Everything you need to know about how melatonin impacts your sleep

Melatonin plays an important role in helping us go to sleep and wake up. (Getty Images)
Melatonin plays an important role in helping us go to sleep and wake up. (Getty Images)

When darkness falls and you start getting sleepy, it’s because there’s a little hormone that kicks in to help you wind down for the day and get some well-deserved rest.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, and is crucial for regulating our body’s circadian rhythms. These are the 24-hour cycles our body’s internal clock runs to tell us when it’s time to go to sleep and time to wake up.

Dr Lafina Diamandis, holistic GP and consultant at W-Wellness, the UK's first expert-led wellness platform, tells Yahoo UK: "Melatonin is key to regulating your body’s sleep cycle. The body produces melatonin just after it gets dark, this signals to the brain that it’s time to go to sleep.

"Melatonin levels peak in the early hours of the morning before returning to normal levels during the day." The hormone also "promotes relaxation and drowsiness, and reduces the time it takes to fall asleep, which is known as sleep latency" she adds.

Although melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone, supplements containing the hormone have risen in popularity in recent years.

It comes as research shows that millions of people in the UK aren’t getting enough sleep. Although the NHS states that adults need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep, it has been reported that 60% of Britons aren’t getting more than six hours of sleep a night.

a woman sleeping with a Eye Sleeping Mask on her head
Having a good night's sleep is crucial to helping us function well. (Getty Images)

Melatonin's responsibility to help us go to sleep and wake up makes it an extremely important hormone. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even some types of cancer.

Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of Simba’s charity partner, The Sleep Charity, says: "Understanding the science behind sleep and melatonin reveals the intricate rhythms of our bodies. By acknowledging these mechanisms, we can adopt strategies to navigate sleep disruptions and fully embrace the joys of summer without sacrificing our essential rest.”

However, light exposure can interfere with the production of melatonin, so looking at screens before bedtime or sleeping in a bright environment might contribute to poor sleep.

When the body’s melatonin production is interrupted, it can sometimes lead to sleep problems in some people. In such cases, melatonin supplements or tablets may be able to help - but they must be used correctly.

In the UK, melatonin tablets are mainly used to treat sleep problems like insomnia for short periods of time. According to the NHS, the prescription-only tablets help add to the body’s natural supply of melatonin to help you fall asleep more quickly and ensure you’re less likely to wake up during the night.

Dr Diamandis advises: "Melatonin supplements are a prescription medication in the UK licensed for use in adults over 55 years. Melatonin can help to reduce sleep latency (time taken to fall asleep) and regulate sleep disorders.

"Short courses of melatonin are also licensed for use in jet-lag. It is possible to purchase melatonin without a prescription in some countries but I would advise against taking it without medical advice as it could be harmful if not taken for the right reasons.

"Most sleep problems can be resolved with healthy sleep habits, stress reduction techniques and a form of therapy called CBTi (cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia).

"If you are experiencing problems sleeping, it’s important to consult with a qualified and experienced practitioner who can thoroughly assess your sleep problem, advise if melatonin is right for you and discuss the risks and benefits of treatment."

If you find it difficult to get to sleep, or to get enough sleep, it might not be a lack of melatonin to blame. Instead, most sleep problems are lifestyle-related, says Dr Diamandis.

"Melatonin is quite a ‘shy’ hormone highly sensitive to our environment and its production can be shut down by the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol which is released when we need to be awake," she explains.

"Lifestyle factors such as stress and anxiety, shift work and bright light from screens promote higher levels of cortisol at night which can make it very difficult to fall asleep. That said, melatonin production does decline with age and is implicated in some medical conditions."

Bed, morning and relax man with beard sleeping, tired or nap for relief, wellness and rest in home, house or apartment. Fatigue, comfort and face of person cozy, dream and exhausted on bedroom pillow stock photo
Make sure your body is producing the right amount of melatonin to regulate your circadian rhythm. (Getty Images)

Artis shares her top tips on boosting your melatonin levels if you think it might help you get to sleep easier:

Stick to a sleep schedule: "Consistency is the golden rule when it comes to getting quality shut-eye. Train your body to expect sleep by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Yes, even on weekends! This helps regulate your internal body clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up feeling refreshed."

Create a blissful bedroom environment: "Transform your bedroom into a sleep haven by banishing any unwanted light. Opt for blackout curtains or invest in some temporary blinds to keep your space as dark as possible. For an added touch of luxury, slip on a silky eye mask to block out any pesky rays."

Ditch the screens: "We know it’s tempting to scroll through your phone or binge-watch your favourite show before bed, but that blue light can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle especially if you’re using those devices in bed. Why not give your eyes a break and turn off all screens at least an hour before hitting the hay. Your body will thank you for it!"

Keep your cool: "Don't let sweltering summer nights ruin your sleep. Help your body stay cool by investing in bedding with temperature-regulating properties, such as Simba’s Summer Hybrid® Duvet."

Consider melatonin supplements: "Sometimes, even the best sleep habits need a little extra support. If you're still struggling to catch those Z's, consider chatting with your healthcare provider about melatonin supplements. Just remember, always consult a pro before adding any new supplement to your routine."

Snack smart for sleep: "Did you know certain foods can naturally boost your melatonin levels? Stock up on cherries, grapes, tomatoes, and walnuts to give your body the melatonin it needs for a restful night's sleep."

Practice relaxation techniques: "Say goodbye to restless nights and hello to relaxation. Incorporate calming activities like reading, indulging in a warm bath, or practising yoga and meditation into your bedtime routine. Not only will these activities help you unwind, but they'll also stimulate melatonin production, making it easier to drift off into dreamland."

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