Sleep and Melatonin: the Dracula Hormone

Sleep and the melatonin connection

The Guinness world record for sleep deprivation was set by 17 year old Randy Gardner of San Diego in 1964 and stands at 264 hours awake. This is a mean feat, as by about 24 hours with no sleep, most people will begin to act as though they are intoxicated, slurring words and lacking focus. After this time hallucinations may set in and people may become psychotic, moody and incoherent. In fact, so terrible are the effects of sleep deprivation that the Guinness World Records will no longer take any contenders to the title, as the risks are just too great.

This breakdown in mental capabilities shows that we obviously need to sleep, but why?  Well, the answers may not be clear cut, in fact  William Dement, the founder of the Sleep Research Centre, at Stanford University, with over 50 years of sleep research under his belt is quoted as saying, “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.”

So without definitive, hard evidence, what are thought to be the reasons why we slip into a nightly slumber? Well, the prevailing theories seem to suggest that sleep gives our brains a chance to regroup, detoxify, consolidate old memories, strengthen new neuronal connections and our bodies a chance to recuperate. One sleep researcher puts it quite nicely when he states “When you fall asleep, it's like you’re leaving your house and letting the workmen come in to repair and renovate”

So, whatever the reason for sleep, how does it happen? The sleep-wake cycle is controlled by a very complex interplay of hormones and neurotransmitters, some which act to keep us awake and aroused and some which act to help to get us off to the land of nod. And one of the key players helping to get us off to dreamland is the neuro-hormone melatonin.

Nicknamed the Dracula hormone as it only comes out as light dims, melatonin is secreted from the pineal gland, deep in the brain, directly into the blood stream where it triggers a sleepy state. Scientists don’t really know how melatonin does this but it is thought to decrease core body temperature, relax muscles, inhibit brain activity and in turn increase sleepiness. In fact melatonin seems to stimulate the very same areas in the brain which are also stimulated by drugs used to reduce anxiety and induce sleep.

In an average, healthy adult about 5 to 25 micrograms of melatonin will be secreted each night. Melatonin production is at its highest during childhood and adolescence (which may account for the inability to get teens out of bed!) and begins to decline from around the mid-20s. This is thought to correlate with the increased incidence of insomnia that occurs in middle aged and elderly people.

By its very nature, like Dracula, melatonin is a very sensitive, mysterious and nocturnal entity. It is only able to be cajoled out of its pineal lair under the cover of darkness, if there is too much light entering the eye, melatonin production will be limited. So this means bright lights, computer screens and TV blaring before bedtime may result in counting sheep all night. Even a bedroom which lets in too much light from the moon, the street or an alarm clock can leave you tossing and turning.

But it is not only light that scares off  melatonin, it is also easily quashed by all the bolshie arousal neurotransmitters like epinephrine, acetylcholine and histamine, so anything that stimulates their release like worrying, working, caffeine or intense exercise will also vanquish poor old melatonin, in turn, leaving you awake and wired.

So what can you do to maximise the effects of melatonin and get yourself off to the land of nod?

  • Ensure adequate protein intake as melatonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, which is derived from dietary protein
  • Ensure good intake of the cofactors needed for the conversion of tryptophan all the way to melatonin, these include magnesium, calcium, zinc and vitamins C,  B3, B6, B9 and B12
  • Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible and when bedtime is looming, dim the lights and stop using all your gadgets and TV
  • Minimise physical and mental activity too close to bedtime.  In fact try and read something a little less than interesting just before bed (no Mills & Boons), just to keep those excitatory neurotransmitters under wraps.
  • Try Montmerancy tart cherry skin extract, this variety of sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) is one of the few known natural foods to contain appreciable amounts of natural melatonin, so may help to support flagging melatonin production and support a healthy night’s sleep.

So don’t be afraid of the dark and let the Dracula hormone subdue you with its bite!

By Rachel Dawson

Nutritionist & Medical Herbalist (Hons)

Health & Herbs International

Radiance Tart Cherry Sleep provides 400mg of Montmerancy tart cherry skin concentrate per capsule. Montmorency cherry is one of the few known foods to naturally contain an appreciable amount of melatonin. It is available for secure order from our online shop.

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Have you used a Melatonin supplement, such as Montmorency cherry, before? If so what results have you experienced?