What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain that is involved in controlling our internal body clock, helping to regulate sleep patterns and promote sleep. Its production is regulated by exposure to light, with darkness stimulating an increase in melatonin. At night, levels naturally rise approximately two hours before bedtime with production reaching its peak during the middle of the night. Exposure to light late at night can interfere with this natural pattern causing insomnia, a delay in sleep, sleep disturbances or tiredness the next morning.
Why Healthspan can't sell it
Melatonin supplements are available in some countries, such as the US, and previously were available in the UK. However, since 1995 UK regulations have taken a stricter approach and it has now been classed as a medicine, with melatonin tablets only available on prescription.
It is important to get the melatonin dosage and timing right, as supplementing at the wrong time or with the wrong dosage can disturb the body’s natural rhythm and shift our body clock in the wrong direction, causing adverse effects. Melatonin is a powerful regulator of sleep and how the body responds to day and night, so taking melatonin does call for professional advice and stricter regulations.
How to increase melatonin naturally
Consume tryptophan-rich foods
Melatonin is naturally produced in the body through a chain of chemical reactions beginning with the amino acid tryptophan. Amino acids are the smallest units of protein, so tryptophan is commonly found in protein-rich foods such as turkey, chicken, salmon, eggs, spinach, soy and dairy products. Consuming these foods throughout the day may help to provide the raw materials needed to make melatonin at night.
Caffeine is a well-known stimulant with a long half-life (the time it takes to eliminate half of it from the body), thought to be between 6-12 hours,1
so it is no surprise that consumption of caffeine late in the day can negatively impact sleep. What’s more, a recent study showed that consuming the caffeine equivalent of a double espresso 3 hours before bedtime caused a 40-minute delay in melatonin production.2
Get the right light
Light plays a crucial role in regulating our circadian rhythm, which works like an internal body clock and helps to control the sleep-wake cycle. Blue light found naturally in sunlight signals to the brain that we should be awake, so getting enough natural day light during the day can help to set our circadian rhythm. It is also wise to lessen blue light exposure from artificial lighting and digital devices at night, which have the same stimulatory effect. Late-night use of electronics has shown to disrupt melatonin synthesis, delaying the onset of sleep and altering overall sleep quality.3
What other supplements can help with sleep?
An amino acid that stimulates the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which is then converted into melatonin. 5-HTP also stimulates the production of endorphins involved in regulating mood, behaviour, appetite and mental performance. Research suggests that 5-HTP may help to increase the amount of REM or rapid eye movement sleep we get, which is a form of deep sleep that helps us to feel refreshed in the morning.4
This has a long historic use for treating sleep problems and insomnia due its natural sedative properties.5 6
In the UK, it is now classed as a traditional herbal remedy (THR) and is licensed as a natural sleep aid to help relieve sleeping problems caused by mild anxiety or sleep disturbances.
This is thought to promote sleep by helping to maintain a normal circadian rhythm,7
as well as increasing brain production of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has a calming effect and helps to slow thinking. Specifically, magnesium supplementation has also been shown to be helpful in cases of insomnia.8
Also known as cannabidiol, this is the non-psychoactive compound found within the hemp plant. CBD can promote the REM phase of sleep, providing a deep restorative and refreshing sleep.9 Furthermore, CBD is increasingly used as a wellbeing supplement to help with pain relief and anxiety, which can also benefit sleep.
1Cappelletti, S. et al. (2015). CCaffeine: cognitive and physical performance enhancer or psychoactive drug? Current Neuropharmacology 13(1)
2Burke, T.M. et al. (2015). Effects of caffeine on the human circadian clock in vivo and in vitro. Science Translational Medicine 7(305)
3Hysing, M. et al. (2015). Sleep and use of electronic devices in adolescence: results from a large population-based study. BMJ Open 5(1)
4Wyatt, R.J. et al. (1971). Effects of 5-hydroxytryptophan on the sleep of normal human subjects. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology 30(6)
5Bent, S. et al. (2006). Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Medicine 119(12)
6Feeney, K.A. et al. (2016). Daily magnesium fluxes regulate cellular timekeeping and energy balance. Nature 532(7599)
7Abbasi, B. et al. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of research in medical sciences: the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences 17(12)
8Babson, K. A. et al. (2017). Cannabis, cannabinoids, and sleep: a review of the literature. Current Psychiatry Reports 19(4)