Everything you need to know about melatonin and the circadian rhythm

Melatonin – often referred to as the sleep hormone – plays a key role in regulating our circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock, which helps to keep our sleep-wake cycle in check. Melatonin is produced naturally by the body, but it’s also become increasingly popular over the years to take it in capsule or liquid form, as a way of improving sleep difficulties. 

If you’ve been struggling to sleep recently, it’s likely that certain lifestyle habits have sent your melatonin levels out of balance.

Below, we’ll explore how the circadian rhythm works, what melatonin’s role in it is, and how you can work to regulate it in order to get healthy, restful sleep.

What is the circadian rhythm?

The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal block. It runs on 24-hour cycles and is responsible for carrying out essential body functions and processes including eating, waking, and sleeping. One of the most important of these cycles is the sleep-wake cycle.

This refers to the body’s ability to fall asleep and wake up at times in the day that support a healthy lifestyle. The sleep-wake cycle can be influenced by environmental factors – most notably light – which signal to the body when it’s day or nighttime. As a result, when properly aligned, the circadian rhythm promotes consistent, high-quality and well-scheduled sleep. But a misaligned circadian rhythm can lead to significant sleeping problems, such as insomnia.

Research shows that the circadian rhythm plays an essential role in maintaining both physical and mental health. You can read more about the importance of getting enough sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle in our article which explains the sleep cycle.

What role does melatonin play in the circadian rhythm?

Melatonin is a natural hormone found in the body. It’s most commonly known as the ‘sleep hormone’. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland which is found deep in the brain, and its main function is to regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle.

It does so by reacting to light. When it’s dark, melatonin production spikes, signaling to the brain that it’s time to sleep. On the other hand, light limits melatonin production and increases alertness. Naturally, this process should align our sleep-wake cycles with day and night time. However, in our modern age, superficial light can often get in the way – for example when we use electronic devices before bed – and spike melatonin levels, tricking the brain into thinking it’s daytime.

What lifestyle changes can help regulate my circadian rhythm?

If you often struggle to fall asleep at night, it’s likely that certain lifestyle habits have pushed your melatonin levels out of check. Below are a few ways that can help to bring them back into balance:

  • Establish a nighttime routine and stick to it. This can help train your body to know when to expect sleep.

  • Spend enough time outside during the day to boost awakeness. Getting enough light exposure in the day boosts melatonin levels and helps you to feel more alert during the day.

  • Get regular exercise. Studies show that frequent exercise helps people fall asleep quicker and improves their sleep quality. You’ll find plenty of inspiration on where to start in the healthy body section of our site.

  • Make sure that your bedroom environment is practical and stress free. Studies show that mess and clutter can lead to stress and anxiety, which are known obstacles to sleep.

  • Avoid consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine in the evenings.

  • Avoid screen time and blue light exposure well before bed as this can increase melatonin production and trick the body into thinking it’s daytime. Instead, try engaging in a different activity such as reading or meditation.

  • Avoid napping in the late afternoon or evening.

You’ll find more information on how you can help to regulate your sleep in our article Can’t sleep? Try these 8 tips…

How can I boost my melatonin levels through my diet?

It’s possible to boost your intake of the sleep hormone through your diet. In fact, studies have shown that eating melatonin rich foods can be a great way to improve sleep efficiency.

There are certain foods which are known to be good sources of melatonin. These include almonds, oats, turkey, chamomile tea, kiwi, tart cherries, fatty fish, walnuts, and white rice. You can read more about foods high in melatonin on the Nourish website.

Several other foods and drinks have sleep-promoting qualities. For example, they may contain high amounts of nutrients like tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid that cannot be produced by the body. These include dairy products, bananas, and oatmeal. Several studies have shown that tryptophan can improve sleep by increasing melatonin levels.

Should I consider taking melatonin supplements if I'm still struggling to sleep?

Manmade melatonin – known by the brand name Circadin – comes as a slow-release tablet or in liquid form. It’s available on prescription only and is most commonly used to treat short-term sleep problems, such as insomnia, in people aged 55 and over. Melatonin can help people to fall asleep faster and leaves them less likely to wake during the night. Other sleep concerns such as jet lag, poor (non-restorative) sleep quality, and night shift work can also be treated in the short-term with melatonin.

A collection of studies found that melatonin helped people with sleep conditions fall asleep on average seven minutes faster. People also reported more restful and restorative sleep. Other studies have found that in people who had travelled through five or more time zones, melatonin was remarkably effective at reducing the effects of jet lag.

If you’ve been suffering from restless nights recently, then it’s worth making an appointment with your GP. They’ll be able to advise you on whether melatonin could help, as well as other lifestyle changes you could make to improve your sleep quality. You can also read more information about melatonin on the NHS website.

What are some other health benefits of melatonin?

Aside from promoting healthy sleep patterns, melatonin also has various other health benefits. Below are a few examples.

Melatonin can support eye health

Melatonin has powerful antioxidant benefits which could help reduce the risk of eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). One study found that melatonin can protect retinas and delay the onset of damage from AMD without any significant side effects.

Melatonin can help treat heartburn and stomach ulcers

The antioxidant benefits of melatonin can help to relieve stomach ulcers and heartburn. One study found that it was especially effective at improving symptoms when paired with omeprazole (a medicine commonly prescribed to treat stomach acid).

Melatonin may reduce symptoms of tinnitus

Tinnitus is a condition that causes a constant ringing sound in the ears. It’s usually worse in situations when there’s less background noise, for example when you’re trying to fall asleep. Researchers recommend melatonin to reduce the symptoms of tinnitus and help you fall asleep.

Melatonin may improve the effects of Alzheimer’s disease

Melatonin levels naturally decrease with age, and in people with Alzheimer’s. A number of studies have shown that melatonin can improve sleeplessness and sundowning (behavioural disturbances that tend to occur in the evening), which are common symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.

As a powerful antioxidant, melatonin also has specific neuroprotective qualities which help protect nerve and brain cells from damage. As a result, melatonin has been noted as a positive treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Final thoughts…

Melatonin plays an essential role in the body’s circadian rhythm. It signals to our brains when it’s time to sleep and wake, so it’s no wonder that we feel tired or out of sorts when our levels are out of balance. Unfortunately, certain lifestyle habits – such as overexposure to light in the evenings – can interrupt melatonin production and leave us unable to fall or stay asleep.

Luckily, it’s usually possible to get your sleep-wake cycle back in check with a few tweaks to our lifestyles. Or, in cases where more help is required, melatonin supplements are an option too.

What is your experience of melatonin and its effect on sleep? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below. 

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