Melatonin is a natural hormone that the body produces when stimulated by darkness; in fact, light retards its production. This is one very good reason why sleep professionals include sleeping in a darkened room — with no TV or illuminating light sources — as a vital part of a good sleep-hygiene regimen.
Your eyes are the key here. When they take in light, the light suppresses melatonin production. This is one reason why wearing an eye mask at night has been effective for many.
Melatonin helps regulate the body’s clock, or circadian rhythm, which is why its production is so essential in helping you fall asleep and stay asleep. When it’s dark, melatonin is produced and the body should naturally doze off, though we all know that this doesn’t always happen as both natural and artificial causes can interfere with one’s sleep.
Melatonin lately has been shown to have many other beneficial effects on the human being. Melatonin works as a powerful antioxident to protect nerve molecules from damage. It does this by helping round up dangerous free radicals in the body.
However, as we age, our ability to produce melatonin decreases, so its protective (and sleep-inducing) powers generally start to recede, especially around age 60. That’s why a deficiency of maltonin has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and its supplementation in Alzheimer patients has actually been shown to retard cognitive deterioration.
Melatonin has also been shown to be effective in cancer fighting, especially against breast and liver cancers, non-small-cell lung cancer and brain metastases from a solid tumor. Melatonin also significantly reduces the number of prostrate cancer cells.
Melatonin supplements, however, should not be taken by children or adolescents, as they may interfere with physical growth and cause other problems. For adults, melatonin is generally safe, but caution should be taken if you suffer from hypertension, depression, seizure disorders or diabetes. As always, check with your physician before undertaking a supplementation regimen.
When speaking of good sleep hygiene, avoidance of caffeine is always included, and a study in Tel Aviv concluded that caffeine consumption represses secretion of an important melatonin metabolite, thus inhibiting the powers of the melatonin somewhat.
Some foods, in contrast, actually help stimulate and produce this “hormone of darkness,” and they include tart cherries, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, almonds, walnuts, flax and sunflower seeds, corn, oats, wheat, rice, barley, olive oil, wine and beer.
Good sleep hygiene is always the starting point if you’re having difficulty getting a good night’s sleep. However, as we’ve mentioned, there are many other contributing factors that can be interrupting your night’s rejuvenation. Therefore, it’s always good to seek out a sleep professional’s evaluation and advice, especially if good sleep hygiene doesn’t produce the results you seek.