If you’re among the many, many people who don’t get enough sleep, or good quality sleep, you could be seriously endangering your health. Not only are you left tired and moody with impaired metabolism and reflexes, but the production of melatonin becomes lacking.
Have you heard of this vital hormone? Most of us think of it in the form of “natural” sleep aid tablets that we can take to encourage deeper rest or avoid jet lag. But melatonin is actually produced internally during the night. And not only is it involved with sleep, but it has a multitude of other amazing benefits within the body.
Let’s explore more about why melatonin is so important for good health and how to optimize natural production.
Protects against the leading causes of death
Melatonin is one of the body’s most potent weapons against inflammation, which is the root problem of many chronic health conditions and leading causes of death such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Studies show that having sufficient melatonin reduces the severity of high blood pressure and protects the heart against damage. Recent research also suggests that those with low melatonin levels have twice the risk of developing type II diabetes.
Slows brain aging
Melatonin is a strong antioxidant, which means it prevents cell damage caused by molecules called free radicals. It is this effect that is linked with melatonin’s ability to slow neurodegeneration and reduce markers of brain aging. In animal studies,daily exercise combined with sufficient melatonin production was found to improve markers of Alzheimer’s disease and boost the ability to learn and remember information. This may be thanks to melatonin’s ability cross the blood-brain barrier and protect cells against a toxic protein called beta-amyloid.
Both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are associated with low levels of melatonin, so improving natural production may help ward off these conditions.
Prevents the development of cancer
Melatonin helps regulate reproductive hormones and cell growth, so it follows that scientific studies have demonstrated its ability to protect against cancers related to reproductive organs. This includes cancers of the breast, ovaries, endometrium, prostate and testicles.
This is backed up by evidence showing that those who are exposed to light at nighttime are more likely to develop cancer. For example, nurses who work nights were shown to have 36 percent higher rates of breast cancer, while another study estimated the risk to be 60 percent higher. This is attributed to the dysregulation of the natural circadian rhythm and melatonin production.
Melatonin also protects against the harmful side effects of conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.
Helps with weight control
Melatonin is known to exert beneficial effects on the metabolism (potentially by balancing thyroid function) and also upregulates the action of the type of fat that is responsible for burning calories and generating heat. In this way, melatonin is believed to stave off weight gain and obesity.
Strengthens immune system
Along with improving many functions against poor health and disease, melatonin also directly improves the action of our built-in immune system. The production of immune cells like interleukin-2 is increased in the presence of sufficient melatonin in the system.
Fights migraine headaches
Natural production of melatonin helps reduce the advent of migraine headaches, and supplementation has also shown to be beneficial. One study demonstrated that taking melatonin before bedtime for three months could decrease migraine frequency by half.
Keeps you looking youthful
By acting as a potent antioxidant, melatonin protects tissues and skin from free-radical damage, which can otherwise leave them looking saggy, dull and wrinkled. Melatonin is able to protect both protein and fat tissues in the body, and can cross all cell barriers to perform its antioxidant function efficiently. No wonder getting a good night’s sleep can make you look 10 years younger.
Supports mood balance
Since melatonin is made from the good-mood chemical serotonin, it is said to be tied to a healthy mood balance.
Decreases the risk of osteoporosis
Scientific research has shown that melatonin can help restore imbalances in the system that keep bones strong and help them heal. This means that melatonin is a key factor in preventing bone diseases like osteoporosis.
How melatonin is produced
Melatonin is produced when the suprachiasmatic nucleus (part of the hypothalamus) tells the pineal gland to start production. This process is regulated by the biological or circadian clock, which functions in step withcycles of daylight and darkness.
Our eyes are very sensitive to light, and we even have light sensors in our skin. When there is light in our surroundings, signals are sent to the brain that say, “It’s daytime!” Melatonin production is stopped, and other hormones are upregulated to promote alertness (e.g., cortisol).
When our surroundings are dark or lit only with light in the yellow-orange-red spectrum (similar to natural firelight), the pineal gland is signaled to produce melatonin.
How to optimize internal melatonin production naturally
There are a few lifestyle and dietary habits that can be used to optimize natural production of melatonin.
First of all, it is vital to “program” the biological clock properly by ensuring that we get bright daylight during the day and are not exposed to any light during the night. This means no texting or reading on a tablet late into the night.
In fact, the best way to tell the body that it’s nighttime is to wear yellow- or orange-lensed glasses after the sun has gone down, and/or use lights that are in the warm spectrum. Salt lamps or low-blue lightbulbs are a great option.
Certain foods can also help boost melatonin regulation by providing raw materials such as vitamins and minerals. Some examples are potassium, magnesium, B vitamins and complex carbohydrates. These building blocks are used to make serotonin, which is the immediate precursor to melatonin. Bananas, oats, turkey, chicken, almonds, pineapple, oranges, tomatoes and cherries are all great sources of the things we need to make our own internal melatonin naturally.