I walk into the living room and can’t remember why I’m there. I frantically look for my phone and, duh, it’s in my hand. Words and names are lost inside my head. My T-shirt is inside out. I’m mentally walking through thick fog. That’s my brain on lack. Lack of sleep. When I get a good night’s sleep, I’m more alert and productive. I’m in a better mood and I look better too — the extra baggage under the eyes is not cute.
We all know why getting those z’s hasn’t been easy lately, but did you also know that our bodies make a natural sleep aid? It’s melatonin, and it is important to our overall health. Reduced melatonin levels have been observed in several diseases like cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and some brain and mood disorders. The Cleveland Clinic Health system found that melatonin supplements may decrease the likelihood of contracting COVID-19, particularly among African Americans. Poor sleep has been known to put us at risk for health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and melatonin can help us get the sleep we need.
“Melatonin is a hormone produced in the body, and it plays a role in your sleep cycle,” says Valerie Agyeman, women's health dietitian and founder of Flourish Heights. Melatonin levels rise in the evening, reducing dopamine levels (the hormone that helps you stay awake) and helping you to relax and fall asleep. Several things can interrupt this process from working night shifts to blue light exposure from cell phones.
If you’re finding it harder to fall and stay asleep during these long summer days, the extended daylight hours may be to blame. The shift in sun exposure can alter your body’s natural rhythms and limit the production of melatonin, according to a recent study.
Here are ways to help your body make more melatonin:
Eat melatonin-rich foods. Melatonin can be found in dietary sources, says Agyeman. Eggs, fish, nuts (pistachios, almonds and walnuts) and seeds, milk (remember the warm milk remedy for insomnia?), grapes, cherries, red tomatoes and some mushrooms. “Your body likely produces enough melatonin, but eating these foods may also assist with sleep quality,” adds Agyeman.
Limit light exposure at night. “Light is the most influential factor in producing melatonin and regulating the circadian rhythm cycle, so being conscious of light exposure at night can be helpful,” states Agyeman. “Melatonin is at its highest at night, and it is important that the body be exposed to darkness. Limiting screen time and dimming lights around the house at night can help.”
Blue light from tech devices sends signals to the brain to shut down melatonin release. If it is necessary to use these devices in the late evening, use amber-tinted or blue-light blocking glasses. By the way, doing work at night might also cause stress, which can keep you from a good night’s sleep.
If deficient, take a supplement. “Most healthy individuals will produce a sufficient amount of melatonin and will not require additional supplementation,” says Agyeman, “but someone may consider supplementing if they are experiencing sleep issues that interfere with their quality of life, such as insomnia. Good, consistent sleep is critical for overall health and wellness, so it is definitely an option to consider if needed. Taking melatonin is safe for short-term use,” she continues, “but it’s very important to consult with your doctor if you are looking for a long-term solution to promote healthy sleeping habits.”
Speak with a doctor to rule out other causes for sleep disturbances, such as sleep apnea, as well as your medications. Melatonin supplements can interact with sleep aids/sedatives, blood thinners, blood pressure medicine, antidepressants, oral contraceptives, diabetes medicines and other prescription drugs.
Health professionals advise taking the lowest amount that helps you (0.5 or 1 milligrams), 30 minutes before bed. Increase this to 3 to 5 milligrams only if necessary. More than that doesn’t help with sleep and, in fact, it is believed (though not scientifically proven) that supplementing too much melatonin can cause the body to stop producing melatonin. Mild side effects could include dizziness, headaches, nausea and daytime drowsiness.
Make sleep-friendly lifestyle changes
Reset your internal clock. Get enough natural light during the day, especially in the morning. This helps melatonin production begin earlier in the evening.
Exercise early in the day. Exercise releases hormones that help with melatonin synthesis. Don’t exercise too late. This can disrupt sleep.
Reduce caffeine, which interferes with melatonin levels. Avoid drinking coffee after 3 p.m.
Don’t drink alcohol at bedtime, it can reduce melatonin levels or cause them to rise more slowly, making it difficult to get to sleep.
Lower stress levels. Take a warm bath at bedtime or try meditation or yoga Nidra. Inhaling lavender 10 to 15 minutes before sleep may help boost melatonin and inspire peaceful sleep. Try a pillow spray or lavender essential oil in a diffuser.