The Season for Insomnia…Is Melatonin appropriate?
In the spring, energy rises. The sap rises in the trees, the earth warms and our own energy becomes more frenetic. “Spring fever” can bring with it complaints of this fast-rising qi: headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and insomnia. So what to do?
In general, we can try to match the energy of the season by getting creative. Sing, dance, paint. Envision “out-of-the-box” solutions to problems. Get outdoors. Stretch your body. Eat lighter foods like leaves and nuts, berries and seeds. Get acupuncture. Cut back on caffeine because your natural energy is likely to keep you energized this time of year.
But if you still aren’t sleeping, some people look to melatonin for help. Diane Gross, L.Ac. examines the risks and benefits of this supplement:
Melatonin is a natural hormone made by the pineal gland. When the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal begins to actively produce melatonin. As the evening progresses melatonin levels in the blood should ideally rise, causing increasing levels of drowsiness. Melatonin levels remain elevated throughout the night, and begin to diminish with exposure to light, which is why it is important to keep your room as dark as possible during the night.
Since melatonin is a hormone there are some risks with unnecessary supplementation. These include:
- If you take melatonin regularly, you can, “teach” your body to stop making adequate levels of melatonin. Your body perceives you have plenty (due to the supplementation), so it slows down or stops production.
- Too much melatonin can actually make it more difficult to fall asleep, or create middle of the night wakefulness. Many supplements elevate your levels to as much as 10-20x the amount normally produced by your body for sleep. Your body will try to correct that.
- Too much melatonin can cause vivid, disturbing dreams – and even nightmares.
- Too much melatonin can cause daytime drowsiness and fatigue as well as dizziness, stomach cramps, and irritability.
- Too much melatonin can contribute to, and even cause, depression.
- Too much melatonin can increase blood pressure.
I typically only prescribe melatonin to my patients if they are much older (melatonin levels often decline with age), and for temporary use for jet lag or for some specific disorders. Generally, I prescribe no more than .3-.5 mg. a night.
Typically, I prefer increasing levels more naturally through diet, or if I do use supplementation, I start with very small levels of L-Tryptophan, which the body uses for the production of melatonin. Some ways in which to naturally increase your melatonin:
- Increase your exposure to daytime sunlight especially early morning light. In the winter months consider using full spectrum lighting or a “light box” for 30-90 minutes in the early morning.
- Sleeping in a very dark room will improve melatonin production. If you are unable to darken your room sufficiently, consider sleeping in a sleep mask
- Sleep in a moderate temperature. Sleeping in environments that are too warm or too cold will impair melatonin production
- Eat the foods naturally high in L-Tryptophan prior to bedtime. Some of my favorites for right before bedtime include: cherries, pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts and bananas.