If you’re not sleeping as well as you’d like then you need to understand the basics about melatonin and how to make it work for you. Melatonin is a hormone produced primarily by the pineal gland in the center of your brain when your eyes are not receiving any light. In other words, melatonin is only made in the dark; light inhibits the flow of melatonin.
Before electricity, man largely lived by the sun — rising with it and going to bed with it. Of course, this was partly because man needed the light of the sun to do productive activities. The body obviously adapted to the fact that sleep is about the only useful thing we could do in the dark at night…right, besides the other thing!
Melatonin production has also been linked to deep states of contemplation and meditation — very beneficial nocturnal activities. The pineal gland is considered the highest center of awareness in the body by Buddhists and Hindus. It’s shaped like a pinecone which has been a significant symbol used in all the world’s religions. Needless to say, all the evidence I’ve reviewed plus my own personal experience, shows that you need melatonin to get to sleep and to stay asleep. And your brain needs darkness in order to secrete melatonin.
Live in Light
While darkness triggers the production of melatonin, light produces serotonin which makes you feel awake and alert. You need both. Too little of one usually produces too little of the other. So if your serotonin levels are down during the day, your body will produce less melatonin at night. Serotonin is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Prozac increases levels of serotonin in the body by stopping the breakdown of this drug. But you can do that naturally!
Making sure you are exposed to sunlight during the day, especially at noon, will help ensure you get enough serotonin. Even if it’s sunlight through a window. Ideally, you should get outside at noon time. Go for a walk after lunch to help your digestion (or eat lunch outside). It may take an extra ten minutes from your day, but you’ll probably make it up by sleeping less (because you sleep deeper). To repeat; exposing yourself (i.e., your eyes) to bright light during the day and complete darkness at night balances your serotonin and your melatonin.
NOTE: Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a depressive condition that occurs in some people as the result of not enough natural daylight.
Sleep In The Dark
The best way to get your brain producing melatonin is to make sure your bedroom is completely dark when you sleep. You shouldn’t even be able to see your hand in front of your face. This is how our ancestors lived. They didn’t have access to electricity like we do. Night time was dark time. Even in the cities. The soft glow of stars or the moon was about as much light as they saw. Also, it’s a good idea to get rid of any devices in your bedroom — especially those with flashing lights. If you have outdoor lights around your home, make sure to shut them off too. They’re just wasting power.
Of course, there are your neighbors’ lights and street lamps that you still have to contend with. I have a running “war” with the maintenance people because I’m always turning the ground lights away from my bedroom window. But in general, Maui is a low light environment to protect the night vision of the huge astronomy telescopes on top of Mount Haleakela.
A blindfold is what I used to use and is probably the second best answer. I finally installed thicker blinds, which keep my bedroom dark at night.
Since melatonin is not only produced in the pineal gland but also the skin, exposing the skin to light may reduce its production somewhat. But that’s not going to happen if you’re all snuggled up in your blankets. Even in the summer, most people sleep with a light sheet over them. One drawback to a blindfold is that it may dry your eyes — but I find my ceiling fan does a great job of drying my eyes already! You can easily remedy this by using some homeopathic eye drops before going to bed and in the morning. I use a product called Similasan for Dry Eyes.
If you have cats, make sure you don’t leave your blindfold lying around or they’ll go crazy with the elastic string. And they’ll flake off cat dander that is not a good substance to have near your eyes. Ideally, you want a blindfold that fits properly around the bridge of your nose so that light doesn’t peak through.
Avoid Radiant Light 30 Minutes Before Bed
Make sure you don’t have tons of lights shining in your eyes as you get ready for bed. Use a little night light as you brush your teeth. Keep everything dim. Ideally you’d want to spend 15-30 minutes with dimmed lights practicing meditation or prayer or listening to calming music. Most importantly, though, is not to use a computer or watch television 30 minutes before bed. With such devices you are looking directly at a radiant light source. I guess that goes for your Kindle as well. If I do read at night I dim the screen as low as possible because light at night inhibits the flow of melatonin.
Have you ever noticed how easily you can stay awake watching a movie or surfing the internet. That’s serotonin being stimulated and suppression of melatonin. So, turn off the computer or the TV at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Thirty minutes is probably the amount of time you spend puttering around getting ready for bed anyway. I dim my computer screen in the evening hours and it immediately relaxes my eyes. There’s a button on your monitor that will adjust brightness. You can also work on battery instead of being plugged in; that usually dims the screen.
Bathroom Run In The Dark
If you wake up in the middle of the night and need to use the bathroom, don’t turn on any lights. You should know your way around. If you do need light, have a little flashlight you can use and do not look directly into the beam.
Melatonin is available as a supplement in the US, unlike other countries where it is prohibited
over-the-counter. The supplement is inexpensive and basically a synthetic version of the hormone. In small quantities it has proven to be quite safe. But it is not ideal compared to naturally making your own melatonin. You only want to use it if you have to and as little as you need to get to sleep. Sometimes people find using melatonin for a month gets their brain back in shape producing its own melatonin. Others just become dependent on it.
Adjust it to your needs. If you find you need it every night, don’t worry because it is extremely safe in low doses. More on dosage later. Melatonin is a good sleep aid when you are experiencing a temporary situation that’s interfering with your usual routine. For example, when you’ve been forced to stay up late and are now “wired.” Or if you need to sleep during the day. It’s also good for overcoming jetlag. On the whole, only use it if you have to. Not because it’s dangerous but just because it should be unnecessary.
How Much Melatonin Supplement is Safe?
The upper limit of melatonin dosage for sleep is generally recognized as 5mg. Very large doses may result in nausea, hormone imbalances, feeling irritable or not feeling fully awake the next day. You may also find your dreams are too vivid or you experience nightmares. These are all indications that you’re overdosing. I recommend you start at 0.5mg. You may have to cut a 1.0mg pill in half. Then increase in 0.5mg increments each night until you find it is working for you.
How Will This Help Me?
What scientists have discovered about melatonin has helped us understand some of the benefits derived from sleep. Melatonin is a proven antioxidant and it has also been shown to support your immune system and endocrine system. So sleeping in the dark is a great way to support overall health and general wellbeing.
Make It Happen…
- Turn off the TV, the computer and anything else with a monitor 30 minutes before bed
(and dim the lights in the house or use night lights).
- Sleep either with a blindfold or blackout curtains. One way or the other, make sure you
can’t see your hand in front of your face when you go to sleep.
- If you can’t go to sleep easily, experiment with 0.5mg of melatonin increasing each night in
increments of 0.5mg until you fall asleep or reach 3.0mg.
Questions and Answers
Why are OTC melatonin supplements regulated in so many countries?
Melatonin was regulated in Canada for several years but was recently brought back on the
market. I believe it’s still regulated in Germany and in other European countries. Some countries
require a prescription and treat it as a drug (which it is not). They cite that it causes grogginess
and nightmares and the like, but that’s only in high doses.
I find supplementing with melatonin gets me to sleep but I still don’t sleep all that well.
Can you explain?
The supplement is not a replacement for darkening your room or wearing a blindfold or taking magnesium for that matter. The supplement has a short half-life. It works for the first few hours but then your own brain needs to kick in producing your own melatonin. It can’t do that unless your eyes are not exposed to light. Think vampires. So, take a very small dose of melatonin (e.g. 0.5 mg) at bedtime. Enough to get you in sleep mode. Make sure you either have a blindfold on or your room is pitch black.
I sleep in total darkness but keep on waking up and having to take more melatonin. What
could be wrong?
If you have no other symptoms that would wake you such as indigestion, pain or restlessness, and if you’re taking enough magnesium, then the pineal gland in your brain may be under some stress. One cause of this is calcification of the pineal gland, which can be an indication of magnesium deficiency. This is most commonly caused by too much calcium in your drinking water or taking calcium carbonate supplements. As people get older they tend to create more calcification and may develop calcification in the pineal. I would stop taking calcium carbonate supplements immediately. Your body can’t absorb them and they only cause problems. Also make sure you are getting enough sunlight or vitamin D supplementation and magnesium so that you can absorb the calcium in your food properly.