It’s the hormone that signals bedtime for the human body, and many people buy it from the US, where it’s sold over the counter, to combat everything from jet lag to insomnia. We look into how melatonin works, and whether it’s really a good idea to pop a pill…

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A conversation that crops up relatively frequently in health and beauty land is what brands and products we bulk buy when abroad  that we still can’t get our hands on in the UK, despite our ever-shrinking world, 24/7 cyber connectivity and speedy shipping delivery options. There’s many a covetable French pharmacy steal or Korean sheet mask phenomenon that’s like hen’s teeth to get hold of from Blighty, but pretty much every time we broach the subject of Stateside essentials, Sephora hauls aren’t the only thing beauty industry globetrotters bring home. Almost everyone mentions stocking up on melatonin. Which seems to sit slightly oddly next to that Tarte eyeliner or Milk Makeup highlighter, but when you consider the promise of a jet-lag eliminating pill, you can see why it might be such a popular addition to a red-eye washbag. Exactly what is this “sleeping beauty” supplement, and what role does melatonin play in our sleep-wake cycle? Also, should we tinkering with our body clocks at all? We’ve done some nocturnal digging…

The human sleep hormone

We make the hormone melatonin naturally by way of the pineal gland in the brain, and in humans its production is triggered by darkness, with a subsequent decrease in melatonin with the dawn light to wake us up. For nocturnal animals, however, the situation is flipped on its head, as for the likes of a badger, melatonin release means breakfast. I digress David Attenborough style, but in short, melatonin is essential to keep our body clock ticking along and signalling when we should rest and when we should rise.

When bad sleep happens to good people

The vital importance of our body clock to our health is one of the most exciting areas of research in scientific fields currently, with the trio of researchers who revealed that our circadian rhythm impacts everything from our mood to our metabolism  winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. We know that when our body clocks are thrown out of sync, everything from our concentration to our immunity is impaired, and studies suggest that night shift workers recover more slowly from DNA damage and are more at risk of diabetes , obesity, chronic disease, infertility  and even cancer tumours. Even if shift workers and other nocturnal labourers ( new parents , insomniacs and students will relate) do catch a nap during daylight hours, the lack of melatonin released when the sun shines is thought to be linked to a reduced capacity for damage recovery, compared to restorative overnight sleep.

It’s for this reason, and due to the burden of disturbed sleeping patterns, that doctors occasionally prescribe melatonin to shift workers and the elderly struggling to sleep, and also to patients with medical conditions that can lead to low melatonin levels such as autism and ADHD. It should be noted that melatonin has negative side-effects for epilepsy sufferers, or those taking the blood-thinning drug warfarin.

Melatonin as a magic bullet

‘Prescribe’ is the key word where taking synthetic melatonin in the UK is concerned: melatonin supplements aren’t licensed for over-the-counter sale here. In the US, however, it’s a different story, and the use of melatonin supplements for the likes of jet lag and insomnia has doubled in recent years. A government report published last year indicated that 3.1 million Americans take melatonin supplements recreationally. As is to be expected in this age of globalisation, melatonin supplements have made their way over to these shores post-haste, while in the past decade NHS data indicates that the number of prescriptions for melatonin written out to the under-55 population has seen a tenfold increase.

Many studies appear to show that melatonin supplements can be helpful for restoring healthy sleep patterns and negating, or at least minimising, the exhausting effects of crossing multiple time zones. It’s thought that synthetic (lab developed) melatonin provokes a cooling of the body’s core temperature, helping you to fall asleep faster, and possibly enabling you to sleep for longer. In this way, popping a melatonin pill or squirting a sublingual spray could help you to fall asleep when you’re travelling long haul and not accustomed to local time, or when you’ve put in a punishing night sleep and need to sleep despite the sun winking at you through the blinds. In theory, you’re hacking your body clock, but the implications and long-term effects still remain a mystery.

The snag with supplements

Even if you know precisely what you’re taking and you’ve been medically prescribed a dose of melatonin, doctors recommend taking it only as a short-term sleep aid. Even then, it’s use can be tricky to regulate, as knowing exactly when to take it to reap the rewards, and calculating when drowsiness will wear off thus enabling you to drive, for instance, can be an inexact science.

The main sticking point where melatonin supplements are concerned, however, is exactly that: bought online or smuggled in from the States, they’re classed as nutritional supplements, therefore not subject to strict and stringent medical regulation. Basically, you can’t be certain what’s gone into the making of a melatonin tincture being flogged online, so the melatonin dose could be higher than you bargained for, or the hormone could be intermingled with all sorts of other wacky ingredients. While the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence states that melatonin is safe to take in the short and medium term, using it for long periods, and definitely from a potentially suspicious source, may not be a go-er for sweet dreams, or good health.

Mother nature’s melatonin enhancers

As above, not all synthetic melatonin supplements are bad news for body and mind, but health and lifestyle changes are still the first port of call for most patients wanting to boost their melatonin levels. Modern life isn’t particularly conducive to that pea-sized gland getting going on the melatonin front (we doze in front of Netflix rather than bed down with the sun). Here are some diet and lifestyle tweaks that could make a difference. Some of them constitute plain old common sense, but your melatonin levels will thank you for sitting through the lecture.

Establish some sleepy self-discipline

Your mother nagged you to go to bed. She was right. GP  Dr Sohère Roked  encourages you to step away from the laptop and bed down before the witching hour:

“Our body gets confused if we vary our bedtime and waking hours too much. The key is to keep bedtime and waking time to within a couple of hours. We make most our melatonin between 10pm and 2am so try and get to bed by 11pm to get a good quota of melatonin and get a deeper sleep and the added effects of cellular regeneration overnight.”

No-phone zone

If you struggle to ban your phone from the bedroom, at least leave well alone when bedtime actually arrives. According to an Ofcom report last year, 79 per cent of us check our smartphones within one hour of turning our bedroom lights out, 28 per cent within five minutes of lights out and 53 per cent of us will reach for our devices within 15 minutes of waking. This Works  ambassador, neuroscientist and sleep medicine expert Professor Gaby Badre  explains why excessive phone use puts a dampener on melatonin:

“Exposure to blue light emitted from our technology devices in the evening inhibits the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, which can disturb our circadian rhythm.”

If nothing else, switch on your phone’s ‘Night Shift’ (most smartphones now have this app built-in) to minimise blue light thus not throwing your pineal gland into a spin. Schedule the switch for at least an hour before bed to reduce your chances of disturbed sleep. Or just leave your phone in the lounge. I dare you.

Cross over to the dark-side

Or just, you know, close your curtains, particularly if you live in an urban area troubled by light pollution. Modern life can essentially mean we’re under a lamp for 24 hours, and our melatonin doesn’t like it. Dim your lamps in the evening and invest in blackout blinds if you find you’re disturbed by external light. Also, don’t ‘lose the tired’ by switching on ALL of the lights in your house just to go for a wee in the night. You’re probably more familiar with the darkened route to the bathroom than you think. Trust your instincts for better sleep. Disclaimer: if stairs/obstacles/previous injuries are involved defo turn on the light. Boring old common sense again.

Eat your way to better sleep

Certain foods can encourage the production of melatonin in the body, as nutritionist Angelique Panagos  explains:

“We live in such a fast paced world that we can lose track of listening to our body, we lack energy and the risk of fatigue is heightened - the best way to make a bad food decision is when you are tired, which inevitably further contributes to the cycle of low energy. Burning the candle at both ends disrupts the balance between cortisol and melatonin which in turn leads to a restless night’s sleep. Try enjoying more magnesium  - research shows that low levels of this can cause SAD-like symptoms and fatigue. Pile plates high with magnesium-rich foods such as dark, leafy greens, nuts, avocado, wholegrains and even dark chocolate. Supplementing with B vitamins, passionflower and ginseng may be beneficial too.”

Nutritionist Shona Wilkinson  also advocates getting a high quality protein fill during the day to gently poke melatonin into action:

“Protein-rich foods provide the amino acid tryptophan, which converts to the hormones serotonin and melatonin, which is needed for good sleep. Avoid too much high-protein food in the last few hours before bed however, as they can be hard to digest – especially red meat and nuts.”

Turkey is a particular winner where melatonin production is concerned according to nutritionist  Marilyn Glenville , which may explain why you collapse coma-like after Christmas lunch:

“Turkey is often said to be a sleep-promoter, as it contains good levels of tryptophan, but it’s also a good source of zinc and vitamin B6, which are ‘cofactors’ that help the body to produce melatonin from tryptophan.”

Adding more zinc-rich foods to your menu could therefore help on the melatonin front. A woman cannot live on turkey alone- seafood, nuts and seeds are also good sources of zinc.

Finally, some troubled sleepers swear by a glass of tart cherry juice, or a supplement containing cherry, pre-bedtime, as pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health  Shabir Daya  highlights that they’re a natural source of melatonin, and also contain magnesium. Shabir recommends Viridian Cherry Night , £25.95, as a natural alternative to potentially iffy synthetic melatonin potions.

A quick personal ditty: I suffer from insomnia on a weekly basis, and have been spraying biocal labs ‘Something for Dreaming’ , €16.90, under my tongue half an hour before bed for a few days now to see what goes down. It contains melatonin alongside passionflower, lemon balm, lemon essential oil, vitamin B6 and vitamin B1 (I’ve always assumed that the B vits are the energiser bunnies of nutrients but…). I’ve been pretty much knocked out for the past three nights, in a gentle way, and woken feeling like a perky human. Entirely unscientific and totally anecdotal “trial”, but I’m intending to continue spritzing to see how long insomnia-gate is held for. Here’s hoping forever. Ironically considering the product name I have had NO dreams that I can recall since using it. Melatonin moves in mysterious ways…