Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland located in the brain. It helps regulate the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin levels naturally rise in the evening, making us feel tired and ready for sleep. During the daytime, our melatonin levels are lower, keeping us alert.
Getting enough melatonin from food sources can help support better quality sleep. While some people choose to take melatonin supplements, foods are the best natural sources. In this blog post, we will discuss what melatonin is, how it affects the body, and identify the top 10 foods highest in this sleep-inducing hormone.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland and is involved in regulating circadian rhythm and sleep cycles. During darkness, the pineal gland produces more melatonin, which makes us feel tired and ready for sleep.
Melatonin levels typically rise in the evening beginning around 9 pm, peak between 2-4 am, and then decline in the morning allowing us to wake up. Exposure to light, especially blue light from screens, suppresses the pineal gland from producing melatonin at night.
How Melatonin Affects the Body
Melatonin has some key effects on the body:
- Induces sleepiness and promotes sleep. When levels rise at night, melatonin makes us feel sleepy and tells the body it's time to rest.
- Helps regulate circadian rhythm. Melatonin signals to the body when it's time to sleep and wake in sync with daylight hours. This circadian rhythm impacts many physiological functions.
- May promote better quality sleep. Higher nighttime melatonin levels are associated with less nighttime awakenings, faster sleep onset, and feeling more rested.
- Acts as an antioxidant. Melatonin works as a powerful antioxidant, helping reduce oxidative stress in the body. This provides anti-aging benefits.
- May boost immunity. Some evidence suggests melatonin may support immune system function and help fight infections.
- May help alleviate depression. Low melatonin levels have been linked to mood disorders like depression. Supplements may benefit some individuals.
Blue Light Exposure and Melatonin Suppression
One major factor impacting melatonin levels is exposure to blue light, especially in the evening hours before bed. Blue light is high in the visible light spectrum between 415-495 nanometers.
Our eyes contain specialized retina cells called photoreceptors that are sensitive to blue light wavelengths. When these cells are exposed to blue light at night, they suppress melatonin production by sending signals to the brain.
Common sources of blue light that disrupt circadian rhythms include:
- LED/LCD computer, smartphone and tablet screens. Electronics emit high levels of blue light.
- Fluorescent overhead lighting. Bulbs contain blue-dominant light.
- Energy-efficient LED lights. Much LED lighting includes blue wavelengths.
Studies show just two hours of evening screen time decreases nighttime melatonin by over 20%. Dimming blue light emissions on devices or using apps/glasses can help reduce this suppression effect. Minimizing screen use before bed is recommended.
How Sleep Deprivation Impacts the Brain
Sleep is essential for physical and mental well-being, yet many people skimp on shut-eye. Lack of sleep negatively impacts brain function in several ways:
- Impairs memory and learning. During sleep, the brain consolidates new memories and information learned during the day. Sleep deprivation hinders this process.
- Reduces focus and concentration. When tired, it's difficult to focus attention on tasks and filter out distractions.
- Slows reaction time. Processing speed and reaction times are diminished without sufficient slumber. This poses risks when driving or operating machinery.
- Damages emotional well-being. Poor sleep elevates stress hormones like cortisol and is linked to mood disorders like depression.
- Contributes to weight gain. Lack of sleep disrupts metabolism and hormone levels, increasing appetite and obesity risk.
- Increases disease risk. Getting insufficient shut-eye is tied to health issues like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
- Ages the brain faster. Well-rested brains maintain neural connections and normal cellular maintenance, while sleep loss accelerates brain aging.
Making sure to get the recommended 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night is crucial for cognitive function, mental health and longevity. Consumption of foods containing melatonin aids better sleep.
Diet's Role in Sleep
Nutrition plays an important role in sleep quality. Specific dietary patterns, nutrients and foods have been shown to impact melatonin levels and promote better rest:
- Low carbohydrate, high protein diets. Meals higher in protein and lower in carbs before bed elicit a calming metabolic response.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Fish like salmon contain omega-3s EPA and DHA tied to improved sleep architecture and duration.
- Magnesium. This mineral supports relaxation and research links deficiency to sleep issues.
- Tryptophan. The amino acid tryptophan produces serotonin and melatonin. Turkey, cheese and eggs contain tryptophan.
- Herbal extracts. Supplements with herbs such as valerian root, chamomile or passionflower may aid sleep onset.
- Foods high in melatonin. Specific plant foods naturally contain melatonin including cherries, banana, olive oil and walnuts.
Eating a balanced diet rich in these sleep-promoting nutrients, avoiding late meals and limiting stimulants before bed all help regulate natural melatonin rhythms.
Food Helps Regulate Our Circadian Rhythm
Diet plays an important role in synchronizing our internal body clocks and circadian rhythms. Certain foods actually contain melatonin or stimulate its production in the pineal gland. Consuming these foods in the evening aligns our physiology to feel sleepy at nighttime hours.
Our circadian clocks detect changes in daylight to signal when it's time to sleep and wake up. But in modern lifestyles, we often expose ourselves to artificial lighting at all times of day disrupting these systems. Eating foods containing melatonin when the sun goes down sends hormonal cues to relax and prepare for slumber.
Having melatonin-rich foods as part of a balanced evening meal routine can help strengthen circadian signaling without the need for supplements. It's a natural way the body regulates sleep-wake cycles in harmony with sunlight exposure. Choosing these high-melatonin foods may boost sleep quality.
Do I need a melatonin supplement?
For most healthy individuals, getting melatonin from whole foods is sufficient to support circadian function and sleep needs. However, supplements may be considered in certain cases:
- Shift workers. Rotating shift schedules disrupt body clocks requiring additional hormonal assistance.
- Those experiencing jet lag. Crossing time zones impairs circadian adjustment benefitting from temporary supplementation.
- Seniors. Aging brings natural reductions in melatonin production putting elders at risk for insomnia.
- Insomniacs. Chronic sleep disorders may call for monitored therapeutic doses under medical guidance.
- Those highly exposed to screens. People spending many hours on devices each day suppress levels considerably.
When taken properly, melatonin supplements appear to be relatively safe for short-term use. But overall studies show dietary sources provide complementary benefit to overall health without risk of side effects. Starting with lifestyle and food changes is usually the best first approach.