Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Sleep is vital to health, but sleep by itself isn’t enough. We need to sleep in darkness. And the reason for this is melatonin.
Produced by the pineal gland in the brain, melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the body’s relationship with light and darkness. When it gets dark, your body begins producing melatonin as a precursor to sleep. In essence, it’s the reset button for the circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock. The hormone can influence everything from cellular health to mental acuity. But that’s only part of the story.
Melatonin is a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immune modulator, and master “repair” hormone. It has even been shown to kill cancer cells. Although researchers haven’t figured out how these pieces fit together just yet, it has become increasingly apparent that melatonin controls numerous mechanisms responsible for helping the body run smoothly.
To some degree, melatonin is the winding mechanism for your biological clock. As darkness falls, and levels of this hormone increase, you start to feel drowsy and ready for sleep. People have found lots of ways to fight this instinct-caffeinated beverages, social engagements, illicit drug use. But you risk major health issues when you suppress this natural process. Here are a few common misconceptions about sleep:
- I don’t need much sleep. I’m just wired that way.
- When I sleep doesn’t matter. Sleeping in the daytime is every bit as valuable as sleeping at night.
- If I miss sleep during the week, I can always catch up on the weekends.
Unfortunately, none of these beliefs are true. Humans are built to sleep. Even more importantly, we are built to sleep at night, around the same time every night. A lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep can hinder critical repair processes and generate inflammation, a major driver of cancer and other illnesses. Even sleeping during the day doesn’t counteract this effect, as light inhibits melatonin production. Many studies have shown that night shift work can dramatically affect health. Research conducted in France found that female shift workers had a 30 percent greater chance of developing breast cancer. Other research has shown that sleep deficiencies can contribute to obesity and make it more difficult to lose weight.
Humans are built to sleep. Even more importantly, we are built to sleep at night, around the same time every night.
Melatonin is regarded for its ability to scavenge free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. Since melatonin is both water- and fat-soluble, it moves easily through cell membranes, allowing it to clean up free radicals where they tend to do the most damage. Melatonin has also been shown to protect mitochondria and can even help protect your precious DNA.
Reducing oxidative stress is an indirect way to fight cancer, but melatonin also has a more direct impact: The hormone actually helps to kill cancer cells by inducing apoptosis, the programmed cell death that is often turned off in tumors. In addition, melatonin inhibits tumor blood vessel growth, which can help starve tumors. Melatonin has also been shown to reduce symptoms associated with cancer, as well as side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
How to Take Melatonin
First off, keep in mind that melatonin is a powerful type of hormone. Pregnant women should definitely avoid melatonin supplements to be safe, as it regulates female reproductive hormones. Otherwise, adding melatonin to your supplement regimen can be beneficial in a number of ways. It’s an excellent and gentle way to encourage sleep, which can be particularly helpful for people suffering from insomnia. It can also help people who travel and must contend with jet lag. And, of course, it can also benefit people who work the late shift and have no choice but to grab their sleep in the daytime.
At this point, it’s not clear whether supplemental melatonin can prevent cancer. More research needs to be done. However, melatonin’s ability to support restful, rejuvenating sleep and help reset the body’s circadian rhythm makes it quite useful. Taking as little as 0.5 mg of melatonin can be therapeutic, although it is safe to take up to 5 mg per day.
Optimize Your Melatonin Production
Use these tips to support healthy melatonin production:
- Maintain a regular, in-the-dark sleeping schedule.
- Avoid using bright lights before bed, which can reduce melatonin production.
- If you live near outdoor, all-night lights, invest in blackout curtains.
- Cover up those blue lights, ever present on rechargeable toothbrushes, phones, and computer screens, as they can suppress melatonin production.
- Add some melatonin-rich foods to your evening meal or snack. Pineapples, bananas, oranges, cherries, oats, corn, barley, and tomatoes provide extra melatonin, as well as precursors that improve the body’s melatonin production.
Doctor’s Best Quick Melt Melatonin contains 2.5 mg of melatonin per tablet. We love how easily the xylitol- sweetened tablets dissolve.
Natrol Melatonin Time Release has 3 mg of melatonin and is released quickly at first (to help you fall asleep) and then steadily to help you stay asleep.
Source Naturals is giving away 10 bottles of Melatonin to Better Nutrition readers! To enter for the chance to win a bottle, email your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Melatonin” as the subject line. Winner will be chosen at random.
Source Naturals Melatonin features 3 mg per tablet and tablets can be broken in half,