When you hear melatonin, you probably think of the supplements commonly sold at health food stores and recommended as a sleep aid. What many people don’t realize is that melatonin is actually a hormone in your body that regulates our circadian rhythm, and without proper levels, we have a hard time getting a good sleep.
But it’s also so much more than that. In addition to helping to regulate our sleep-wake cycles, it has a power effect on our health. It’s much more than just a sleep hormone- it’s a powerful antioxidant and anti-cancer agent, and a reduction in it has been associated with impaired immune function, heart disease, obesity, and more. While a small amount is required to help us sleep, larger amounts are needed to help us detoxify and rejuvenate overnight, so if you aren’t producing enough, your body can’t properly repair itself.
One of the biggest things that disrupts our melatonin is artificial light. Before electricity, our circadian rhythm was controlled and kept in check by natural light. The sun would wake us in the morning, and we would either go to bed when it was dark or stay up with firelight (fire emits a warm light, which doesn’t disrupt our melatonin cycles).
Since the invention of electricity and screens, our bodies have become bombarded with blue light- that is the artificial light that comes from our light bulbs, smartphones, computers, etc. This blue light mimics daylight, so our bodies get confused thinking it is still day time, and don’t properly wind down for sleep.
We also mess with our melatonin levels when we don’t get enough sunlight during the day. In order for our melatonin levels to be normal at night, we need a complete shutdown of production during the day, and this shutdown is controlled by getting proper sunlight. The sun is much brighter than typical office lights, so if you’re stuck inside all day, you likely won’t be getting enough light to regulate your melatonin levels:
“The light we get from being outside on a summer day can be a thousand times brighter than we’re ever likely to experience indoors,” says melatonin researcher Russel J. Reiter of the University of Texas Health Science Center. “For this reason, it’s important that people who work indoors get outside periodically, and moreover that we all try to sleep in total darkness. This can have a major impact on melatonin rhythms and can result in improvements in mood, energy, and sleep quality.” (Source: Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health).
There’s no doubt that we could all use a little more sleep, and even if you are getting the recommended 7-8 hours, you may not be getting the most out of your sleep if your melatonin levels are off. Sleep isn’t just about quantity, it also has to be about quality!
To help you keep your melatonin levels at their optimal level, we’ve gathered up some tips for naturally balancing this very important hormone.
Avoid artificial light before bed.
As we mentioned above, the blue light that comes from artificial lighting sources tricks our brain into thinking it’s still daylight, so we don’t produce the melatonin necessary to help us wind down for bed at night. Unfortunately, today most of our evening activities, like watching TV and scrolling through our phones, revolve around items that emit these lights.
The best thing to do is avoid using these items after sundown, or at least within an hour or two of going to bed. Swapping out late night TV with reading a good book, for example, is a great way to wind down in the evening without staring at blue light. Installing warm light bulbs in the rooms you spend most of your time before bed is another great way to help your brain get that it’s getting close to bed (remember warm light doesn’t mess with our melatonin levels the same way).
Take steps to block the blue light.
While avoiding blue light altogether is the ideal, we get that not everyone can or will do that. Curling up to watch your favorite show before bed is something many of us look forward to, and it may just not be something you’re willing to give up.
If you are going to continue using your devices before bed, there are a couple of options you can look into. There are apps available that block the blue light from your devices and turn it into a more melatonin-friendly warm light (flux is a popular one). You can also buy a pair of orange glasses that are meant to be worn while you use your devices to, again, block the blue light.
Sleep in a dark room
Avoiding your smartphone before bed isn’t always enough to ensure that melatonin levels are where they should be; you also want your room to be as dark as possible. Again, think about how we are naturally meant to function: we would rise with the sun and sleep when it was dark, and before the recent introduction of lights, the only light we’d have at night would be from the moon, meaning our bodies are designed to sleep in almost total darkness.
Taking steps to make your room as dark as possible will help you to get your best rest. Consider investing in black out shades or an eye mask.
Spend some time outside in natural light during the day so your body gets a chance to register that it’s day time. As we said, this allows your body to completely halt melatonin production during the day and keeps you feeling awake and energized.
“As diurnal creatures, we humans are programmed to be outdoors while the sun is shining and home in bed at night,” says M. Nathaniel Mead in his article Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health. “This is why melatonin is produced during the dark hours and stops upon optic exposure to daylight... When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night.”
Walking to work in the morning or enjoying your lunch outside are great ways to take in natural light. Even something as simple as taking a few minutes to look out the window or stand outside when you wake up is a great way to let your body know it’s time to get moving and energized!
Reconsider melatonin supplements.
While they’re often touted as a natural sleep aid, many health professionals don’t recommend using the supplement on a regular basis. Short term, it may be useful in helping you get to sleep (like in the case of jet leg), but long term, it may impair your body’s natural ability to regulate the hormone.
This is a lot of information, but the simplest way to think of it is to, as much as possible, tune your body into the natural light rhythms. Exposing yourself to natural light first thing in the morning and during the day helps to keep you alert and encourage melatonin suppression because it allows your body to recognize that it’s day time. Avoiding artificial light at night lets your body see that it’s time for bed so it can produce the melatonin required to have a deep and healing sleep.