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Melatonin is a hormone primarily made by the pineal gland in the brain, although some is also produced in the gut. As the sun sets and darkness falls, the hypothalamus signals the gland to ramp up melatonin production. In turn, the hormone sends a clear signal to the brain and body to get ready for sleep.

You can find melatonin in many pharmacies alongside other sleep aids, but it doesn’t operate in the same way as those that offer sedation. “A common misconception people have is that melatonin is a sedative that will put you to sleep,” says Lindsay ­Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN, a functional nutritionist in Conifer, Colo.

In fact, melatonin serves to regulate the body’s sleep–wake cycle and circadian rhythms, she explains. That means if someone’s sleep problems are related to stress or cortisol levels instead of a disrupted circadian rhythm, melatonin probably won’t help. (For more on circadian health, see “Get in Sync: On Sleep and Health“.)

“A common misconception people have is that melatonin is a sedative that will put you to sleep.”

“Think of sleep as the Olympic 100-meter race,” suggests neuroscientist Matthew Walker, PhD, in his book Why We Sleep. “Melatonin is the voice of the timing official that says, ‘Runners, on your mark,’ and then fires the starting pistol.” Melatonin governs when the race begins, but the runners are “other brain regions and processes that actively generate sleep.”

To make melatonin, the body first converts tryptophan into the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin; serotonin is then converted into melatonin. “Melatonin is the end product of a long-chain chemical reaction,” Haas explains.

We have to get tryptophan from food. Sources include leafy greens, sunflower seeds, eggs, cheese, fish, and, famously, turkey (which many credit with their need for a postdinner nap on Thanksgiving).

While melatonin is best known for its capacity to help with sleep, it also supports other functions. “Melatonin is a potent antioxidant,” says Haas, noting that it’s sometimes used in holistic cancer treatment to reduce side effects from radiation and chemotherapy.

It also, somewhat mysteriously, may help treat acid reflux. And it’s been shown to ease the symptoms of acute COVID-19 (and may benefit those with long COVID as well) — possibly because of its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-­modulating effects.

[Melatonin is] sometimes used in holistic cancer treatment to reduce side effects from radiation and chemotherapy.

Whole-Food Sources: Nuts, milk, fish, eggs, and goji berries all contain melatonin. Tart cherries are one of the most potent sources, and drinking tart-cherry juice has been found to improve sleep. Kiwifruit, meanwhile, is a great source of food-based serotonin — an important ingredient in the melatonin-production cycle.

Supplements: Melatonin supplements are safe and well-tolerated by most people. Still, relying on them for the long term may disrupt the body’s melatonin-producing pathway. And if melatonin drops off, rebound wakefulness can occur.

Supplements may be best used to adjust the timing of the sleep–wake cycle. They can be particularly helpful for shift workers or international travelers whose circadian rhythms need a nudge, says nutritionist Karman Meyer, RD, LDN, author of Eat to Sleep.

Taking 1 to 3 mg of melatonin about an hour before bedtime can signal to the body that it’s time to wind down. (You can also experiment to find timing that’s right for you — some people do better taking melatonin about 30 minutes before bed.)

“Melatonin is great in the short term — it’s a great way to get over the hump of jet lag,” Meyer says. “If you’re trying to establish a regular sleep pattern, some people might use it for up to two years. But for most, it’s more like a month or two.” She notes that long-term use can sometimes lead to headaches, grogginess, depression, or dizziness.

Although supplementing is a useful tool, most experts suggest that the goal is to support the body’s ability to produce its own melatonin. “As with digestive enzymes or acids, we can take these things supplementally for a period of time to regulate the mechanisms those compounds support, but we ultimately want the body to make them,” Haas says. 

This was excerpted from “Which Nutrients and Supplements Can Help Me Sleep?” which was published in the October 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Mo Perry

Mo Perry is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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