If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, chances are someone recommended melatonin as a remedy. This makes good sense, as melatonin works wonders when you need a little help resetting a jet-lagged schedule or turning off your overactive brain at bedtime.
In fact, melatonin plays a central and indispensable role in your body’s entire “sleep system.” It’s produced and secreted by the pineal gland, which acts as a sort of “master control system” for the body’s regulation and detoxification processes. Melatonin, through its own action and by regulating the levels of other hormones, helps maintain the body’s circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock that dictates when you sleep and when you wake up).
It’s a pretty ingenious setup: as the sun begins to set and your body is exposed to a lesser degree of light, your pineal gland is “turned on” by an area of the brain called the superchiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and begins to produce more and more melatonin. Increased levels of melatonin create a complex hormone cascade that tells your whole body that it’s time to start preparing for sleep. As long as everything is working properly, your melatonin levels remain elevated throughout the night until about 9am, by which time your hormonal state has shifted into “wakefulness” mode.
Much more than just a sleep aid
So, it should be apparent from this brief description that melatonin is much more than a sedative. Rather than having a simple and direct relaxation effect (like central nervous system depressants, some GABA agonists, or other substances that cause sedation), melatonin regulates a complicated system of hormonal processes throughout the body that end up promoting restfulness in a holistic, systems-oriented way.
For this reason, it should come as no surprise that melatonin has lots of other powerful health benefits besides being sleep-supporting. Because it’s been pigeon-holed as a sleep aid for so long, it remains an incredibly underrated substance.
Let’s take a look at some of melatonin’s other talents…
It’s one of the most powerful known brain antioxidants. The human body is almost incomprehensibly intelligent. Not only does melatonin coax the body into its sleep state; it also actively detoxes and rejuvenates the brain and body while you sleep.
Through its nightly antioxidant action, melatonin slows down brain aging, prevents cognitive decline, and even helps prevent Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders (cognitive degeneration has been strongly linked with chronically low levels of melatonin).
It’s strongly anti-inflammatory. Melatonin delivers a powerful 1-2 punch by quelling acute and systemic inflammation in the body while scavenging free radicals. And because inflammation is rightfully referred to as the root of all disease, melatonin protects against many of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
It boosts the immune system and prevents disease. All the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action generated by melatonin leads to a natural and dramatic boost in immune function. Perhaps this is why healthy levels of melatonin are correlated with decreased incidence of general infection and illness, as well as a 30-60% decreased risk of developing certain types of cancer.
The takeaway (and how to optimize your melatonin levels)
Inflammation, oxidative stress, and hormonal imbalance are arguably three of the greatest contributors to disease and lack of well-being—and as discussed above, melatonin powerfully combats all three of them. So whether or not you routinely have trouble sleeping, working to keep your melatonin levels healthy and happy is always a good idea.
If you do suffer from insomnia or otherwise feel that your melatonin levels may be sub-optimal, there’s plenty of helpful measures you can take.
First off, it’s always better to support your body’s natural production of melatonin, rather than supplementing with it (taking melatonin supplements for too long can actually make your body dependent on it).
Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and normal circadian rhythm (sleep at night, wakefulness during the day), and avoid bright, blue light after sunset, which tricks your body into thinking that it’s still daytime (and thus suppresses melatonin production). This means that you should minimize your use of electronic devices after dark, or use applications like f.lux, which automatically adjusts the light frequencies of your devices to the red end of the spectrum as the sun goes down (I use it on every one of my devices, and it really is a game changer).
Ensuring that you’re not vitamin and mineral deficient (especially in B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium) will also help your body keep its melatonin production up to snuff—you can get these nutrients either through supplementation or by eating foods like bananas, oats, turkey, chicken, coconut oil, leafy greens, tomatoes, cherries, and walnuts.
Lastly, research has shown that daily moderate exercise helps maintain healthy melatonin production. And healthy melatonin levels improve physical performance, so it’s a virtuous cycle!
If you do feel that supplementing with melatonin is necessary for you, try to use plant-based melatonin products, which are easier for your body to process and don’t cause dependency as quickly (still, you should never take melatonin for more than three consecutive nights, especially if you’re taking 3 milligrams or more per night).
By following these simple guidelines, you can reap all of melatonin’s many underrated health benefits.
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