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Sleep, Part 2: Melatonin

orange moon This post is chock-full of scientific mind cookies, but hopefully you enjoy understanding the why and how of things, like I do.

Ever wondered why earth’s natural night-light, the moon, is so much more understated than the daylight we get from our Sun? One reason is that light influences our natural circadian rhythms, even in such high functioning areas as hormone levels and neurotransmitters. When sunlight hits the retina of the eye, a shift occurs and all the systems of the body recognize that it’s time to rise and shine.

Later, as the sun dips below the horizon, the body responds to the diminishing light by preparing for rest and repair. One of the key players in this preparation is the body’s production of a powerful hormone, Melatonin. What have scientists discovered about this amazing substance?

  • It is greatly assistive in Immune function
  • It has a major role in the production of sexual hormones Estrogen and Testosterone
  • It’s one of the most powerful antioxidants ever discovered: even more powerful than Vitamin C. Antioxidants help minimize oxidative stress reactions which are known to play a role in Heart Disease, Hypertension, Age-Related Cognitive decline, high cholesterol levels, and Cancer
  • It’s a body-made, side-effect-free sleep aid
  • PMS symptoms can be reduced in some women by addressing melatonin levels

Studies have shown that melatonin production is highest in the young, and drops as we age, as do all our hormone levels. Interestingly, Harvard Medical School has discovered that Aspirin reduces melatonin levels.

But how is melatonin actually made in the body? An amino acid, Tryptophan, is converted into 5HTP, which is then converted into serotonin, and finally into melatonin. For the scientifically curious among you, here’s a map:

But wait, you say, isn’t serotonin our natural antidepressant? Indeed it is.  Serotonin is one of our most important neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the most powerful substances in the body, as electro-chemical signals, they are where the action is. We ‘spend’ our serotonin when we experience events where we feel we have no control, i.e., other people’s behaviors, mean bosses, bullies. We also expend serotonin when we feel a sense of dissatisfaction about our own life. In a perfect world, we would have enough serotonin to cover all of those emotional expenditures, and then there would be a little serotonin left over from which the body could make its nightly melatonin.

However, it’s no news flash that we don’t live in a perfect world, and most of us are quite overspent in the serotonin department, which leads to diminished melatonin levels. DISCLAIMER: this article is not an endorsement to run out and stock up on tryptophan, 5HTP, or melatonin. These are powerful substances, and should not be used by anyone without qualified professional instruction. 

Now, back to our moon: before the beginning of the Twentieth Century, artificial light was a rare and often experimental experience. Most homes didn’t start to incorporate incandescent bulbs until about a hundred years ago. The book “Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival” by TS Wiley does a great job of explaining how this societal change has profoundly altered our melatonin levels, sleep and body chemistry.

To counteract these influences, home-brew (body-made) melatonin can be improved by following the same habits and suggestions discussed in our first article on sleep, here: