Getting a good night’s sleep is imperative for optimum health, yet for many of us this isn’t always an easy task. Whilst we may climb into bed exhausted from our busy schedule, it is not uncommon to lay awake unable to nod off. Our hectic lifestyles may well be contributing to our inability to sleep, but if our internal clock malfunctions then sleep will definitely be elusive. This ‘clock’ is regulated by the hormone melatonin and levels of this hormone increase as light decreases, reaching maximal levels between 2- 4am to produce a natural circadian rhythm that induces us to sleep at night and then awake (refreshed) in the morning. When your body is producing adequate levels of melatonin you will fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer; anything that disrupts melatonin production will therefore interfere with this normal sleep-wake cycle. If you have trouble nodding off at night, there may be some simple changes you can make to both your diet and lifestyle to optimise melatonin production, therefore helping to improve your natural sleep patterns.
Create the best atmosphere for sleep
It may well have been a hectic day, but if you think that snuggling up in bed and watching a late film is a good way to wind down before sleeping then you’d be wrong; any blue light emitting device (this includes phones, tablets, computers and TVs) suppresses melatonin production by fooling the brain into thinking that it is daytime, thus making us feel more alert than if we’d been lying in bed! If you stay up late working, watching TV or playing online games then you will be preventing the natural process of melatonin production. The top tip here is that bedrooms should be for two things only – one of them is sleeping and the other one should leave you sleepy, so leave the gadgets downstairs! The best way to encourage melatonin release at night is to lower the lighting for a while before bedtime (maybe a hot bath to relax) and make sure you sleep in complete darkness. If you do need to get up in the night, try to avoid putting on bright lights (unless you plan to stay up!) as even short periods of exposure to light during the night hours can be disruptive to normal circadian rhythms. Interestingly, and according to a recent 2014 Ofcom report , around 2 in 5 children aged between 12 and 15 years have a PC/laptop/netbook-based internet access in the bedroom, and just over half have a television in the bedroom; the exposure to blue light is thus likely to contribute to poor sleep quality by disrupting melatonin production. Parents may be wise to pull the plug at bedtime or limit media/television to communal areas only.
Boosting melatonin through diet: what to eat and what to avoid
Eat tryptophan-rich foods
Adequate melatonin production is dependent upon availability of its precursor tryptophan, which first converts to 5-HTP then to serotonin (the happy hormone), and finally to melatonin. Diet can either prevent or optimise both serotonin and melatonin production. As an essential amino acid, tryptophan must be supplied by the diet and, if intake is severely restricted, production of melatonin is significantly reduced. Ensure your diet is ‘tryptophan-rich’ by including foods such as turkey, chicken, red meat, cheese and eggs. Whilst animal products are generally the richest source of tryptophan, there are a number of non-animal sources such as seaweed, soy and dark green vegetables that will provide adequate amounts of tryptophan. Green vegetables such as spinach and Swiss chard are also rich in magnesium, which is well documented as a relaxant, able to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can be extremely beneficial for inducing that calm, sleepy feeling. It’s worth noting that the conversion of tryptophan to melatonin is governed by several enzyme mediated steps, and it is important to include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables as these will provide the vital cofactors required to ensure that the enzymes function at their best. For an essential top-up, our Super B-Complex provides all the important B- vitamins required in their active, ‘body-ready’ functional states. Alternatively, by supplementing directly with 5-HTP (an amino acid found in abundance in the griffonia seed), it is possible to bypass the tryptophan to serotonin step. 5-HTP has documented benefits, not only for managing sleep disorders, but also for managing symptoms related to depression, anxiety and even migraine.
Have a milky drink at bed time
Whilst tryptophan foods can boost melatonin levels, there are foods that are direct sources of this important sleep hormone. Melatonin is, for example, naturally found in milk and a steaming hot cup of cocoa last thing at night might just be the ticket for helping towards a good night’s sleep. Interestingly, studies have shown that the presence of melatonin in human milk (which is highest at evening and during the night) may contribute to the improved sleep patterns seen in breastfed infants over formula fed infants. Whilst formula milk doesn’t directly contain melatonin, the newer tryptophan-enriched formulas may help to improve sleep patterns in non-breast fed infants by providing the building blocks required for melatonin production.
Alcohol disrupts melatonin production
Many of us will be able to recall at least one time when we have been to a party, had one drink too many and fallen asleep, only to wake up rather too early and feeling extremely tired! Alcohol is known to disrupt normal sleep patterns and this may be due, in part, to the impact on melatonin levels. Alcohol causes both a decrease in tryptophan and blood-glucose levels (both of which are required for melatonin production) and the consequence is disrupted sleep. Hot milk and honey at bed time can help ensure a good night’s sleep.
Caffeine at bedtime is a big no-no!
It’s well known that caffeine is a stimulant and can have the opposite effect of melatonin in your body. Studies show that caffeine at bedtime causes a decrease in the total amount of sleep and quality of sleep, and increases the length of time taken to fall asleep. If you really fancy that last cup of tea of coffee, it’s best to switch to decaf and save the heavy stuff until the morning!
‘Owls’ vs ‘larks’
Some people are natural morning people (larks), preferring to sleep and rise early, whilst others may prefer to stay up late and rise late (owls). It is important to highlight here that in the majority of cases, both chronotypes do have normal circadian rhythms. For example, if someone used to staying up until 1am and waking up at 9am begins a new job in which they must get up at 6am, they will adapt to the new sleeping pattern, a process known as ‘advancing the sleep phase’. The night ‘owl’ should not be confused with shift work, or night shifts where the circadian rhythm is disrupted to such an extreme that individuals will have trouble getting to sleep and when they do, sleep is often of poor quality. The issue is of course related to changes or fluctuations in normal melatonin production. Whilst shift workers can be advised to avoid factors that will inhibit melatonin production (bright lights, caffeine and so on) and increase intake of foods that will enhance melatonin production, they may be the ideal candidate for melatonin supplements. If you decide to try melatonin supplements it is best to take a few hours before bedtime. Doses of between 2-5mg appear to be effective, however the environmental conditions are also very important and may dictate the effectiveness of any given dose. For example, the best results are obtained when the supplements are taken in bed with the lights off or dimmed.
As we age, we naturally produce less melatonin and therefore sleep less. Calcification of the pineal gland, whereby small calcium deposits build up (a normal process of aging), can affect the pineal gland’s ability to produce melatonin which may explain why elderly people often struggle to sleep or suffer from insomnia. Foods containing melatonin or promoting the synthesis of melatonin by impacting the availability of tryptophan, as well those containing the vitamins and minerals needed as co-factors and activators in the synthesis of melatonin, can improve both the quality and ability to fall asleep. In extreme cases where melatonin is simply not produced, or produced in insignificant amounts, the use of supplements may be an appropriate ‘top-up’.
- Ofcom: Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report. Oct 2014
- Arendt J, Skene DJ. Melatoninas a chronobiotic. Sleep Med Rev. 2005 Feb;9(1):25-39. Review.