Why Ditching Your Melatonin Supplement Might be the Key to Better Sleep
Sleep problems can be tricky to diagnosis because like most things, there isn't a one-size-fits-all treatment. Most one-size-fits-all treatments don't work anyways because everyone is different. I have had quite a few patients with insomnia as their chief complaint who have been self-professed herbal sleep aid addicts. They’d get windows into what it felt like to have a full night of uninterrupted and restful sleep, but would end up falling back into old, less than ideal sleep patterns. The goal of herbal medicine is not to not take it indefinitely, but to take it for a period of time, allow your body to come back into balance, and then be able to go off of the herbs and maintain the results without them. In my experience, sleep issues are treated with a combination of herbs and/ or supplements, regular acupuncture, and lifestyle and diet recommendations. When patients have looked at why there may be a problem with sleep in the first place (ie too many stimulants, high stress, irregular blood sugar), in addition to the herbs and acupuncture, they are able to get more lasting results. The point of this post is to talk about melatonin, but it's worth mentioning that diet, stress, and lifestyle have a huge impact on sleep. Regulating those things should definitely be part of the healing path towards better sleep.
Ok, so let's talk about melatonin. Contrary to what you've likely been told it can actually contribute to sleep disruption in the long run.
One thing that’s important in understanding melatonin is that it is not a vitamin or mineral, it is a hormone. Malfunction of melatonin doesn’t come from a deficiency of the hormone, which is actually highly unlikely. It comes from a disruption of the sleep-wake cycle, which is a well-oiled machine that relies on multiple hormones and body processes to function properly. It’s important to recognize that melatonin is not a sleep aid that is going to initiate sleep, it is a sleep-wake cycle regulator, and that is when it’s in it’s natural, endogenous form (produced by the body).
Melatonin taken in supplement form doesn’t react in the body the same way it does when it is secreted by the pineal gland. Natural melatonin doesn’t occur in one hit, but rather has a slow build up in the system and a slow come down. When taken in supplement form it hits the brain in rushes and then quickly leaves the body. This is not the way it was meant to function, and for that reason, it doesn’t work in the way that many people assume it does.
The cause of sleep disruption can vary greatly from person to person. Often times it is due to higher than normal cortisol levels at night. Cortisol is a stress hormone, that like melatonin, has a natural rhythm that it follows. As the evening progresses and the sun goes down cortisol levels should follow. That’s when melatonin begins it’s slow climb. In short, when cortisol isn’t coming down due to high stress, then melatonin never gets the signal to come in, so it doesn’t. Taking a melatonin supplement doesn’t help fix the problem, and in fact can keep the body from producing it’s own melatonin, leaving cortisol to flow through the body at the wrong levels. This in itself can lead to a long list of health concerns.
All of that being said, here are 6 ways to promote the body’s natural production of melatonin and get your sleep back on track.
1. Supplement with Vitamin B6 and B12
Both of these vitamins are necessary for the synthesis and conversion of melatonin.
2. Get 10-15 minutes of early morning sunlight.
This will drop your melatonin levels immediately and regulate your circadian rhythm.
3. Make stress management a priority
This is basically #1 for every health concern. Stress is a doozy for sure and it has a huge impact on hormones. Exercise, meditation, yoga, creativity, whatever makes you happy and brings you into the moment- do more of it! Make it a priority every day to practice some form of stress reducing self care.
4. Have a sleep routine and stick to it.
You’ve heard it a million times I’m sure. No screen time before bed. This is more than that. It’s important to come down before hitting the pillow. This should involve things like stretching, journaling, meditating, legs up the wall, and shutting down electronic devices and social media. There is a setting on smart phones called Night Shift which changes the brightness of your screen from sunset to sunrise to warmer colors which are less invasive on the eyes.
5. Take a Magnesium supplement.
This won’t affect the production of melatonin directly, but it will help you get restful sleep and from that state your body will be able to eventually re-establish proper hormone production.
Sleep tight! xo