Melatonin and sleep
When it comes to sleep, you’ve probably heard a lot about blue light from screens having a disruptive effect. But you shouldn’t get the idea that all light is bad for sleep.
In fact, your body uses light to help decide when it’s the right time to sleep - and it’s all to do with a little hormone called melatonin.
So what’s melatonin?
Simply put, melatonin is the hormone that tells your mind and body that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin is made in the pineal gland in the brain. Meanwhile, the part of your brain that triggers melatonin production is called the ‘suprachiasmatic nucleus’ (yep, long word). It sits right above where your optic nerves cross over (they’re the nerves that carry information from our eyes to our brains). It makes sense when you think about it, as melatonin production is triggered by falling light levels.
How does melatonin work?
When the light begins to fade, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, your body’s internal clock knows it’s time to wind down for bed. That’s because the falling light triggers rising melatonin levels - that’s your sleep hormone, remember. Your melatonin levels will stay high for all the time that it’s dark, then start to reduce in the morning as the sun rises. It’s one of the reasons you might wake up earlier in the summer).
How the seasons affect your sleep
During the winter, when the days are short and dark, you’re likely to produce melatonin at different times to the summer. Your melatonin levels will rise earlier (thanks to those 5pm sunsets) and fall later (which is why it’s so hard to drag yourself to work in the dark).
That’s why things can often feel harder in the winter. As well as feeling cold our natural sleep cycles are working against us, leading to things like tiredness and low mood.
Artificial light and melatonin production
Of course, things aren’t as simple anymore - we don’t rise with the sun and go to bed as soon as it’s dark. Lots of artificial light can make your brain act like it’s still daytime long into the evening. This is particularly true when you’re exposed to lots of the blue part of the light spectrum, which you get in spades from screens and devices. All of this can stop you producing the amount of melatonin that your body needs before bedtime.
Four ways to regulate your melatonin levels
So, we know that artificial light can mess with our body clocks - but it's not the end of the world. These are some things that you can do to help regulate that all-important melatonin production.
1. Use ‘night mode’ on your devices
Using ‘night shift’ settings, popping blue light filters on your devices and switching to amber-coloured mood lighting of an evening will all help. And if you can occasionally swap Netflix and Instagram for an old-school printed book, you’ll probably feel the benefit.
2. Set your body clock
It might seem like you need to avoid bright light at all times. Quite the contrary! Getting plenty of bright outdoor light when you’re supposed to - throughout the morning and early afternoon - can actually help regulate your body clock. So take your lunch break and get outside; you’ll benefit from the exercise and set yourself up for better sleep.
3. Get a sunrise lamp
Sunrise lamps can be lifesavers in winter, making it easier to get out of bed when it’s dark outside. You set it like an alarm clock, go to sleep, and are gradually woken by the lamp getting brighter in the morning. Most sunrise lamps also have a ‘sunset’ mode that helps you get to sleep, too. Look for one with a bulb that mimics sunlight for the best effect.
4. Eat melatonin-friendly food
You can also help support your body’s production of melatonin by eating some sleep-friendly foods. Sour cherry and pomegranate juices both naturally contain melatonin and you get some handy antioxidants too. Other foods you might have heard being recommended contain an amino acid called tryptophan, which is part of the melatonin production process. That’s the list that includes turkey and chicken, seafood, dairy, eggs and pulses. And if you’ve heard of the happiness hormone serotonin, well, that actually gets turned into melatonin. So eating foods that contain it, like kiwis, could help provide a boost.
Should I take melatonin supplements?
Artificial melatonin supplements work simply by raising your melatonin levels, encouraging your body to want to sleep.
Unlike the US, where melatonin supplements are available over the counter (in fact, you can even get them in gummy sweet and chocolates), melatonin is only available by prescription in the UK (more on that from the NHS). So if you have trouble sleeping, chat to your GP instead - there are many things they can do to help, and suggesting melatonin supplements is only one possible avenue.
So there you have it - our simple guide to melatonin, light, and sleep. While you’re here, why not check out our mattresses? If they don’t help you get a better night’s sleep, we’ll eat our hats.