Unmasking the Mystery of Melatonin
By Andrea Donsky | Fact Checked By Andrea Donsky | Sources
We hear a lot about melatonin and how it may help with insomnia and other sleep problems that can affect women during perimenopause and menopause, but what do we really know about it? Can you get melatonin from food? How does it work? What other health benefits might you get from taking a melatonin supplement? Let’s unmask the mystery of melatonin.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain in response to darkness, which is why it is associated with your circadian rhythm and sleep. You may be familiar with the advice to avoid exposure to light at night because it can interfere with your ability to sleep. That’s because light blocks the production of melatonin, while darkness supports it.
Although the body produces melatonin, you can also get it from certain foods as well as supplements. Getting extra melatonin may help with a variety of health concerns.
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What are the health benefits of taking melatonin?
The most common use of melatonin supplements is to help manage insomnia and other sleep disorders. Generally, about 12 percent of women experience sleep problems, but from perimenopause to postmenopause, that percentage jumps to about 40 percent. In fact, women report the most sleep problems during these phases of their lives.
For example, if you have delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD), you have difficulty falling asleep before 2 AM and would prefer to sleep until 10 AM or later. Some research suggests melatonin can help if you suffer from DSWPD.
In one study of 307 individuals, the authors found that taking 0.5 mg melatonin one hour before the patient’s desired bedtime, combined with behavioral sleep-wake scheduling, resulted in an improvement in sleep disturbances and impairment. The investigators concluded that the “improvements were achieved largely through the sleep-promoting effects of melatonin.”
Overall, melatonin can help with sleep problems by making it possible to fall asleep faster, reach deep sleep more quickly, and stay asleep.
Jet lag is another condition that may be helped by taking melatonin. A study of 234 people who traveled on eastbound flights explored sleep quality and found some evidence that melatonin may be superior to placebo in improving this feature. In fact, among the 234 participants who completed the study, it was found that the 0.5 mg dose was nearly as effective as the 5.0 mg dose when it came to reduced fatigue and daytime sleepiness. However, the higher dose was better in improving sleep quality and sleep latency than the lower dose.
Melatonin also has a role in eye health. This hormone isn’t just produced in the brain; it’s made in the retina as well. Because melatonin has potent antioxidant properties, experts believe it may have a protective role in age-related macular degeneration.
Some researchers also report that melatonin has shown a wide variety of benefits including “antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory characteristics, boosting immunity, anticancer activity, cardiovascular protection, anti-diabetic, anti-obese, neuroprotective and anti-aging activity.” These qualities are still under investigation. It appears melatonin may help with much more than sleep.
Which foods contain melatonin?
A tasty list of foods contain melatonin, which means you can also eat your melatonin as well as take a supplement. According to a study appearing in Nutrients, “it has been proved that the melatonin concentration in human serum could significantly increase after the consumption of melatonin-containing food.”
However, it’s important to realize that the amount of melatonin in any given food can vary tremendously. Factors that impact the melatonin level even in the same species include different cultivars, temperature, sunlight exposure duration, how the crop was fertilized, ripening process, and others. In one study, for example, the melatonin content in 58 cultivars of corn ranged from 10 ng/g to 2,034 ng/g dry weight.
You may want to eat a variety of foods that are good sources of melatonin. Some of those food sources include the following:
- Eggs, among animal foods, are one of the best sources of melatonin.
- Fish, especially salmon and sardines.
- Goji berries, which can promote sleep and help fight aging.
- Grains, especially wheat, barley, and oats.
- Grapes, especially the skin.
- Legumes and seeds, especially white and black mustard seeds and germinated soybean seeds.
- Milk is a great source of melatonin, but avoid it if you are lactose intolerant.
- Nuts, with pistachios showing the highest in this group.
- Tart cherries are very high in melatonin, as is the juice, although the latter is also high in sugar.
- Vegetables, especially bell peppers and tomatoes.
What should you know about taking melatonin supplements?
Although your body produces melatonin naturally, supplements or foods containing melatonin can be beneficial. According to Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., CBSM, “It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.”
Cleveland Clinic recommends taking low doses of melatonin to promote sleep. That dose is 0.5 mg up to 3 mg. However, melatonin supplements are available in doses ranging from 0.5 to 10 mg, and some people find they need a dose greater than the recommendation. Discuss dosing with a qualified healthcare professional.
The use of melatonin supplements may be associated with mild side effects, such as headache, dizziness, sleepiness, and nausea. One of the most common side effects is grogginess or sleepiness during the day. You can help avoid this by taking melatonin earlier in the evening or reducing the dose. Higher doses of melatonin may also cause chills, impair your focusing skills and concentration, and result in higher prolactin levels.
Melatonin in the form of a supplement or from foods can help with sleep issues as well as other health challenges. You may need to experiment with different doses before you find the one that is best for you.