Melatonin Can Reset Your Internal Clock—and Maybe Turn Back Time, Too
“Lack of sleep drastically accelerates the aging process, so one of the main reasons I think of melatonin as an anti-aging supplement is that it helps people get the sleep they need to stay healthy.”
Lee Swanson, President of Swanson Health Products
How many nights this month have you spent tossing, turning and watching the time tick by as sleep seems to elude you? It is the most frustrating of feelings! Even if this situation happens only occasionally, you could still be sleep deprived, which may be harming you in several ways. The most obvious problem is that you’re drowsy and have a hard time staying awake during the daytime, but lack of sleep could manifest in other ways, too. It could be to blame for your recent moodiness, lack of coping skills, disinterest in socializing and reduced ability to concentrate. And here’s something that perhaps you didn’t realize: Lack of sleep can actually contribute to an inability to lose weight, since the body makes an appetite-suppressing hormone called leptin while you’re sleeping.
These are just a few of the powerful reasons to get a good night’s rest each and every night of your life, and in some cases, melatonin may be the right supplemental tool to help you accomplish this goal.
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What exactly is melatonin?
Our bodies have a type of internal clock that tells us when to sleep and when to rise, and this clock is governed by a hormone the brain makes called melatonin. It seems like we naturally get sleepy when the sun goes down and it becomes dark outside. But that’s not entirely the cause of this effect. The body produces melatonin in response to darkness, and an increase in this hormone is what makes us feel tired, signaling us to go to bed. So, perhaps the foundation of good sleep is having an adequate amount of melatonin in the body.
The body makes melatonin throughout the first few hours of the sleep cycle at night and production gradually decreases before daylight, causing us to wake in the morning. Interestingly, light triggers the body’s cessation of melatonin production, so if you fall asleep at ten o’clock in the evening and have to go to the bathroom at 1 am, do not turn on the lights. You may find that doing so will make it much harder for you to fall back to sleep.
Why would a person need a melatonin supplement?
Children need sleep to help them grow, and they’re able to get the required sleep because their bodies make large amounts of melatonin. Levels of this important hormone seem to decrease with age, however, and older adults produce much less. So, individuals past the age of 40 who are having trouble falling asleep may benefit from a melatonin supplement.
Frequent travelers experiencing jet lag are another group of people who find melatonin supplements enormously helpful. When you’ve crossed several time zones and your internal body clock hasn’t caught up with the change, sleep can be hard to come by, so taking a melatonin supplement while you’re away from home may help to reestablish a normal sleeping pattern. It also works well for people who work the “graveyard” shift and then have trouble falling asleep during the day.
You mentioned aging; how is melatonin helpful for aging?
Melatonin is also an antioxidant that protects our cells from free-radical damage, which is a big cause of aging.
Are melatonin supplements safe and how much do I need?
Melatonin supplements are regarded as safe when used as directed. However, melatonin is not considered an everyday supplement like a multiple vitamin & mineral. It’s important to know that when you supplement long term with a hormone like melatonin or DHEA, it may cause your body to decrease or entirely shut down production of its own supply. Therefore, it is best to take it only for a brief period of time—no more than two weeks—and then see if your internal clock has reset itself, so you can discontinue the supplement. In most cases this is what happens, but if you are still having trouble with sleep, try an herbal relaxer like valerian, passionflower or chamomile for a while. You can resume a two-week course of melatonin after a few months if you feel it is necessary.
As far as dosage, I suggest starting with the lowest dose that works for you, and a time-released or dual-released supplement is especially good since it gradually releases melatonin into the system like the pineal gland does. One to three milligrams per day is the usual dosage, but I’ve seen some people do very well on half a milligram, too. Higher doses of melatonin up to 10 mg may be necessary for certain individuals, but dosages above this amount may cause side effects like excessive morning grogginess and vivid dreaming.
Are there any food sources of melatonin?
That’s an interesting question because up until recently health experts would have automatically answered no; melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. But recent studies conducted with walnuts show that they contain a tiny amount of melatonin, measured in nanograms, which is only a billionth of a gram. (One milligram is a thousandth of a gram.) When mice were fed a diet of walnuts, their serum levels showed three times the amount of melatonin in their systems as the test animals fed a regular diet, so it appears that consuming walnuts on a regular basis may provide significant amounts of this hormone. Studies like this one illustrate the exciting health benefits that are still to be discovered in nature!
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