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Will Melatonin Help Me Sleep?

Do you have trouble falling asleep – or staying asleep? You may have low melatonin production.

Are you taking (or thinking about taking) melatonin supplements to help you get a better night’s sleep? Do melatonin supplements work? And how does it work? Before I answer this, it's important that we about what melatonin is. 

What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. It helps us to fall asleep and stay asleep. Melatonin production typically starts before bedtime, increases sharply in the bloodstream, then falls back to normal shortly after we awaken.

But, it's not just found in melatonin supplements.  

Melatonin is a hormone that’s produced naturally by the body. It’s been called “Dracula’s hormone” because it only comes out in the dark.

Think back to a time when you went camping. Or when you were in a place without electricity – like after a bad snow storm or hurricane? Do you remember how you got sleepy shortly after the sun went down and how you woke up with the sun? 

You may have thought your sleepiness was due to the fact that there’s just not much to do in the evenings without electricity. But, there’s actually more to it – and it has to do with our natural melatonin production.

Natural Melatonin Production

When your eyes detect light, that signal travels down the optic nerve, past the eye, and to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. There, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) sends out signals to other parts of the brain. Light raises our body temperature and the production of stimulating hormones like cortisol. It also shuts down melatonin so we feel awake.

As the sun goes down, your eyes detect darkness. And, the opposite happens. Body temperature and stress hormones go down. And, this darkness also turns on the production of melatonin production from the pineal gland (pinh-knee—uhl). And, it's the increase of melatonin in your bloodstream that makes you feel sleepy – AND keeps you asleep throughout the night.

Though melatonin production typically increases in the evening time, realize that light from any source, not just the sun, could be shutting down the very hormone that is supposed to help us fall asleep or stay asleep.

So when you're inside and have all the lights on full force all the way until bedtime, your eyes won't realize that it's nighttime. And, your body won't produce nearly as much melatonin. The same thing happens when you’re staring at a screen like the TV, laptop, or your phone until bedtime.

Any type of light will delay or decrease your melatonin production - so you won’t feel as sleepy. Or when you DO fall asleep, you may not sleep as deeply.  And you won't feel as rested the next day. That's why it's important to dim the lights and cut back on nightly screen time. 

Electronics and Melatonin

Though melatonin production typically increases in the evening time, realize that light from any source, not just the sun, could be shutting down the very hormone that is supposed to help us fall asleep or stay asleep.

The pineal gland will only produce melatonin if the person is in a dimly lit environment. To max out our natural melatonin production so we can sleep soundly, we want to reduce the bright light from lamps, television, laptops, and our phones - before bedtime, not after hopping into bed.

Will Melatonin Supplements Cancel Out the Effects of Light?

Perhaps right now you're thinking, "But I’ve got shows to watch or work to do. Will taking a melatonin supplement help to cancel out the effects of all that artificial light?"

Sorry, it doesn't work.

Double blind studies (that’s when people don’t know what’s in the pill they’re taking) don’t fall asleep any faster – or sleep any better.

In fact, research has shown that bright lights can completely cancel out the effects of 5mg of melatonin. Melatonin supplements seem to help with jet lag, but not with normal daily sleep.

How to Boost Melatonin Production So You Can Sleep Better

Light raises our body temperature and the production of stimulating hormones like cortisol. It also shuts down melatonin so we feel awake. Save your money and skip the melatonin supplements.

Instead, boost your natural melatonin production by dimming the lights in the evening, shutting down the electronics at least an hour before bedtime, and then keeping the bedroom as dark as possible all night long. Here's how:

  1. Dim the lights and your screen for that hour before bedtime. Perhaps turn off the overhead lights and use a reading lamp instead. What about reading a book instead of watching TV? Maybe do some stretching or enjoy some pillow talk with your partner. Do you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about all the things you have to do? If so, before bedtime, write down your plan for tomorrow. Now that it’s down on paper, it’s one less thing to worry about.

  2. Turn out ALL the lights when you sleep.  BTW Just shutting your eyes isn’t enough. Light can pass through your eye lids. Yes, even the hall light or the light from your clock can makes it past your closed eyelids to prevent melatonin production. Use a dim night light in the bathroom and then close the door. If you can't get the room dark enough, buy black out shades for the windows. 

  3. Use an eye mask. And, not one of those thin one-dimensional masks. I have a soft padded one that’s really comfortable.

  4. Don’t sneak a peak at your phone in the middle of the night. Yes, even that short exposure of light is enough to trick your brain into thinking, "Wake up, it’s morning!" If you can’t put your phone in another room, turn off your ringer or put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” so only emergency phone calls will wake you. Even that short exposure of light from a quick peek at 2AM can trick your brain into thinking the sun is up – and shut down your melatonin production.

Sweet dreams! 

Dr. Jo is a wellness/productivity expert and professional speaker who helps busy people stay healthy, sane, and energized so they can be more productive and have more fun. 

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