The Dracula Of Hormones
Melatonin lulls us to sleep and its synthetic form can help with jet lag
It only comes out at night.
But don’t be afraid, this nocturnal force can help us enjoy healthy sleep. It’s called melatonin.
“Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone produced in the brain’s pineal gland,” explains Theresa Montoya-Houser, MD of SJ/C Medical Group – Eisenhower. “Its levels are nearly undetectable during the day.”
The pineal gland releases melatonin when an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) detects that night has fallen. As melatonin levels rise in the blood, a person feels less alert and more ready for sleep. But even at later hours, the release of melatonin is inhibited if bright light touches our retinas and sends that message to the SCN. This aversion to light has led to melatonin being called the “Dracula of hormones.”
Because of the effect of natural melatonin on sleep, the hormone is offered as an over-the-counter supplement for those who have trouble falling or staying asleep. Research on its effectiveness has been mixed, however.
“Some smaller studies have shown that taking melatonin may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep and may reduce the number of awakenings,” says Montoya-Houser. “However, there are no large-scale studies that demonstrate that melatonin increases total sleep time.”
Research has shown that melatonin can help people who would normally sleep fine but whose body clock has been shifted due to jet lag or night shifts at work. Jet-lagged travelers should talk with their doctor about appropriate time and dosage for melatonin.
Dr. Montoya-Houser notes that patients suffering from long-term insomnia will need to receive therapy for any medical condition, psychiatric illness, substance abuse, or sleep disorder that may be precipitating or exacerbating the condition.
For those who just feel they could sleep better, Dr. Montoya-Houser also encourages good sleep hygiene.
“My first rule of sleep hygiene is to sleep only as much as you need to feel rested,” Montoya-Houser says. She adds with a smile, “And then get out of that bed.”
Sleep Hygiene: The Basics Behind A Good Night's Sleep
Keep a regular sleep schedule
Avoid caffeinated beverages after lunch
Exercise regularly for at least 20 minutes, preferably 4 to 5 hours before bedtime
Avoid drinking alcohol or smoking near bedtime
Don’t go to bed hungry (but also don’t eat a huge meal just before bed)
Avoid prolonged use of light-emitting screens before bedtime
Try to leave your worries outside the bedroom door
Adjust your bedroom environment: make sure your bed is comfy, the air temperature just right, and—to promote the release of natural melatonin—let it be dark