How Supplements Can Improve Your Sleep
March is National Sleep Awareness month—and it’s a great opportunity to look at our own sleep habits and see if there are ways to improve the quality of sleep we get.
Earlier this week, we talked with sleep specialist Dr. Arun Agarwal about how older adults can get better sleep. Dr. Agarwal has practiced medicine since 1990 and has board certifications in sleep medicine, pulmonary medicine, internal medicine, critical care medicine, and palliative care and hospice medicine. He is affiliated with Nuvance Health and holds an academic position at New York Medical College. He currently leads the sleep division, which he started in 1992.
Today, he’s back, discussing the role that melatonin supplements can play in improving sleep patterns.
What is the role of melatonin in sleep? Is it helpful for getting better sleep?
“First, we start with the physiology of how we go to sleep,” Dr. Agarwal says. The brain has a code: think of it as a see-saw in a playground. There’s a set of hormones that pushes one of the see-saw sides down, (let's call it sleeping) and a second set of hormones that puts it up (call it waking). The brain code flips between sleep and wake.”
Dr. Agarwal says that the typical person starts feeling sleepy in the late evening when those “sleeping” hormone levels begin to rise. And their bodies begin to wake up at dawn, as the “waking” hormone levels rise. These different hormone levels are triggered by sunlight, or lack of it. “There’s a set of receptors in the eye that perceives sunlight. That receptor is connected with a particular track to the hypothalamus which controls our body temperature,” says Dr. Agarwal.
He adds: “During the evening, the amount of sunlight that goes into our eyes diminishes. The first thing that happens in the hypothalamus is that based on the written program in our brain it drops the core temperature by half a degree and also stimulates the pineal gland to secrete melatonin. Melatonin amplifies the hormones that induce sleep and actually stops the hormone that induces wakefulness. In the dawn hours, when sunlight hits our eye, the hypothalamus increases the temperature by half a degree, and the pineal gland shuts off melatonin.”
However, some bodies don’t produce the necessary amount of melatonin, and others have irregular hours of sleep that don’t align with the sun’s daily cycle. For those, melatonin supplements can be helpful.
In regard to melatonin supplements, Dr. Agarwal says, “Yes, it is effective in inducing sleep. However, it is not effective in maintaining sleep.” He notes that commercially available melatonin at vitamin or drugstores typically aren’t regulated as to how much active compound there is going to be in the pill. “Every melatonin can be different in potency,” he says.
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If you take a melatonin supplement, when should you take it?
“The ideal time of ingestion is probably 60-90 minutes before sleeping time,” says Dr. Agarwal. But he notes that you should also consider the concentration of the dose, as well as your body temperature, both of which can affect how it is absorbed and presented to the brain.
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