In some countries melatonin is a drug that’s sold over the counter in phrarmacies to help with insomnia and jet-lag, but melatonin isn’t only something you can find in drugstore bottles. Long before scientists worked out how to produce melatonin in pill-form, it was a hormone made naturally in the body. What does melatonin do in the body? Is its role really just to do with sleep or does it have other uses and side effects? And is it safe to take it as a supplement?
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone made from the amino acid tryptophan. It is produced predominantly in the brain’s rice-grain-sized pineal gland.
Melatonin is mostly produced at night because darkness is required to stimulate production. Both natural and unnatural light interfere with melatonin production which is why it is often advised to sleep in a very well-darkened room at night. Even a clock’s light can reduce melatonin levels, especially if it’s a green or blueish light. Melatonin production in darkness partly explains why it’s healthy for us to go to sleep at hours when it’s dark rather than in the wee hours as dawn approaches. Melatonin production also partly explains why 7-8 hours sleep is better for our health than fewer hours. The longer we sleep in darkness, the more melatonin we produce.
But why is it so important to have normal melatonin production at night? What does melatonin do?
Benefits of Melatonin
Here are the top 10 beneficial functions of melatonin:
Benefit 1: Melatonin helps us sleep well and maintains our body clock
Before we get into the lesser known benefits of melatonin, let’s address the most famous one: Melatonin is needed for good quality sleep. It helps optimise sleep duration, sleep efficiency, and both REM sleep and non-REM sleep. The fact that melatonin decreases with age may be linked to increasing problems with sleeping as we get older. Maintaining healthy melatonin levels reduces insomnia. Supplemental melatonin can help with insomnia *only if* the insomnia is caused by low melatonin levels, and this can be determined by testing.
Melatonin is also part of the mechanism responsible for forming our body clock and our circadian rhythms. For this reason melatonin is sometimes used to help overcome jetlag, because when you take melatonin supplementally, it tells the body “it is now night-time” and so it effectively resets the body clock.
Benefit 2: Antioxidant Properties
Melatonin is an antioxidant and this has wide-reaching applications in the body including:
- Counteracting oxidative damage caused from pro-oxidative exposures to things like smoking, pollution and oxidative chemicals.
- Anti-ageing and life-extension action: One theory behind the cause of ageing is that we age because of ongoing oxidation which slowly deteriorates our body and health. Interestingly, melatonin production also decreases naturally as we age, being abundant in children, and decreasing over time. It has been suggested that melatonin may retard the ageing process and help keep wear-and-tear at bay due to its antioxidant properties. It’s not called “beauty sleep” for nothing! Sleep really can help keep your skin and general appearance looking youthful if you make enough melatonin every night. And it has similar effects on your internal workings too. Studies in fruitfly showed that melatonin-fed flies had a 33.2% increase in life span than their non-melatonin-fed counterparts (Bonilla et al. 2002), and studies in mice showed them living 20% longer than control mice. (Oxenkrug et al. 2001)
- Supportive of good Heart health: Low melatonin levels are common in coronary heart disease patients. Heart disease is exacerbated by free radical damage which antioxidants like melatonin can help patch up. Free radicals can damage blood vessel walls which increases risk of cardiovascular problems, but antioxidants help fight this. Another reason that melatonin supports good heart health is that it suppresses the formation of cholesterol by 38% and reduces LDL accumulation. (Muller-Wieland et al. 1994; Sewerynek 2002; Malhotra et al. 2004)
- Supportive against oxidative problems in the brain e.g. Alzheimer’s disease: Many studies suggest the involvement of oxidative stress in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. By inhibiting oxidation with the help of antioxidants like melatonin, risk of Alzheimer’s may be reduced. (Cheng et al. 2006)
- Anti age-related macular-degeneration: Age-related macular degeneration of the eyes may occur due to oxidative stress, so antioxidant function of melatonin may help fight this problem.
- Anti-Cataracts: Cataracts are often caused by oxidative stress on the eye, so good levels of melatonin’s antioxidant activity can help prevent these from developing.
- Helps minimize damage from oxidative injuries: Burns, including sunburns, and inflammation from injuries and wounds can be accompanied by a rise in free radical levels, so melatonin can be useful in aiding to minimize damage.
- Anti-gut ulcerations: There is a large amount of melatonin found naturally in the gut. You need a lot of antioxidant activity in the gut to neutralize the oxidative stress from the foods we eat. Without sufficient antioxidant action, sometimes gut ulcers can form from the oxidative stress from irritants and stress in the gut. Melatonin, as an antioxidant, can help scavenge oxidative stressors like these, to help maintain healthy gut linings.
- Anti-diabetes-related oxidative damage: Diabetics are very prone to oxidation-related problems, from cataracts to kidney problems (aka diabetic nephropathy). Melatonin’s antioxidant function can be helpful in keeping these problems at bay.
- Anti-cancer: Cancer is often caused by a mutation in the DNA and the risk of mutation is increased by oxidation. Antioxidants like melatonin may help reduce risk of such DNA damage.
Important note: Excessively high levels of melatonin such as from supplementation can have the opposite of an antioxidant effect and may start being pro-oxidative! Supplementation therefore has to be taken with the greatest care, preferably under the supervision of a health practitioner who can check that your melatonin levels don’t become so high that they are pro-oxidative.
Benefit 3: Melatonin may boost immune health
Getting enough sleep may boost your immune system due to melatonin production. Studies have shown that melatonin increases white blood cell function, antibody production, and helps reduce inflammation.
Benefit 4: Melatonin may help hair growth
Through currently unclear mechanisms, it is thought that melatonin may help with hair growth. Studies in animals have shown that melatonin-fed subjects had increased hair growth when compared to the controls. A 2004 pilot study by Fischer et al. on humans in Friedrich-Schiller-University found that topical application of melatonin helped increase hair growth in women with diffuse alopecia and androgenic hair loss.
Benefit 5: Melatonin may control libido
High melatonin levels inhibit libido, and it is thought that this is part of the reason why libido is inhibited in childhood, when melatonin levels are high. As levels of melatonin decrease with age and pass a certain threshold, libido increases. But perhaps once melatonin levels drop below a second threshold, libido is affected once again. It is a fine balance to keep levels optimal.
Melatonin may also help improve performance in male impotence patients.
Benefit 6: Helps lower blood pressure:
One of the reasons blood pressure often is lowest at night is linked to melatonin production at night. Several studies have reported that melatonin helps lower blood pressure in hypertension patients whose blood pressure is linked to low melatonin levels. The antioxidant action of melatonin may also help reduce renal inflammation, further helping to control hypertension. (Birau et al. 1981; Nava et al. 2002; Cagnacci et al. 2005)
All this implies that for people with hypertension, optimizing natural melatonin levels can be an important part of blood pressure control.
Benefit 7: Melatonin may play a role in promoting bone growth
Melatonin may promote bone growth. For those into the nitty gritty technical stuff, it does this by encouraging osteoblast differentiation and mineralization.
This may be partly why osteoporosis risk increases with age, as melatonin levels decrease.
Benefit 8: Melatonin may help with weight management
Rat studies suggest that melatonin may help weight in weight management by acting on leptin and visceral fat. (Prunet-Mascassus et al. 2003) This would indicate that a good night’s sleep is important as part of weight management. More research is needed in this area.
Benefit 9: Maintaining healthy melatonin levels may help control epilepsy
Low melatonin levels have been found to be prevalent amongst epileptics and have been associated with increased incidence of seizures. By maintaining healthy melatonin levels, it may help reduce the frequency of epileptic fits.
Benefit 10: Melatonin may help alleviate melatonin-deficiency-related headaches and migraines
Several studies have observed alleviation in cluster headaches and migraines in melatonin-deficient individuals upon melatonin-level optimization. (Peres et al. 2000; Gagnier 2001)
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So should I supplement with melatonin?
With all these benefits of melatonin, wouldn’t it just be best to supplement with melatonin like you would vitamin C or something?
In a word: No.
Opinions will vary between practitioners, but my opinion is that where hormone supplements are concerned, synthetic supplementation should not be done casually as you might take vitamin C, until science understands hormones better. Hormones interact with so many aspects of the body that even the experts do not yet fully understand all the ins and outs of how they work. Maintaining the very delicate balance of optimal melatonin levels is tricky enough if you’re trying to do it naturally, let alone if you add synthetic hormone tablets into the mix. Supplementation makes it easy to overshoot the “optimal” level and go into excess levels which can have effects like inhibiting libido, causing nightmares, mild headaches, sleep disruptions, depressed mood and SAD-type feeling. From research done so far, it seems the possible side effects aren’t really dangerous but I still feel that it would be far safer to try to increase melatonin levels naturally if possible.
If people still want to try a melatonin supplement, I would suggest first testing whether you really are deficient in the hormone before going ahead with it, because supplementation will often only be beneficial if there is deficiency present and may have no beneficial effect if your levels are healthy. You can be referred to undergo testing if you request it from a naturopathic practitioner or endocrinologist.
How do I increase melatonin levels naturally?
Personally I think that where possible, rather than supplement with a tablet, it’s best to boost your natural melatonin production to healthy levels with good lifestyle practices.
(a.) Ensure you have all the raw materials you need to make your own melatonin
- Protein: Since melatonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, having enough protein the diet is the first step to boosting melatonin levels. This can be done with food, particularly aiming for high tryptophan-foods, and may be aided with a protein powder supplement like Solgar’s “Whey to Go”. This gives 16g protein per portion and comes in Chocolate (US) (UK) or Vanilla flavour (US) (UK) . There are also a few more flavours available in the US (e.g. Strawberry and Mixed Berry)
- Nutrients needed for the conversion of protein to melatonin: The pathway by which the body converts protein to melatonin involves several steps. It requires:
- Support for protein digestion: This includes stomach acid and enzyme-production support. If your digestion is sluggish or problematic, you may benefit from digestive support treatment in order to optimize your melatonin levels. A few basic ways to optimize stomach acid is by boosting zinc levels with food or if necessary with supplements such as Solgar’s Zinc Picolinate (US), (UK).
Digestive enzyme production can be supported with food and also aided with supplements such as Nutri’s Similase.
-Support enzymes needed to convert tryptophan to melatonin: Most enzymes need cofactors to work optimally. Some of the cofactors for the enzymes in the tryptophan –> melatonin pathway include:
- B vitamins, particularly B3 and B6
- Vitamin C
All these can be provided with food, or aided with supplementation, although iron should only be supplemented if you have been tested and found to be anaemic. Calcium too is better supplemented with food rather than with tablets. A good multivitamin like Nature’s Plus: Source Of Life Liquid (US), (UK) can help top up nutrient levels a little. (Although this contains iodine so do not take this if you have a family history of autoimmunity in the family)
- Avoid things which inhibit melatonin-producing hormones. Inhibitors include copper and certain medications which are “dopa decarboxylase inhibitors” (DDCIs).
(b.) Sleep in complete darkness
Melatonin production is optimal in complete darkness. If there is light penetrating into your bedroom at night, whether from the windows, or from light sources including alarm clocks and electronics, melatonin production may be compromised. Ways to ensure complete darkness include unplugging electrical sources of light, ensuring you have heavy drapes on the windows, or if all else fails, an Eye Mask will do.
Some sources of light are worse than others for inhibiting melatonin manufacture by the body. Blue and green spectrum light inhibit melatonin production more than yellow and red light. Dr Mercola suggests that if you do have an alarm clock, make sure the light is red rather than any other colour (e.g. like this Red LED Alarm Clock). He also suggests that if you want to go to the bathroom and are serious about boosting melatonin levels naturally, you can keep a red-bulbed flashlight by your bed to guide your way rather than switch on the light.
(c.) Sleep for at least 7 hours a night
The more hours you sleep, the longer the time you have to make melatonin and the better your levels ought to be (as long as the raw materials are all there!).
Optimize your sleeping environment to make it as comfortable as possible for a good night’s sleep.
(d.) Pre-bedtime, be in dim-light environments
Staring at a brightly lit TV or computer screen before bed does not help prepare your body towards melatonin production. A dimly lit, relaxed environment for about an hour to half-an-hour before bed, helps set up your body for optimal melatonin production.
For people who work on a night shift and can’t help but have light around them before bedtime, one solution that’s been suggested is wearing sunglasses (preferably with a red tint) that eliminate the blue and green light spectrum for an hour or so before bedtime. Some examples of these are given below in the Related Products section.
(e.) Expose yourself to light during the day
By exposing yourself to sunlight during the day, you are giving your pineal gland a chance to rest from melatonin production, so that it can be well-rested and energized enough for optimal melatonin-production at night.
The more stark the light differences between day and night, the better your body’s response will be in making melatonin at night.
Studies have shown that meditating in the half hour or so before bedtime improves melatonin production at night.
(g.) Eat melatonin-rich foods
Bordering between supplementation and natural means of increasing melatonin is eating melatonin-rich foods and herbs. Some of the richest sources of melatonin in food form include the herbs: huang-qin, feverfew and St John’s wort. Other sources include: mustard seeds, wolfberry seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, lemon verbena, alfalfa seeds and sunflower seeds. Oats, corn, tomatoes, ginger and barley contain some melatonin but at low levels.
Please note that herbs like feverfew and St Johns wort should only be taken if recommended by a Herbal Medicine practitioner who is aware of possible contraindications and herb-drug interactions.
See other articles on nutrition and health including:
- Why do I need zinc?
- Why do I feel tiredness after eating? (and what can I do about it?)
- Why does my stomach make noises? (and what can can I do about it?)
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Bonilla et al. 2002. Extension of life span and stress resistance of Drosophila melanogaster by long-term supplementation with melatonin. Exp Gerontol. 37(5):629-638.
Cagnacci et al. 2005. Prolonged melatonin administration decreases nocturnal blood pressure in women. American Journal of Hypertension. 18(12):1614-1618
Cheng et al. 2006. Beneficial effects of melatonin in experimental models of Alzheimer disease. Acta Pharmacol Sin. 27(2):129-139.
Fischer et al. 2004. Melatonin increases anagen hair rate in women with androgenetic alopecia or diffuse alopecia: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Dermatology. 150(2):341-345
Gagnier, 2001. The therapeutic potential of melatonin in migraines and other headache types. Alternative Medicine Review. 6(4):383-389
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