Melatonin is one of most exciting supplements available for health and body composition. The cool thing about melatonin is that although it is a hormone produced endogenously inside the body (best known for inducing sleep), supplementing appears to be completely safe.
Other hormonal substances that can improve body composition can dangerously impair blood sugar metabolism or harm liver and kidney health. Melatonin, on the other hand, is a very safe supplement, with trials lasting up to two years reporting no side effects or toxicity. Also, despite possible rumors you may have heard, there’s no evidence that using melatonin suppresses the body’s own production of melatonin.
Two studies reveal some pretty powerful benefits of melatonin that everyone should know about. This article will review the research and give you the rundown on what melatonin is and how to best use it.
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by your pineal gland, which is extremely sensitive to light. Darkness triggers melatonin release, which makes you drowsy. Bright light suppresses melatonin production, which helps you stay alert.
This is the reason it’s important to avoid screen exposure from TV, a computer, or your phone in the hour before bedtime. It’s also why you'll sleep better if you make your room very dark and why taking a walk in the bright sunlight is one of the best ways to reset your body clock when things are a little out of whack such as if you’re jet lagged.
Melatonin is also found in foods, including tomatoes, walnuts, flaxseeds, tart cherries, almonds, raspberries, and milk. Interestingly, studies have shown that milk that is collected at night can improve sleep and reduce anxiety more than anti-anxiety medication. Called “night milk,” it contains ten times as much melatonin and 25 percent more tryptophan than milk collected from cows during the day.
Tart cherry juice is another supplemental food that can improve sleep quality in a variety of subjects including those with insomnia. Tart cherries are packed with anti-inflammatory compounds, which may impact sleep, but researchers think the melatonin concentration has something to do with the improvements as well.
Athletes Benefit With Enhanced Circadian Rhythms & Better Sleep
Many people report that recreational exercise improves sleep by enhancing hypothalamic-pituitary function in the brain. However, athletes who train intensely are at risk of poor sleep and altered circadian rhythm, especially if they are under high life stress or have to travel across time zones for competition. Consider that good sleep is probably the single best recovery strategy available to athletes and you can see how lack of it may compromise optimal performance.
A group of researchers from Spain decided to test whether melatonin supplementation could improve sleep in athletes by enhancing circadian function. They took young men who were serious lifters and had them take either 100 mg of melatonin or a placebo an hour before bedtime for four weeks.
Results showed that the melatonin group improved their sleep efficiency and had enhanced circadian function compared to the placebo group. It’s thought that by raising the athletes’ melatonin levels, there was increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of rest and recovery processes in the body. This appeared to allow for both a deeper and longer sleep cycle in the athletes.
There were no reports of fatigue, reduced vigilance, or decreased vigor during the daytime in the melatonin group. Nor did the melatonin treatment increase nap length or the percentage of subjects who took naps. Researchers conclude that melatonin is safe and beneficial for athletes to improve their sleep-wake cycle.
Women Benefit With Greater Lean Mass & 7 Percent Less Body Fat
When women go through menopause, an increase in body fat and decrease in lean mass characterized by a loss of bone density is almost guaranteed. Supplemental melatonin may be a solution. In a recent study from Denmark, post-menopausal women with low bone density were given either a placebo or 1 or 3 mg of melatonin for 12 months.
There was no exercise or diet intervention in this study. The women just kept on doing whatever they were doing before the study started. Researchers pooled the results from both melatonin doses and found that body fat decreased by 7.2 percent and lean mass increased by 2.6 percent in the combined melatonin group compared to the placebo group.
Based on previous studies that show melatonin can improve bone density, scientists hypothesize that the increase in lean mass in this study comes due to stronger bones. The mechanism behind fat loss may be a combination of better circadian function and improved blood sugar tolerance, which in turn leads to better lipid metabolism and lower insulin.
When biorhythms improve, people tend to be more active (potentially burning more energy daily) and hunger is reduced (potentially reducing calorie intake, especially of unhealthy foods).
Additional Health Benefits Of Melatonin
Chances are you’re intrigued by melatonin supplementation and want to know what other benefits may be out there. Here are a few reasons you may want to consider supplementation:
- Studies show that melatonin supplementation can improve most aspects of metabolic health including lowering blood pressure, insulin, and triglycerides, while improving glucose tolerance.
- Melatonin has been found to decrease heartburn and lower symptoms of GERD.
- It’s been found to reduce DOMS muscle soreness, while lowering exercise induced oxidative stress.
- Melatonin supplementation is linked with better cancer survival rates and it may help fight malignancies related to cancer.
- It has protective effects on the brain and may reduce Alzheimer’s progression and migraines.
How To Take Melatonin
It’s very important that everyone understand that melatonin should only be taken at night right before bedtime. Melatonin should not be treated like a sleeping pill that you can take when you want a nap. Taking it at any other time than at night before bed goes against the body’s natural circadian cycle and has been found to significantly lower insulin sensitivity and reduce glucose tolerance.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can look at how to benefit. For better sleep, supplementing with 1 to 6 mg has been found to be beneficial. Body composition and the other benefits detailed in this article can likely be achieved from a dose in that range.
Higher doses may be well tolerated and beneficial (remember, the Spanish study that used athletes went for a high dose of 100 mg a day), however, this is the first study of its kind and it’s premature to recommend it, especially when smaller doses have been shown to be very effective at improving sleep.
You’ve also got the option of boosting melatonin levels through diet. Supplementing with two 8-ounce servings of tart cherry juice (one in the morning and one in the evening before bed) was found to improve sleep in adults with insomnia.
Drinking night milk is another option, though only if you milk your own cows or have some other source of milk that is collected at night. Night milk is available for sale in Germany and will likely become globally available once the word spreads of its benefits.
Finally, it should be noted that certain populations may benefit more from melatonin supplementation:
- Individuals over age 35 are likely to benefit because melatonin production falls with age, which is one reason that older people tend not to sleep as well.
- Beta-blockers suppress melatonin release and lead to negative changes in REM sleep. Supplementing with melatonin when taking beta-blockers has been found to reverse the REM changes.
- Melatonin has been found to reduce ADHD and improve sleep in kids as young as 6. Naturally, if you are considering giving melatonin to your child, you should consult a doctor prior to supplementation.
- Melatonin can help combat jetlag. Take it only at night about an hour before bedtime at your new destination. Don’t take it prior to reaching your new destination or take it very late at night (say you get in at 3 am, wait until the next evening to take).
- Athletes and hard-charging trainees may benefit due to how intense exercise can alter circadian rhythms.