The effect of the hormone melatonin determines our sleep. But how does it control the processes in our body? How can we influence our sleep pattern? And why is sleep so important?
The fact that we can enjoy a good and relaxing sleep is thanks to the hormone with the gentle name, melatonin. As the effect of this messenger substance is similar to that of a sleep remedy, it is also referred to as the sleep hormone.
In darkness, our body produces the hormone in the pineal gland. This is located in our diencephalon above the mesencephalon. It is hardly any bigger than a pea. The hormone melatonin, which the pineal gland produces from the hormone serotonin, is released into the blood and makes us sleepy.
Restful sleep regenerates body and mind and improves performance. The key functions:
In general, the messenger substance begins to be distributed between 7.30 p.m. and 9.30 p.m. It then increases rapidly. The effect: you suddenly feel tired. In a healthy body, melatonin levels remain heightened during the course of the night. Generally speaking, levels reach their highest between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. This can vary depending on the season, however.
When it becomes lighter again the following morning, the production of melatonin is reduced and we gently wake from our sleep. The melatonin levels in our blood, which decline during the morning hours, are hardly measurable any more at around 9 a.m. As a rule, they remain at this low level throughout the day. In winter, when daylight is in short supply, it may also increase slightly in the daytime. Possible consequences: tiredness or even depression.
There are various means and ways to promote more peaceful sleep during the night. The three below help to stabilise your sleep-wake rhythm as follows:
One option is to take melatonin preparations. Here, however, you need to know your individual rhythm. You therefore need to be aware of the time at which the level of your body’s own sleep hormone begins to rise. To find this out, you are best advised to contact a centre for sleep medicine. Here, the increase in melatonin and/or your sleeping pattern will be determined on the basis of surveys or measurements. If you want to move your sleeping pattern forward or back, take the active ingredient five hours before or ten hours after the time at which hormone production increases.
Melatonin preparations only help, however, if you adhere to a rigid time plan: as melatonin acts as an internal clock, the tablets always have to be taken at precisely the same time. This allows you to get your sleep pattern back on track. The preparations also help if you want to shift your sleep pattern – for instance in the event of jet lag or if you are working a night shift. They are not suitable, however, for treating people experiencing difficulties falling to sleep or sleeping through.
As darkness and light promote and inhibit melatonin production, respectively, you can shift your sleeping pattern by adjusting light levels. For example, light during the early morning serves to suppress the production of the messenger substance. You then wake up earlier but are also tired again at an earlier time the following evening. Light in the evening, on the other hand, pushes your sleep pattern back: you go to bed later but also sleep longer in the morning.
Bananas are rich in L-tryptophan, an amino acid that the body converts into the sleep hormone melatonin. Those who struggle to get a relaxing night’s sleep can therefore simply try out bananas as a solution.
Many people suffer from sleep problems. Older people, in particular, are affected as the body produces less and less melatonin in old age. It is for this reason that the average time we sleep falls as we grow older.
Problems with sleep also affect people who often travel to countries in different time zones and suffer from jet lag, as well as people who work shifts. They can be helped, for example, by taking synthetic supplements of the sleep hormone.
Melatonin preparations can help in the short term to get a disrupted sleep pattern and thus our internal body clock back on track. Although its sleep-promoting effect can be a blessing, there are a couple of important points to bear in mind. Otherwise, there is the risk of unpleasant side effects.
Alongside their positive effect, melatonin tablets can in some cases also have undesired side effects – for example if the taken dosage is too high. These side effects include:
In addition to the possible side effects, the medication may also influence the effect of other drugs. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take melatonin tablets under any circumstances. Those who drive cars or operate machines must also be careful. A dosage in the wrong amount or at the wrong time can mean you are overcome by sleep during the day.
Clinical studies have shown that the hormone is the body’s strongest own antioxidant. It can prevent the undesired effect of free radicals that emerge as a result of nicotine, alcohol or harmful environmental influences. The hormone binds to them, making them harmless. Following this process, they are excreted by the body.
The processes in our body take place according to the so-called circadian rhythm. This corresponds to a period of around 24 hours. A consequence of this is, among other things, our sleep-wake rhythm. Our biorhythm, which is specified by our internal body clock, controls processes within the body. This includes body temperature, the stress hormone cortisol as well as the hormone melatonin. The latter is not only important for a good sleep. In particular, it helps the body to regenerate. The messenger substance protects the cells, especially the sensitive nucleus, and thus strengthens the immune system.
If the production of melatonin is too weak, this automatically gives rise to increased attacks by free radicals. This speeds up our body’s aging process. In order to combat signs of aging, we therefore need to take good care to ensure that we get enough sleep. If our sleep is disrupted, it is thus important to re-establish our normal sleep pattern as quickly as possible.
Daniela Janssen (lic. Phil. somnologist and psychotherapist FSP) is a member of the Specialist Somnology Team at the Zentrum für Schlafmedizin Hirslanden Zürich (centre of somnology). She advises adults, young people and children with sleeping disorders. As a psychotherapist, she also works in her own practice. Daniela Janssen was available to the editorial team in an advisory and editorial capacity for this article.
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