Melatonin Sleep Aid - Is It Making Your Insomnia Worse?
Is melatonin the effective sleep aid it’s widely thought to be? Nutrition experts; Chloe Cunningham and Alexandra Falgate from Health Is Wealth explain the science behind why melatonin isn’t the answer to a great night’s sleep.
We’ve recently seen a measured increase in the amount of Google searches related to buying melatonin tablets from the US to aid sleep in the UK. A search trend that looks set to rise even further in 2018, as busy, more stressful modern living inevitably leads to sleep problems.
Melatonin is illegal in the UK for a very good reason
It is worth noting here that whilst it isn’t illegal to buy melatonin from the US, it is illegal to sell it over-the-counter in the UK and for good reason – melatonin is a hormone and our endocrine systems are delicately balanced. If you begin introducing hormones - particularly without enough research, you have no idea how it will affect the other systems in your body; for example - how will the side effects manifest?
To highlight this, pregnant women are advised not to take it, and it has been suggested that it could interfere with both sperm count and ovulation cycles.
It is available as a prescription on the NHS for those over 55 who may struggle to produce melatonin and suffer with various forms of insomnia as a result.
Melatonin explained - What is it and how does it help us fall asleep naturally?
Before we go into why synthetic melatonin may not be the sleep wonderdrug it’s thought to be, let us first start by explaining what melatonin is and how it works: Natural melatonin is essential in the role of sleep; it is produced and secreted by the pineal gland in response to dusk or darkness.
The circulating melatonin signals to the body that it is time to go to sleep - and it’s important to note here that it is not involved in the generation of sleep, it simply signals to the body to begin the process.
What’s that now? Melatonin only tells the body it’s time to sleep
As Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, describes it: “one way to think of melatonin is a little bit like the starting official in the 100-meter race at the Olympics, that official with the gun. The official melatonin actually organises the great sleep race and then begins the race. But that official does not participate in the race itself.”
Here’s the science behind why melatonin isn’t an effective sleep aid
Exogenous melatonin (supplements) have long been touted as the cure to treat sleep or circadian rhythm disorders.
The latest research that has been done on melatonin actually points to the placebo effect. In studies, the main differences are often not much more than a few minutes in the time it takes to go to sleep. In our experience we have found that although melatonin can trigger sleep, it cannot sustain it, meaning that people often only sleep for a short amount of time before waking.
Melatonin can actually worsen sleep problems if taken incorrectly - here’s how
As we’ve said above - whilst melatonin is essential for regulating sleep, it only triggers sleep and cannot sustain it. This is why melatonin sleeping tablets can actually be counterproductive as they will reset the amount of adenosine that builds up in the brain leading to sleep.
Much like Melatonin, Adenosine is a chemical in the body that triggers sleepiness.
What’s adenosine and why can melatonin mess it up?
Melatonin and Adenosine work together to trigger sleep. Adenosine builds up in your body whilst you are awake. The longer you're awake and active, the more adenosine the body builds up, making you feel tired.
It's the body's way of saying ‘it’s time to go to bed’. Whilst you’re asleep adenosine levels decrease, helping you feel wakeful the next day. Adenosine is the natural way the body keeps track of how much sleep you've had and how much you need.
If you have a bad night’s sleep, the adenosine in your body is still remaining when you wake and that’s why you feel groggy.
If the natural amount of adenosine in your body is artificially ‘re-set’ by synthetic melatonin, it can actually exaggerate insomnia issues, as the body won’t have the correct levels of adenosine and melatonin needed to regulate sleep.
I would definitely recommend certain dietary and lifestyle changes in order for the body to naturally stay asleep. This would include the timing of exercise, temperature control and ensuring that the body is well equipped with certain vitamins and minerals that are essential for sleep.
What are the health issues associated with taking melatonin incorrectly?
Whilst synthetic melatonin is chemically identical to natural melatonin, US over-the-counter products often contain ‘fillers’ and other ingredients that may cause effects not associated with natural melatonin.
A typical dose of 1-3mg can raise melatonin levels in the blood by up to 20 times the normal level. The correct dosage to take is actually closer to 0.3mg.
For melatonin to safely and effectively aid sleep, it needs to be the right dose and taken at the right time. If too much melatonin is consumed or taken at the wrong time of day, it can actually reset your circadian rhythm (your internal sleep clock) the wrong way, making sleep even more difficult to achieve.
Can too much melatonin make you sick?
Too much melatonin may lead to feelings of drowsiness as the functions that generate sleep are triggered. Headaches, dizziness and nausea are common side effects of taking too much melatonin. Anxiety and depression are both side effects commonly associated with hormonal imbalance, which when consuming a synthetic hormone, can occur.
Let’s talk circadian sleep rhythm and how melatonin impacts it
Not a night time rumba - the circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock that follows a cycle of about 24 hours, it responds to cues from light and darkness, mealtimes and even social interaction. The internal clock can be remarkably reliable - the moment that you wake up just before your alarm clock? That is your circadian rhythm.
Endogenous melatonin production corresponds with the sleep part of the circadian rhythm. Because of melatonin’s role as a ‘facilitator’ of sleep, exogenous forms can theoretically be used to help to adjust the circadian rhythm when experiencing jet lag, for example.
So, melatonin is great for jet lag and not so good for insomnia
Studies show that melatonin, taken correctly can be an effective supplement to counter the effects of jet lag, shift work or for people who suffer specifically with a circadian rhythm disorder.
It is not appropriate for general insomnia problems. As we’ve discussed above - it can have the opposite effect and hinder sleep in some circumstances.
Why we advise against taking melatonin sleeping tablets
As nutritional therapists at Health is Wealth Group, we believe that you should provide the body with everything that it needs so that it can function by itself.
We believe in addressing the root cause of a problem instead of medicating with a solution. For example, if there is a problem with melatonin production, instead of simply supplementing with synthetic melatonin, we would look at why melatonin was not being produced in the first place. Is there a hormonal imbalance? Have you got the correct nutrients needed to produce melatonin?
This should be taken into consideration when choosing a sleep aid; many sleeping pills simply act as a sedative, thus preventing deep sleep. In our expert opinion, effective over the counter (OTC), natural sleep aids would contain ingredients to support the body’s own natural production of sleep.
For example, magnesium is important for sleep because it nourishes the nervous system and is used to calm both the mind and the muscles. 5HTP helps to regulate the body’s wake sleep cycles and the internal body clock because it is a precursor to melatonin.
L-Tryptophan is an amino acid that can act as a mood regulator due to its role in the production of 5HTP, as such eating foods rich in tryptophan can have natural calming effects, helping to induce sleep and prevent anxiety.
You can also support the nervous system with things like chamomile to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as taking natural sources of melatonin.
Natural sources of melatonin
Many foods contain natural sources of melatonin and we recommend that these should be eaten or supplement to naturally improve your melatonin levels. Grape skin and Montmorency cherries are rich natural melatonin sources and promote better sleep.
Why might we need to supplement our diets with vitamins to aid sleep?
Modern farming methods and consequent poor soil quality mean that it is not always easy to necessary vitamins and minerals from food alone and we recommend taking supplements to boost any nutritional deficiencies in the body to compliment a healthy diet. We've explained 5 easy ways you can boost your natural melatonin for better sleep here.
We recommend Neuro Rest by Utmost Me because it’s a beautiful blend of sleep enhancing ingredients. It supports the body in its own production of melatonin as well as using natural forms and because it contains nutrients that calm both the mind and the body that encourages you to stay asleep.
The drawbacks of buying melatonin tablets from the US
Melatonin is the only hormone legal to sell in the US without a prescription. Because it is found naturally in some foods, it is categorised as a ‘dietary supplement’ by the US Government and not a drug, meaning it is almost totally unregulated by the FDA.
Consequent studies have shown that the amount of melatonin actually in the products can vary hugely compared with what is on the label. Some contain much less, and others much more, meaning that you are not taking the amount stated on the label. According to The National Sleep Foundation; most melatonin products on sale in the US are offered at excessive doses which cause melatonin levels in the blood to rise much higher than the levels naturally produced in our bodies.
We’ve explained above how excessive levels of synthetic melatonin found in US sleeping pills can have a detrimental effect on sleep under the title: ‘What are the issues with taking melatonin incorrectly’.
If you are struggling to sleep and looking for a natural source of melatonin, we recommend Utmost Me’s Neuro Rest sleep aid. It is an advanced night time complex that includes the necessary vitamins the body needs to naturally aid effective sleep.
The information shared in Utmost Me articles are not intended to replace qualified health care professional advice and are not intended as medical advice. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition.