The hormone melatonin plays a major role in our ‘sleeping and waking’ cycles and its production is controlled by exposure to light. This means as it starts to get dark in the evening (or we are exposed to less light) melatonin secretion rises to assist us in feeling tired, eventually helping us to fall asleep. Conversely in the morning when we wake up, exposure to light shuts melatonin production down so that we can stop feeling sleepy and get out of bed.
One of the most common symptoms associated with ‘melatonin deficiency’ is not feeling sleepy enough to ‘wind down’ and go to bed. Modern living, diet, and low levels of certain nutrients, can all influence how well we are able to produce melatonin when we need it.
Even if you do not have issues around sleep, melatonin plays other significant roles in the following areas of health:
- The timing and release of female reproductive hormones – particularly ovulation in women. Therefore it’s essential for healthy fertility.
- Rate of internal ageing.
- Disease development.
- It’s implicated in how we experience jet lag.
- Low levels are linked to mood disorders and depression.
Melatonin is synthesized in the body from another hormone (or neurotransmitter) called serotonin – often best known as the happy hormone. If we go further back along the human biochemical pathway, we actually require minerals such as iron and B vitamins to turn serotonin into melatonin. Like most things in the body, you cannot make something from nothing! This is why it’s helpful to include these nutrients in your day-time routine as they go on to assist with how you should naturally feel before bed.
Here are three ways that we can effectively regulate our melatonin levels by changing our lifestyle and environment...
1. Cutting out the blue light before bed
Light of any kind affects the rise of melatonin, but research shows that blue light has the most negative impact. Blue light is emitted from the screens of devices such as computers (of all kinds), laptops, smart phones, tablets and television. You can protect yourself from blue light by either avoiding those devices (which is not always possible) or by wearing special blue-light blocking indoor glasses. These can be purchased online and look like regular sunglasses but will be labelled as ‘blue light blocking’. We recommend wearing them from around 6 or 7pm for any duration of screen use, even if it’s five minutes on your phone.
2. Increase your exposure to natural light
It’s worth trying to mimic the way we used to live before we had access to modern electrical light. When electrical lighting didn’t exist (or was not as bright) people would have gone to bed earlier and risen earlier to make the most of natural daytime light. These days we push our waking hours late into the night because there is no limit to the amount of light available. If you are experiencing sleeping issues, sleep experts suggest trying to change your body clock to fit better with natural circadian rhythms of rising with the light and going to bed earlier – including at weekends (no ‘lie in’). This can be hard for the first week, but after a while your clock will come around. It’s worth investing in blackout blinds to keep all street light out of your bedroom and, as soon as your alarm goes off in the morning, opening the curtains to allow light to flood into your eyes to suppress melatonin production to help you wake up. This is why during the darker winter months some people invest in special lamps that mimic dawn light and progression to day light.
3. Get to sleep before midnight
You may have heard of the common sleep advice that the hours you are asleep before midnight are worth double. This has not been actually scientifically proven (although many people do feel better opting for this routine) but what is scientifically understood is the first third of our sleep is the most restorative. To best support this ‘first third’, experts recommend we must reduce pre-sleep stress. Simple steps can help us move into the relaxed state of parasympathetic nervous system by doing any of the following:
- Turn down bright house lights, sticking to dimmed calm light instead.
- If you find it especially hard to wind down, limit social interaction that can wake you up – such as talking on the phone, writing emails or using social media. Try to do these activities in the morning or during the day.
- Relax with a bath or a hot milk drink.
- Try the relaxing mineral magnesium and/or the herb Ashwagandha that has been clinically proven to lower stress levels by balancing cortisol (a stress hormone) and may be used as a sleep aid.