The Science Of Sleep: How Does Melatonin Really Work?
Let’s dive into the science behind how melatonin works and why it has such a big impact on the way we sleep.
Melatonin is a hormone that controls our sleep-wake cycles, also known as our circadian rhythms or biological clocks.
Many things can impact melatonin production; our use of artificial lights and reliance on tech devices is a major factor in delaying our sleep.
Weighted blankets are an easy and cozy way to increase our body’s natural melatonin production and prepare your body for a great night’s sleep.
Did you know?
Melatonin is sometimes called the “Dracula Hormone” or the “Hormone of Darkness”, because of how it only releases itself at night.
While you may know melatonin as that little supplement that gets stashed in your nightstand in cases of insomnia emergencies, it’s so much more than that. The hormone melatonin, which was only discovered in the 1950s, has been widely studied since then for its effects on our sleep and wake cycles.
At Bearaby, we’re studying the science of sleep to make sure our weighted blankets tap into science in just the right way to help you fall asleep faster, and sleep more deeply throughout the night. Let’s dive into the science behind how melatonin works and why it has such a big impact on the way we sleep. We’ll also get into all the things you do that disrupt your melatonin production (*cough* scrolling Instagram in bed!)
Melatonin: The Basics
Melatonin is produced by your body’s pineal gland, which is a teeny little gland shaped like a miniature pinecone (that’s where it gets its name!), smack dab in the deep center of your brain. The pineal gland doesn’t do too much during the daylight hours, but when nighttime comes around, it gets to work.
Darkness will stimulate the pineal gland to produce melatonin, typically around 9 pm, which provides you with a feeling of sleepiness. Nighttime levels of melatonin are about 10 times greater than they are in the morning.
When light hits your eyes in the morning, your retina sends a signal to a center in the brain’s hypothalamus. This tells the pineal gland to stop melatonin production and perform some wake-up duties instead, like raise your body temperature and release some cortisol to get you going on your day.
Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash
Melatonin is highly synced with the 24-hour internal clocks that are known as our circadian rhythms. These biological clocks control everything we do, from sleeping to waking to eating; even how we digest food and gain or lose weight is related to the circadian rhythm. (Do you tend to go to the bathroom at the same time every morning? Yup, that’s your circadian rhythm at work.) However, there are plenty of things that can disrupt this natural cycle...
What Suppresses Melatonin Production?
The biggest disruptor of melatonin production is our use of artificial lights and screens after dark. Our ancestors used to sleep and wake by the cycles of the sun and moon, with maybe just a fire here or there to add light after sundown.
Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash
Nowadays, we have fluorescent lights blaring at us during after-dark errand runs, we have bright lights on in every room of the house, and we have never-ending blue light coming from our various technological devices.
The blue light from our smartphones, TVs, and computers actually delays and suppresses melatonin production more than any other type of light. Although your iPhone doesn’t look blue, the light from our devices is on a particular blue wavelength that our bodies associate with waking up; it’s the same wavelength that early morning sunlight has! And while blue light is technically environmentally-friendly, it can negatively impact your sleep and potentially cause disease.
That’s why we recommend going screen-free for two hours before bedtime. If that’s impossible, try adding some blue-light blocking glasses to your nighttime routine. Becoming more and more popular and stylish nowadays, they can protect your eyes from the sleep-disrupting blue light and help get your melatonin rolling.
Another way that light can impact your melatonin production is if you work the night shift, especially in super-bright places like hospitals. Most night shift workers have trouble getting their daytime sleep in and may feel tired or groggy at night. In cases like this, supplemental melatonin may be needed to get adequate sleep.
What we consume close to bedtime can disrupt the sleepytime process. Caffeine has been shown to inhibit melatonin production, and it has a half-life of 4-6 hours, so an afternoon latte may still be lingering in your system come bedtime. Alcohol may have similar effects on disrupting sleep by suppressing or delaying melatonin, so try to have your nightcap be more of an early evening-cap if you’re going to imbibe.
Lastly, being stressed out certainly doesn’t support your sleep. Not only does it keep our minds racing with worry, but emotional stress can lead to increased cortisol at night. While we want a little bit of cortisol in the morning to help wake us up, it is detrimental to have high levels at night. If you’re feeling stressed out before bed, try some relaxation activities, like a warm bath, a stretching routine, getting a massage, or deep breathing exercises.
Tips For Increasing Melatonin Production
Getting some sunlight first thing in the morning can help your body’s internal clock to stop making melatonin and wake you up. This helps to set the stage for your entire day and will lead to a better melatonin production that night. If you live in a sunless part of the world during wintertime, using a light lamp that mimics sunshine can help your melatonin cycle.
Similar to sunshine in the morning, exercising in the morning or early afternoon can also help you to sleep better at night. For some, exercising right before bed or late at night can hinder melatonin production and make it more difficult to fall asleep, but it doesn’t appear to be the case for everybody. A gentle evening workout, like walking or yoga, shouldn’t have an impact on melatonin secretion, whereas a high-intensity exercise could cause more of an issue.
One cozy way to increase your natural melatonin production is by using a weighted blanket. The extra weight puts deep touch pressure on your body, leading to an uptake in serotonin production, which is a precursor to melatonin. Sure enough, a recent study has shown that weighted blankets increase melatonin levels at bedtime. Additionally weighted blankets can relieve stress and anxiety by reducing that cortisol we don’t want at night. Win-win.
What About Melatonin Supplements?
In general, it’s not harmful to take small doses of melatonin. However, it’s best to utilize your body’s natural melatonin production instead of relying on the supplement. Those of you who work night shifts or travel often and get jet lag may benefit from taking melatonin, but the rest of us should try to use these helpful tips first!