Last updated on March 3rd, 2020
Sleep. It’s absolutely essential to our health and happiness. But, did you know that there’s a vital hormone that makes a tremendous impact on our ability to sleep and the quality of the sleep we enjoy?
It’s called “melatonin.” You may have heard about melatonin supplements, but you may also be wondering: What is melatonin?
If that question is lingering in your mind, you’re not alone. Thanks to modern medicine and easy access to health information, the word “melatonin” is more familiar today than at any other point in history.
But melatonin remains a bit of a mystery. People have heard of it, but few people know what melatonin is. To help you learn as much as possible about this vital hormone, here’s a thorough answer to that pressing question: What is melatonin?
Where is Melatonin Produced?
Deep in the heart of your brain is your pineal gland, which is also known as the “third eye”. The pineal gland sits smack in between the brain’s two hemispheres (the “right” and “left” brains, as you may have heard them described), and it’s in the brain’s pineal gland where melatonin production takes place.
The pineal gland is truly amazing, as is melatonin and its effect on the body. The pineal gland actually sits outside of the body’s blood-brain barrier system, and its tininess belies its importance — the pineal gland is only the size of a pea.
But the pineal gland doesn’t just produce melatonin non-stop. In fact, there are certain environmental influences and behaviors that affect the body’s melatonin production.
What Body Functions Does Melatonin Affect?
What makes the pineal gland and the melatonin it produces so important? Melatonin is what regulates your body’s internal clock — its circadian rhythm. The internal clock is what tells you it’s time to go to bed at night, and it’s also what tells you it’s time to wake up in morning — even if you don’t set an alarm.
But melatonin actually makes an even bigger impact on your body and its cycles. Beyond daily sleep cycles, melatonin also helps regulate your body’s photoperiodic functions — better known as seasonal functions. The body’s seasonal functions affect and influence the reproductive system, the immune system and everything in between.
What Factors Influence Melatonin Creation?
The body is designed to sense when it’s light outside — and to deliver the energy you need to start and sustain yourself through a full day. Likewise, the body is designed to sense when it gets dark outside and, in turn, to signal to the brain that it’s time to slow down and get ready for rest.
But our environment and even the time of year can impact the amount of light we’re exposed to and the amount of melatonin our body creates.
For example, during the depths of winter, when the days are dark and cold, the body may begin producing melatonin earlier or later than usual, which can make you feel tired and lacking in energy at unusual times.
Technology can also throw off our melatonin production. Modern devices like smartphones and tablets cast off blue light , which mitigates melatonin production. So, if you have an iPad on your nightstand so that you can surf the Internet before bedtime, you’re making it harder for your body to fall asleep.
You can also take measures to boost your melatonin. First, you can set aside your devices when it’s time for the body to get ready for rest. But, you can also eat foods that contain melatonin, including:
- Cow’s milk
Eat enough of these food items, and the melatonin absorbed by your body may make you feel relaxed and a little bit sleepy.
What to do About Melatonin Issues?
There are two ways to approach melatonin issues. First, you can focus on changing your behavior. If you’re the type of person who likes to engage in technology, even when it’s bedtime, you may want to find other activities. For example, reading a book rather than surfing on your tablet can help your body follow its natural circadian rhythm.
Conversely, you can also seek out a melatonin supplement. You can find melatonin supplements at almost any drugstore or grocery store. Supplements typically come in pills between 1 and 10 milligrams. Some melatonin supplements designed for children will include 1-milligram pills, whereas supplements for adults are more likely to come in 5- or 10-milligram pills.
Melatonin is most commonly used to help your body get bacMk on track. For example, if you’ve been up all night with a sick child or suffering from jet lag after an international trip, a dose of melatonin can help you return to your natural rhythm. It’s less likely to be used as an everyday sleep aid.
Of course, consult your physician before making a decision about the supplements that are right for you. You should be aware of any relevant melatonin side effects or interactions before you start using it as a supplement.
Final Thoughts on Melatonin
Melatonin is a magical hormone for your body. When we live our daily lives, the need to sleep and the readiness to wake are almost involuntary — but, in reality, these functions are carefully regulated by this important hormone.
Unfortunately, it’s far too common for our melatonin production to shift from its natural schedule.
In the 21st century, we hold the Internet in our hands — but the devices we use reduce our melatonin production. And the world is now completely accessible. You can be on another continent in just a few of hours — but the change in time zones can throw your melatonin production seriously out of whack.
Do your best to promote melatonin production with the right behaviors, and take advantage of available melatonin supplements when you need them. After all, everyone wants to be at their best each day — but no one can reach their full potential without the right amount of rest.
To learn more about melatonin, get information from non-profit foundations  that specialize in promoting better sleep.
Brad is a freelance writer and journalist who lives and works in Austin, TX. Away from work, he enjoys running, reading, watching baseball and spending time with his family. On rare occasions when he gets the chance, he loves nothing more than a long nap on a Sunday afternoon.