Unlike sleeping tablets that work on your brain to promote drowsiness1, melatonin is a natural hormone that is produced by your pineal gland (a small gland that resides in the brain).2 Rather than ‘knock you out’ the melatonin hormone simply tells your brain it’s time for sleep.3,4
Exposure to darkness tells the pineal gland to start producing melatonin while exposure to light causes that production to stop. Melatonin helps regulate our circadian rhythm or body clock and synchronize our sleep-wake cycle, so we’re asleep when we should be and awake when we need to be.5
Melatonin tablets or capsules for sleep usually use a synthetically manufactured hormone, rather than the naturally occurring one, but they work in the same way.6
Taking a melatonin tablet in the evening will help signal to your body that it’s night-time, so start preparing for sleep. Melatonin also binds to receptors in your brain to reduce nerve activity, helping you to relax. It can also reduce levels of dopamine, a hormone that helps you stay awake.7
Melatonin is often used to counteract jet lag. That’s because jet lag is a result of your circadian rhythm/body clock not matching the time of day in your new location,8 so melatonin is used to try and reset your clock by taking it at the local bedtime.9,10 And if you travel to a different time zone, and it’s night-time back home, go for a walk in the sunshine to prevent melatonin production.
In summary then, melatonin can help sleep, but doctors don’t recommend it for long term use.4,11
As you’ve learned above, melatonin is naturally ‘programmed’ to be released as you approach your normal bedtime. As you’ve also learned, light, or lack thereof, controls the production of melatonin – too much light at night will shut down production.
That’s why sleep experts advise you to keep lights low before bedtime and definitely stop using computers, tablets and smartphones. The blue light from devices will stop melatonin.4
If you have problems making your bedroom dark enough, invest in a good quality sleeping mask and help your natural melatonin work its magic. Check out the comfortable and affordable Dreamlight Masks here.