Melatonin is commonly used as a supplements to aid insomnia. It is safe to use, however, it is not always helpful, since likely the problem is not melatonin deficiency. In some cases, this deficiency is real, so let’s explore why and what to do about it.
One of the most important concepts to understand about melatonin is that cortisol will decrease melatonin production. Cortisol is produced in response to stress and to help regulate blood sugar. When cortisol has a healthy response, the highest amount of cortisol is produced early in the morning.
It then has some highs and lows throughout the day, but in general it decreases more and more, with its lowest point in the evening and during the night. If you’ve ever had insomnia in the evening and you felt that rush of energy and anxiety, feeling wired and tired at the same time, it’s likely that cortisol was being secreted, which means that melatonin was being decreased.
Should I just supplement with melatonin?
So what is the solution then? To take melatonin to counteract the problem? Before answering this, let’s first explore what melatonin is.
Here are some things to better understand about melatonin:
- The hormone melatonin is produced in the pineal gland by converting serotonin to melatonin; this then assumes there is enough serotonin and there is a functional pineal gland.
- The pineal gland can be calcified and its function lowered; reasons for calcified pineal gland include exposure to fluoride and pesticides. It’s difficult to understand which comes first, the calcification or the exposure.
- Melatonin production does decrease with age.
- Melatonin is also produced in the gut, in a much higher quantity than the pineal gland; however, the measurable blood melatonin levels come mostly from the pineal production.
- Melatonin is anti-inflammatory and considered an antioxidant.
- Iron is a necessary co-factor for melatonin production. Since women lose blood every month through their menstrual cycle, they are most affected by this. Checking ferritin (iron storage) levels helps, to make sure they are at optimal levels (between 70 to 150) so there is enough iron to help produce mitochondria and produce melatonin.
- Melatonin activates the transition from T4 to T3, which sets up the metabolic rate and helps your thyroid function.
What is now understood from the above points is that melatonin deficiency is likely, especially as we age. Gut health is important for two reasons; first, because there has to be enough serotonin (with is produced in the gut) to make melatonin; second, because some of the melatonin is directly produced in the gut (though it may not be as important for sleep as the melatonin produced in the pineal gland).
Cortisol and stress
The stress response can increase cortisol levels and stunt the normal melatonin production. If you think about it, it’s all a protective mechanism. For some reason, your mind and body feel stressed and on edge. The cortisol kicks in and the melatonin decreases—since it thinks there’s some kind of danger, why would you go to sleep? Even though it’s painful because you want to sleep so badly, it make sense, right?
What to do before supplementing
So what to do then? Supplementation may be helpful, but let’s understand some other possible next steps:
- Test your melatonin levels; the hormone DUTCH test that I run for my patients measures melatonin levels (along with cortisol and sex hormones).
- If cortisol is a problem, work on stress levels; if the high cortisol level is decreasing melatonin, taking melatonin will help a little, but the high cortisol is still high and it will still likely be hard to sleep well.
- Allow for a much longer winding-down process in the evening, with dim lights (or blue-blocking glasses), quiet activity, reading a book, meditating for 10 minutes—really anything that will help your body slow down and make you feel more relaxed.
- Check your water to see whether it contains fluoride (check EWG water tap, search by zip code, or use Doctor’s Data water test); use a filter that takes it out, as research shows it can affect the pineal gland function.
- Eat organic (or check out EWG’s clean fifteen and dirty dozen) to avoid pesticides as much as possible.
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit (I recommend eating 2 cups of green leafy veggies, 2 cups of colorful veggies, and 2 cups of fruit each day), plus healthy protein and fats; remember, melatonin is made from serotonin, which is made in the gut.
- If you are a menstruating woman, check your ferritin levels, since iron is needed to make melatonin.
- Keep your room as dark as possible; this will enhance melatonin production.
Healing insomnia often involves more than just increasing melatonin production. However, when appropriate, I recommend 1 to 3 mg in liposomal form, from Quicksilver Scientific. If you’d like a more detailed winding-down process, you can download my handout: “The Hour Before Sleep.”