What Do Home-Cured Maple Pepper Bacon
. . . scented jelly jars and the polio vaccine have in common? They’re all the subjects of half-written posts sitting in my drafts folder, of course! Some – like the jelly jars which sprouted alien mold and sent colonies to mars – will never see the light of day. Others, like the post I am sharing with you today, were just waiting for a few more pieces to fall into place.
Earlier this week I found just the piece I needed – The Sleep Solution by Emily Benfit.
Even if you don’t suffer from insomnia – which is clinically defined as lying awake for a half-hour or more before being able to fall asleep – this book contains insights anyone who has ever suffered from a sleepless night should know.
Thank you, Emily, for the research, dedication and humor you put into this book. Now let’s get on to the post!
It’s Not An Herb
Or even a fancy amino acid, yet it flew off natural food store shelves to the tune of $260 million dollars last year. For many, it’s considered a safe alternative to addictive benzodiazepine-based sleeping pills, which have been shown to reduce the amount of deep, restorative sleep you get AND impair alertness, coordination and cognition during the day.
I’m talking about melatonin, of course. But is it really safe? To answer that I think we need to look at just what melatonin is.
Like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, melatonin is a powerful hormone – the only one that can be legally obtained without a prescription in the United States.¹ “While melatonin could be considered natural,” writes sleep expert Dr.Michael J. Breus, “in most cases it doesn’t come from the earth. There are exceptions of foods that contain melatonin in them, but this is a different type of melatonin than what is produced in your brain.” (source)
So what does melatonin do in the body? A lot of things – but none of them induce sleep.
#1: Melatonin Raises Cortisol Levels
Cortisol – aka the “stress” hormone – is basically the siamese twin of melatonin. The two ebb and flow like the tide – cortisol is highest in the morning and melatonin is highest at night. Unfortunately, increasing melatonin intake “stimulates increased adrenaline, cortisol, and aldosterone—three of the primary stress hormones. It slows the metabolism, and causes the release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream, which further stimulate the stress response.” (Source: The Sleep Solution)
High cortisol levels impair memory, lower immune function and interfere with sugar metabolism, which ironically leads to frequent night wakings. In other words, raising melatonin levels can actually induce a stress response that makes the situation worse over time.
#2: Melatonin Atrophies The Pineal Gland
Use it or lose it – that’s how the saying goes, right? When it comes to glands that produce hormones that old adage has definitely turned out to be true. By now I’m sure you’ve heard that anabolic steroids – which mimic testosterone – cause testicles to shrink. Here’s why:
Every hormonal system in the body has a feedback loop. “The testicles receive a signal from the brain, in the form of hormones called LH and FSH, that tell them to make testosterone and sperm, as well as grow and develop. If you add a bunch of testosterone (steroids), then these steroids will send a message to your brain saying, ‘Hey, we’re good here, you don’t need to send more signals to make testosterone.’
It’s a negative feedback loop, and over a long period of time this lack of LH and FSH can cause the testicles to just atrophy from lack of activity.It’s kind of like if you had to walk to work every day to make money, but all of a sudden you win the lottery and never have to leave your couch. You still have just as much money, but your muscles will atrophy from lack of use.” (source)
The pineal gland – which produces melatonin – functions the exact same way, says Dr. David Clark. That’s why most melatonin supplements come with a warning not to use them more than 2-3 weeks. Though I have not been able to find any definitive studies on whether pineal gland atrophy is permanent, it appears that in other cases – such as the testes – it sometimes can be.
#3: Melatonin May Affect Your Fertility
Got baby fever? It may be worth noting, then, that melatonin doesn’t just help set our circadian rhythm – it also helps govern reproductive function. In fact, in Europe high doses of melatonin have been used as a contraceptive. (Source 1, Source 2)
So what exactly is a “high dose”? I wasn’t able to find any numbers, but according to “The Sleep Doctor” Michael J. Breus, many commercially available forms contain three to ten times the dosage determined to be effective by MIT researchers. (Source)
Personally, I think subsequent research on melatonin indicates that it’s probably not “effective” in the way that MIT researchers first thought, but the details are a bit too much to go into here. (Emily’s book covers them, though!) For our purposes, I think it’s just important to note that individuals are currently self-prescribing melatonin at far higher doses than we have solid research on.
#4: Melatonin May Affect Sexual Development In Children
Though it now comes in cherry flavored chewable capsules, melatonin is not recommended for children by the Mayo Clinic. It “plays a role in the way a person’s body matures sexually,” writes the clinic, noting that melatonin “levels have an impact on how the ovaries and testes function. Further study is needed to determine if taking melatonin during childhood or the teen years can have an impact on a person’s sexual development.”
The National Institutes of Health agrees, saying that “Melatonin should not be used in most children. It is possibly unsafe. Because of its effects on other hormones, melatonin might interfere with development.” (Source)
In other words, we have no idea yet how supplementing this hormone in children might affect their development.
#5: Other Side Effects
According to the Mayo Clinic, melatonin supplementation can also cause daytime sleepiness, dizziness, headaches, abdominal pain, mild anxiety, irritability, confusion and feelings of depression. (Source) In rats, high melatonin levels have also been shown to decrease T3 & T4 (thyroid hormone) uptake. (Source)
So Why Does It Seem To Work?
Here’s the thing: Melatonin is more like a clock than a bedtime story. If you’ve ever suffered from a sleepless night, you know that staring at the clock does not make you sleepy! It simply tells you (or in this case your body) what time it is.
So why does it seem to work for some people? Because it is a powerful hormone, melatonin can create feelings similar to sleepiness, but it does not actually promote deep, restful sleep. (Source) Considering that this surge is likely to increase cortisol levels the next day and possibly lead to impaired memory and work performance, pineal gland atrophy and other problems the tradeoff just doesn’t seem worth it to me.
Fortunately, there IS a way to get amazing, restorative sleep. Though I wish I could cover it all here, the truth is Emily has already done a better job than I ever could in The Sleep Solution. It’s funny, well-researched and practical. Highly recommend!
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