I was recently asked to comment in a magazine about the ‘benefits’ of taking melatonin for sleep. It’s not something I’d recommend at all, but is commonly taken by those struggling with insomnia, to help them get to sleep, and/or stay asleep.
Melatonin, like cortisol, is catabolic to cells (breaks down bone and tissue, degenerates cells). Darkness is stressful to the body and catabolic. Sleep reduces the destructive catabolic effects of darkness.
“Melatonin does not cause you to sleep; it actually switches the biological clock triggered by darkness; darkness is actually a stress to the body and causes increased melatonin production and prolactin. Too much prolactin production is a problem: it actually encourages the release of Calcium through the urine, leading to osteoporosis etc.” – Josh Rubin
Taking Melatonin is not a good idea; melatonin raises estrogen, lowers thyroid and progesterone, and is potentially carcinogenic. Studies have shown that in excess it can shrink the thymus gland, promoting premature ageing, autoimmune diseases and fertility issues.
“Melatonin creates stupor, raises estrogen and is thus anti-thyroid and carcinogenic. Melatonin is a hormone made in the pineal gland from the amino acid tryptophan. As we consume tryptophan in our food during the day, the body converts it into serotonin. Serotonin, in turn, is converted into melatonin. This conversion occurs most efficiently at night.” – Raymond Peat Ph.D
Rather than taking melatonin (or any other kind of supplemental or prescriptive sleep aid), you should look at why you can’t sleep instead: are you eating the wrong foods before bed / not enough of the right foods / spending too long too late in front of a computer screen / alcohol before bed (a major cause of nocturnal hypoglycemia) / not met your protein needs throughout the day / low blood sugar / hypothyroid / high estrogen … could be one of many factors that needs addressing. For most people it’s blood sugar handling issues. Address the cause rather than band-aiding the problem (eg. taking melatonin).
Blood sugar falls at night. The body relies on the glucose stored in the liver (as glycogen) for energy, and hypothyroid people store very little sugar. To compensate, adrenalin and cortisol begin to rise almost as soon as a person goes to bed, and in hypothyroid people, levels rise very high, with adrenalin usually peaking around 1- 2 am and cortisol peaking around dawn; the high cortisol raises blood sugar as morning approaches, and allows adrenalin to decline. Some people wake up during this period (the adrenalin peak) with a pounding heart and have trouble getting back to sleep unless they have something to eat. Blood sugar levels have crashed and the body is stressed, in a famine state.
Balancing blood sugar is key as is improving the ability to store glycogen (ability to store glycogen is impaired with poor liver function and a damaged metabolism).
Hypothyroidism tends to cause the blood and other body fluids to be deficient in both sodium and glucose. Consuming salty carbohydrate foods momentarily makes up to some extent for the thyroid deficiency.
“During the night, there are many changes that suggest that the thyroid functions are being blocked, for example a surge in the thyroid stimulating hormone, with T4 and T3 being lowest between 11 PM and 3 AM (Lucke, et al., 1977), while temperature and energy production are at their lowest. This suggests that the problems of hypothyroidism will be most noticeable during the night.” – Raymond Peat Ph.D
Insomnia is a symptom of high cortisol + inflammation
Note: Night-owl = high adrenalin. Sweating at night = high cortisol
Additionally, we are more inclined to have a higher metabolic rate in a non-stressed state, but not when inflammatory mediators are high (melatonin, estrogen, cortisol, adrenalin etc). So metabolism is inhibited while adrenalin is high (on the flip side, bone and muscle loss are accelerated). Both salt and natural sugar lower the adrenalin level, and both tend to raise the body temperature.
Also, in aging, menopause, and stressful conditions, there is increased adrenalin (and the increased cortisol production which is produced by excess adrenalin) and the tendency to wake more easily, and to have less restful sleep. It’s no wonder babies can sleep most of the day but the elderly suffer the most insomnia.
Disturbed sleep is also associated with obesity: lack of sleep promotes fat gain, and in turn being over weight disturbs sleep.
Things that help:
Milk with sugar and salt to induce deep, youthful sleep in most people. The combination of milk (the type that you personally digest best) + sugar (in the form of sucrose: honey, cane sugar, ripe fruits) + salt have a similar effect on body as thyroid hormone (T3), regulating body temperature and down regulating adrenalin for regulating sleep patterns. Taking this combination before bedtime helps improve circulation, maintain optimal body temperature, lower nocturnal stress hormones, balance blood sugar, and support metabolism, and in turn, produces better sleep quality and duration.
If you have GI issues and can’t stomach milk, try fresh orange juice, strained and mixed with gelatin and salt.
For some, homemade ice cream before bed = sleep like a log!
One easy rule is to not eat carbohydrates or protein alone, as that tends to lead to hypoglycemia in most, disturbing sleep by triggering compensatory stress hormone.
Salt improves circulation, raises body temperature, stabilises cells by helping remove intracellular calcium by promoting CO2, and lowers night-time aldosterone / cortisol / adrenaline. Especially useful for inducing sleep
Gelatin: I like this one. The glycine in gelatin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter; promoting natural sleep. Have a cup of homemade bone broth (with butter and salt) or a bowl of jelly with cream before bed.
Increased body temperature improves sleep, especially the deep slow wave sleep. An epsom salt bath*, or even warming cold feet with woolly socks, lowers adrenalin and has the same effect as thyroid in improving sleep. Address thyroid health.
*Just make sure to keep your sugar up when you’re in the bath to prevent a blood sugar drop that can occur. Sip OJ or take a piece of fruit!
Light: get outdoors during the day
Regulating your nutrition throughout the entire day and preventing hypoglycemia will improve your sleep at night. Regulating blood sugar is the most important thing. HOW AND WHAT YOU EAT THROUGHOUT THE DAY WILL AFFECT HOW YOU SLEEP AT NIGHT. The ideal macronutrient balance and frequency of your meals is very much person-specific. This is where I can help!
Also: Balance hormones and utilise progesterone therapy (high oestrogen is also anti-thyroid)
Wind down earlier: Turn off the computer, phone, iPad, TV, XBox and any other cortisol-stimulating activities, at least an hour before bed.
… and more sleep tips here
Recommended Reading: Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients, June 1996, by Ray Peat, Ph.D.