There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep. It sounds like such a simple thing, yet for some, so elusive. Almost everyone has trouble sleeping at one time or another, but those who frequently encounter difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep soon learn that their mind can work against them. Once someone begins to worry that they won’t sleep, they have more trouble than before.
These days it seems that our culture is in love with medication, so many people with sleep problems soon begin to notice the ads for sleep aids and are tempted to try them. Wisely, they hesitate because they’re afraid of becoming dependent on chemicals that induce sleep, so they resist. But then someone suggests trying melatonin, which is available over the counter under various names and is said to be a natural sleep aid.
What’s different about melatonin? According to Dr. Michael Breus Ph.D., seen on the Dr. Oz television show last week, melatonin, N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, is not a sleeping pill, but a sleep regulator. It’s not a drug, it’s a hormone that our own bodies make. Anything produced by our own bodies can’t be bad for us, right?
Melatonin is found in all biological organisms. Humans produce it in their pineal glands, which use a substance called Tryptophan in its manufacture. We’ve all heard of Tryptophan, we joke about it at Thanksgiving time. Turkey meat is said to contain large amounts of this amino acid and we blame it for the sleepiness that many of us feel after a big turkey dinner.
All of the above might make one sleepy, and the Tryptophan-melatonin connection is definitely a player in the sleep question. The body releases melatonin at night or in the dark and sends the message that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin production decreases when we are exposed to light. Babies have a comparatively high amount of melatonin in their systems, and young adults produce about 25 micrograms (mg) of melatonin per night.
As we age, melatonin production decreases to about 5 mg. and then even less, and we begin to have trouble getting that peaceful sleep that we once took for granted. That’s when a friend might suggest melatonin, praising it as a natural substance that our own bodies make, so it’s perfectly safe, and you can take it even in the middle of the night and not worry about a sleep hangover in the morning. Right? Not so fast.
According to Dr. Breus and several websites including webmd.com, melatoninfaq.com and mayoclinic.com, it’s not that simple. While melatonin is thought to be helpful for everything from sleeplessness to irritable bowel syndrome, jet lag and Alzheimer’s, it can be harmful, too. It can be a factor in exacerbating depression, cause irritability and make one sleepy in the daytime. One woman who regularly used melatonin in doses from 3 to 15 mg per night reported having to fight to stay awake behind the wheel of her car in mid-afternoons. She quit taking the melatonin and the sleepiness went away.
Dr. Breus states that the reason for these undesirable side effects lies in the doses people are taking. While an elderly person with trouble sleeping can benefit from one-third to 1 mg taken 90 minutes before bedtime, many younger people are relying on the words “natural” and “harmless” and overdosing themselves.
Melatonin can be purchased in 5 or 10 mg doses, much higher than recommended by Dr. Breus and others. People compound the problem by taking one or two high-dosage pills before bed and additional pills if they wake up during the night. One person on the Dr. Oz show said that she has taken 15 mg of melatonin every night for the past two years. She has great difficulty sleeping now and never feels alert.
Is it ever a good idea for ordinary people to take melatonin? Yes, says Dr. Breus, if one is suffering from jet lag or a disruption in their body clock. Since it tells the body that it’s time for sleep, it can help the body return to its own rhythm in a fairly natural way, better than using drugs to “knock oneself out.” Melatonin should not be taken regularly, however, and never more than two weeks in a row.
Perhaps a change in lifestyle could help one fall asleep more easily and sleep deeply. Try getting some fresh air in the evening and get mild exercise by taking a 20-minute walk. Avoid watching noisy, violent TV programs or disturbing news broadcasts before bed. Engage in quiet activities like reading and listening to soothing music. Drink a glass of warm milk before bed. The mind is a powerful master, so avoid worrying about sleep. Instead, think about being sleepy. Picture yourself floating on a cloud in soft moonlight. Whatever you do, put off thinking of problems until daylight. Whatever is troubling you always seems bigger when you are tired. Prayer or meditation are wonderful antidotes to problems and aids for sleep.
One final suggestion is to do a progressive muscle relaxing exercise like one suggested by Dr. Breus: Lying in bed, close your eyes. Breathe deeply, inhale to a slow count of 1-2-3-4, then exhale to a slow count of 1-2-3-4 for five repetitions. Squint your eyes and tense your forehead 1-2-3-4, then relax those muscles 1-2-3-4, and do this five times. Shrug your shoulders to the count, then release to the count for five reps. Make tight fists with your hands while continuing to count, and release Do this five times. Tighten your leg muscles, then release, while counting. Breathe, 1-2-3-4, relax 1-2-3-4.
Oh, lost you. You’re asleep.
Linda Field is an Enterprise community correspondent. Contact Linda at email@example.com.