Melatonin supplements can be found at every store. I personally see them everywhere, marketed as some sort of magic potion that will make you sleep like a baby and wake up feeling rejuvenated. Unfortunately, that is just a false claim.
Melatonin is produced naturally by your body and is released in your bloodstream from the pineal gland when it gets dark out. Your brain uses melatonin as a signal to communicate to your body that it’s time to sleep. During the night, the levels of melatonin start to decrease, and at sunlight, when light hits your eyelids, the pineal gland stops producing melatonin, signaling to your body that it’s time to wake up.
Melatonin regulates the timing of when sleep occurs but has little influence on the generation of sleep itself. Think of it as a pirate on a ship’s lookout point shouting he sees an island in the distance. He will stay on the lookout point giving directions to the crew until the ship is docked to make sure they don’t crash into anything. So, he governs when the ship’s approach to the island starts and ends but does not participate in all the preparations the crew is doing to dock. This is exactly what melatonin does. It provides the instruction to begin the sleep process and then to end it but does not participate in the process itself.
2 factors participate in the sleep process (the pirates on the deck making arrangements to dock) and actually make you fall asleep.
- Your circadian rhythm: this is your brain’s built-in clock. Circa is the Latin word for around. Diam means day. In fact, your built-in clock runs longer than 24 hours, going up to 28 hours if you are in your twenties. This however only happens in the total absence of sunlight as shown in 1938 in an experiment performed by the University Of Chicago. When your body is exposed to the sun, the light helps regulate your clock, and it brings it closer to 24 hours. Now the clock tells your body when to be awake and when to sleep, as well as when to eat, and it also regulates your emotions, temperature, and metabolism.
- Adenosine: this can be referred to as your sleep pressure. Adenosine is a chemical produced from the breakdown of ATP, used by your body for energy. When you are awake, your brain is breaking down ATP for energy and accumulating adenosine as the waste product. After 12 to 16 hours of being awake, the adenosine builds up in your brain will peak and will trigger the receptors to induce sleep. During sleep, the brain degrades and gets rid of adenosine. After about 8 hours of undisturbed sleep, the adenosine reserves have been emptied and the brain is ready to take on another day.
Your circadian rhythm and sleep pressure do not work together to make you fall asleep. They just so happen to peak at the same time, thus inducing sleep. Let’s consider a person (let’s call him Mario) who sleeps from midnight to 8 am. The circadian rhythm is at the lowest point right around 11:30 to midnight, telling Mario that he needs to sleep. Around 7 am, the circadian rhythm starts activating again, and at 8 am, Mario wakes up because of the rise in his circadian rhythm. It is important to point out that the circadian rhythm will lower and raise whether Mario sleeps or not. Adenosine, on the other hand, will simply accumulate the longer Mario is awake. If Mario were to pull an all-nighter, he would have a massive drop in performance right around the time when his circadian rhythm drops at 11:30 pm, since both adenosine and the circadian rhythm are telling him to sleep. However, at around 7 am, Mario would have a boost in performance, and he would feel more awake because his circadian rhythm is now rising. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to go without sleep for much longer since the circadian rhythm is bound to drop again, and adenosine’s buildup would be just too much that the only solution would be to sleep it off.
Going back to melatonin, research suggests that taking melatonin when in a jet-lagged state tricks the body into thinking it’s nighttime. This could increase the likelihood of sleep, but it will still be hard, since the circadian rhythm has been altered, and maybe the adenosine’s buildup might not be enough to induce sleep. When in a new time zone, the circadian rhythm takes about one day per hour of the time difference to adapt. So if you were to travel from California to Italy, you would need 9 days for your circadian rhythm to fully adjust to the new time zone, since Italy is 9 hours ahead of California.
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