pm and 9am.
Melatonin is released at set times per day. But that release is partly influenced by two things: temperature and light.
Low temperatures increase melatonin release. When ambient temperature begins to drop after sunset, the body begins to slowly start releasing more melatonin.
Likewise, as the sun goes down and it gets darker, the body sees this as a sign that it is time to ramp up melatonin release.
Conversely, bright lights (especially blue lights) and high temperatures can inhibit melatonin release. So if you are trying to sleep while it is very light out, you’re going to struggle to reach the deepest stages of sleep. Same goes for trying to sleep during the hottest times of the day.
Some people, because of shift-work, excessive travel, or simple preference try to fight against their circadian rhythms. They wake up at 3.30am, and go to bed at 7pm.
The clinical literature on this is quite clear; individuals who do not have a regular sleeping pattern do not simply develop a new one.
Their melatonin releases are severely blunted, and they never reach the peaks seen in people with normal sleeping patterns.
Furthermore, they exhibit significantly reduced sleep quality and far lower levels of alertness while they are awake, regardless of how many hours sleep they get per day. This has disastrous consequences for their health, performance, and life spans (source).
There is – of course – a degree of variability here. Just as some people are able to cope with a lack of sleep better than others (source), some people can more easily live with an unusual sleeping cycle. But over a long period of time, everybody suffers from the lack of melatonin released when our circadian rhythms our out of kilter.
You cannot change your body’s hormonal clock at will.
You can’t change a rhythm developed over 3 million years in a decade, let alone over the course of a semester of college.
Trying to do so might have ruinous effects on your health, potentially cutting years off your life. Losing a second off your reaction times is the least of your concerns!
The best Melatonin supplements
Melatonin is naturally found in many plant and animal foods.
The best sources of naturally-occurring melatonin are:
- Tart cherries
However, if you are having problems sleeping, then we strongly recommend trying a high quality melatonin supplement.
There are lots of melatonin supplements out there. The vast majority of them use a synthetic form of melatonin.
This works pretty well, but we much prefer to consume things in as natural a form as possible (while also being potent).
It is possible to get highly concentrated forms of nature-identical melatonin. Performance Lab use a form isolated from Montmorency Cherries in their Sleep formula. Some other top quality sleep aids might use other natural alternatives.
If you just want a quick fix for jet lag, then synthetic melatonin is fine – look for a product that provides 2-5mg.
If you’re having serious trouble sleeping, we think paying a little more for a nature-derived product is best – this way the body can better utilize the melatonin you give it.