Not only is melatonin the biological timekeeper for our bodies, responsible for the wake/sleep cycles, but it also has a close relationship with cortisol, our stress hormone. Insomniacs, shift workers, and travellers may want to know more about this essential hormone.
Many triggers can inhibit proper melatonin production. Exposure to light or electromagnetic radiation can cause an imbalance in the body. To optimize melatonin levels, sleep in a darkened room two and a half feet away from electrical outlets or devices such as electric radio alarm clocks or electric blankets.
The Hormone Relationship
Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, which converts serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan to melatonin. The pineal gland sits at the base of the brain and creates a chemical signal from changes in light from the environment. This chemical signal imposes a circadian rhythm on the body. In a healthy body, a 24-hour-cycle shows the highest levels of melatonin production at approximately 3 am, while we sleep in darkness.
Normally, melatonin levels increase just before we go to bed and decrease just after we wake up. The stress hormone cortisol has the opposite rhythm–it rises just before we wake up and reaches its low point just before we go to bed. Our health suffers when the pattern of these two hormones is misaligned.
We can optimize our melatonin levels by maintaining an adequate dietary intake of tryptophan, which has been shown to increase blood melatonin levels fourfold.
Melatonin for Jet Lag
When you experience a rapid change of time zones, it can take several days for the internal body rhythms to resynchronize with the external rhythms of the new destination. The resulting symptoms, known as jet lag, include increased fatigue and irritability, loss of concentration, and disrupted sleeping patterns.
In some cases, melatonin has been shown to be an effective aid in speeding up the adaptive shift to ease or prevent jet lag. A study divided 52 airline cabin crew members on an international flight into three groups. The first group received 5 mg of melatonin three days prior to departure, throughout the duration of time at the destination, and for another five days after their return home. The second group received a placebo for three days before departure, then 5 mg of melatonin for five days at the new destination. The third group received placebo. Group two experienced a better recovery than group one. This suggests that the best way to use melatonin for jetlag symptoms is to take 5 mg in the evening at the new destination for five days.
When Levels are Low
Melatonin is often discussed in relation to insomnia, but it does not act like a sleeping pill; therefore, it only helps when low melatonin secretion is the cause of insomnia. This is because of the way melatonin acts normally in our bodies, rising just before we go to bed. However, low melatonin levels are a known cause of insomnia in the elderly. Dosages of 1 mg or 2 mg of melatonin are given two hours prior to sleep for one week. Time-released melatonin has shown better results on sleep maintenance.
A Help for Cancer
Melatonin has been shown to inhibit several hormone-based cancers such as breast and prostate. Blood studies show an average of 30 to 40 percent less melatonin in cancer patients than in people who are cancer-free at similar ages. Melatonin acts as a first-line defence in response to malignant breast cell growth by stimulating cancer cells to differentiate as normal cells. Melatonin also competes with estrogen for the receptor sites and has been shown to block estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer cells. In addition, melatonin can help counter chemotherapy-induced weight loss, but it does not help with the nausea or hair loss.
All hormones are reliant on one another within the body, and for optimal functioning, balance is key. If you would like to check your levels of melatonin and cortisol, ask your naturopathic doctor for the salivary hormone test.
Foods high in tryptophan are:
- soy flour
- soy nuts
- cottage cheese
Nutrients involved in conversion reactions include: B3, B6, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.