Do you often find yourself overtired, but too wired to get a good, restful night’s sleep? In our electronically overstimulated and illuminated world, it’s not uncommon. Many factors can contribute to sleeplessness, but a lack of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep patterns, is often the culprit.
Melatonin is often called the "Dracula of hormones" because its production is stimulated by the dark and suppressed by the light. The retinas in the eyes have specialized light receptors that relay messages to a cluster of nerves in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN sets our internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which regulates important bodily functions like sleep. As nighttime arrives and it becomes dark, the SCN tells the pineal gland to produce melatonin (from the amino acid tryptophan), which then prompts the body to sleep. Normally, melatonin levels stay elevated for about 12 hours – through the night – until dawn, when production slows down. More recently, it was discovered that melatonin is also produced in the stomach and intestines. In fact, gastrointestinal tissue produces 400 times more melatonin than the pineal gland, largely influencing gut health. More on that later…
When it comes to promoting healthy sleep patterns, melatonin can be especially helpful for those who have a hard time falling asleep and wake up feeling tired and groggy, work night shifts, or travelers who may experience jet lag. Specifically, melatonin can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and increase the amount of time spent sleeping.[Ref 1] In general, it helps to reset your body’s internal clock, promoting healthy sleep patterns.
Typical doses to promote healthy sleep are from .5 to 3 mg (up to, but not exceeding 5mg), taken 30 minutes to one hour before bedtime. Always start with the lowest dose, working your way up to the dose that works for you. Keep in mind that melatonin supplementation is only effective if low melatonin levels are the issue;[Ref 2] in other words, it is not like taking a sleeping pill.[Ref 3] Additionally, it is not meant to be used as a long-term sleep aid, but as a short-term tool for re-setting your internal clock to promote healthy sleep patterns.
In addition to its role in promoting healthy sleep patterns, melatonin also plays an important role in gut health. It regulates peristalsis and bowel movements; protects gut mucosa; promotes healthy function of the lower esophageal sphincter (which may prevent acid reflux); promotes healthy circulation in the gut; and acts as an antioxidant. Melatonin seems to play such an important role in gut health that some nutritionally-oriented doctors are using it to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), GERD, gastric ulcers, and colitis.[Ref 4]
In a world full of electronic stimuli and artificial light, it is not uncommon to lack healthy levels of melatonin. Supplementation can help the body reset its internal clock, promoting healthy sleep patterns. Melatonin can also be of use in supporting gut health in a number of ways. So whether you want to promote better sleep, feel better rested when traveling, or support the health of your gut, give melatonin supplementation a try – it’s more than a shot in the dark!
Note: It is suggested to talk with a practitioner before using if you are pregnant, lactating, have an autoimmune disorder, depression, diabetes, or other endocrine disorders.
 Brzezinski A, Vangel MG, Wurtman RJ, et al. Effects of exogenous melatonin on sleep: a meta-analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2005 Feb;9(1):41-50
 Michael Murray, ND., Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements.(New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996), 351-355.
 Sheldon Saul Hendler, PDR for Nutritional Supplements, 2nd Ed., (New Jersey: Physicians’ Desk Reference, 2008), 421-422.