Rest is one of the most basic needs that we human beings have. It is essential that many of our vital functions are carried out correctly and that our body remains healthy. However, many people suffer from sleep disorders which affect their quality of sleep.
According to the Sleep and Wake Disorders Study Group of the Spanish Neurology Society (SEN), over 4 millions of Spanish people suffer from a chronic and serious sleep disorder and between 20 and 48% in the adult population have difficulties in getting and staying asleep.
The amount of melatonin that our brain produces every night when we go to sleep plays a key role in this lack of quality sleep.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by our brain, which is involved in the natural sleep cycle. Its production and later secretion is related to our circadian rhythms, i.e. the physical, mental and behavioural changes that result from the light and dark cycles.
How does melatonin work in our body?
Rest begins in our brain when the pineal gland is stimulated by darkness, producing “the sleep hormone” and inciting the body to sleep. As the individual senses more light, the production of this hormone slowly decreases, making us wake up. In this way, melatonin levels can control when we fall asleep and when we wake up.
However, according to the study “Melatonin in sleep disorders” by the Insomnia Study Group of the Spanish Sleep Society (SES), in which several Spanish hospitals were involved, melatonin has the ability to interfere with the functioning of our body in different ways. It may act as an antioxidant and immunostimulant, helping the defence processes.
Melatonin and the sleep cycle
Our circadian cycle is the one that controls both the length and the quality of our sleep, so melatonin not only has an effect on the sleep rhythm but also on the different stages of our sleep. This hormone is key to keeping a proper sleep/wake cycle. The presence of melatonin synchronises all stages of sleep so that each of them performs its function.
Due to the fact that melatonin is so closely related to light, it is important to teach children from an early age to avoid light and electronic devices before going to sleep, as they can affect circadian cycles and rest.
Keeping proper levels of melatonin
Melatonin is the key element for a healthy and restful sleep. In order to keep the right levels of this hormone, nutrition also plays an important role. This is why it is not recommended to take large meals just before going to sleep.
From what foods can we get this hormone?
Eggs, dairy products, pulses, nuts and fruit are some foods that are rich in tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids involved in the production of melatonin and which provide us with small amounts of this hormone throughout the day.
- Nuts: for every gram of nuts we have 3.5 nanograms of melatonin, as well as a rich source of vitamins B, C and Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Bananas: Although it is always said that fruit is heavy at night, in this case the banana can help you sleep, as well as providing a large amount of potassium.
- Tomatoes: provide melatonin along with vitamins A, C, E and K. Tomatoes are a superfood if we wish to improve our sleep.
- Cherries: the higher the acidity, the higher the melatonin.
- Rice, oats and sweet corn: as well as a high concentration of vitamins and minerals, these foods have a high concentration of melatonin per gram.
Melatonin in food supplements
A varied and balanced diet and healthy lifestyle allows us to have normal levels of it, but it is also possible to supplement this “sleep hormone”. Melatonin in food supplements can be helpful, and EFSA claims two health properties:
- It helps to relieve the feeling of “jet lag” and reduce the time needed to fall asleep.
Formulations can in some cases be combined with Melatonin, Vitamin B6 and Magnesium. These two elements contribute to the normal functioning of the nervous system, reducing fatigue and tiredness.
Good eating habits, lifestyle and sometimes supplementation are useful when we change our routine and schedules, for example when travelling, and also for the difficulty of getting into the sleep process.