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Night Owl’s cheatsheet—Mastering Melatonin’s sleep clock for ultimate rest

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Malaika Awan
Malaika Awanhttps://scientiamag.org
Malaika Awan is a Bachelor's student majoring in Psychology at The Institute of Professional Psychology, Bahria University Karachi. Currently serving as a Science Writing Intern at Scientia Pakistan, her areas of expertise encompass Psychology, Biology, Environmental Sciences, Astronomy, and Space Exploration. Malaika aspires to leverage her passion for science communication through her contributions to Scientia Magazine Pakistan.

A peaceful quietness blankets the surroundings as the sun sets, inviting meditation and mindfulness. Many people find that the peaceful embrace of the night provides a welcome change of pace after the day’s exhausting activities. But, against this peaceful background, a specific group of people—the night owls—constantly battle to get enough sleep. However, a hidden key to unlock restful nights for these dark residents is known as melatonin. Melatonin, a hormone with strong effects that are frequently disregarded, has the potential to help us understand the fascinating night owl’s sleep schedule.

Understanding melatonin and the sleep cycle

Melatonin, often referred to as “the hormone of darkness,” plays a crucial role in regulating our sleep-wake cycles, serving as our body’s internal timekeeper. Produced by the pineal gland in the brain, its levels fluctuate in a 24-hour cycle, controlled by our body clock. Receptors in the hypothalamus’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) control this hormone’s secretion. Its production is sensitive to environmental light cues, which orchestrate our transition between wakefulness and slumber. 

When darkness descends, signaling the onset of nighttime, the pineal gland responds by releasing melatonin into the bloodstream. This surge in melatonin levels prepares our bodies for restorative sleep. Blood melatonin levels rise about two hours before bedtime, helping establish conditions favorable to sleep by slightly lowering core body temperature. As dawn approaches and daylight filters through, melatonin production diminishes, aligning with our body’s natural rhythm to prepare for awakening and the activities of the day. 

One notable phenomenon within this melatonin-driven cycle is the “forbidden zone” for sleep—a period during the early evening hours when the body’s propensity to fall asleep is notably low. This period typically spans from around 6 PM to 9 PM, during which individuals may find it challenging to initiate rest despite feeling tired. It is recommended not to try sleeping during this time zone as it might affect an individual’s sleep instinct later. 

However, as this window closes, usually between 9 PM and 11 PM, the sleep gate opens, marking the onset of increased sleepiness and facilitating easier entry into a restful state. A decrease in melatonin levels in our body can cause hindrances to our sleep and can lead to sleep disturbances.  

Blood melatonin levels rise about two hours before bedtime, helping establish conditions favorable to sleep by slightly lowering core body temperature.
Blood melatonin levels rise about two hours before bedtime, helping establish conditions favorable to sleep by slightly lowering core body temperature.

Factors decreasing melatonin release in the human body

Factors that decrease melatonin release in the body include certain drugs like beta blockers and NSAIDs, which inhibit its production. Beta-blockers, commonly prescribed to lower blood pressure, work by inhibiting specific receptors, consequently decreasing melatonin release. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin and several other over-the-counter painkiller drugs, suppress nighttime melatonin levels. Blue light exposure at night also suppresses melatonin levels. 

Aging reduces pineal gland function, diminishing melatonin production. Short-term fasting and nutrient deficiencies in folate, magnesium, and zinc further contribute to decreased melatonin levels. Staying up late, the common nocturnal habit of night owls can harm their physical and psychological well-being.

Night owls’ nocturnal habits and psychological well-being

The psychological well-being of night owls can be significantly affected by their nocturnal habits. Staying up late into the night can contribute to mood disturbances, including heightened feelings of anxiety and depression. Disrupted sleep patterns impact neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for regulating emotional states, such as serotonin and cortisol, leading to increased stress levels and vulnerability to emotional ups and downs. Furthermore, impaired cognitive function due to inadequate sleep can result in difficulties in thinking clearly and making effective decisions. 

Night owls may also experience alterations in appetite and eating habits, often succumbing to late-night cravings and unhealthy dietary choices. Interruption of the circadian rhythm, sleep-wake cycles, and low levels of melatonin hormone are considered risk factors for a variety of health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and various sleep disorders.

Sleep disorders and melatonin

Sleep disorders can wreak havoc on our lives, affecting everything from our mood to our overall health. One common culprit behind these disorders is insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Our natural melatonin levels decrease as we age, making us more susceptible to insomnia. Melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, has shown promise in treating insomnia, especially in older adults. 

But melatonin isn’t just for insomnia. It has also been studied for its role in managing other sleep-related issues like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep. Melatonin has been found to mitigate some of the complications associated with OSA, such as cardiovascular problems and inflammation.

Sleep disorders can wreak havoc on our lives, affecting everything from our mood to our overall health.
Sleep disorders can wreak havoc on our lives, affecting everything from our mood to our overall health.

Enhancing melatonin levels in the body

Implementing various strategies can be beneficial in enhancing melatonin production and promoting healthy sleep.

  • Manage light exposure: Seek natural light in the morning and daytime, and avoid bright light about 90 minutes before bedtime to regulate melatonin levels.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake before bedtime to support higher melatonin levels.
  • Incorporate melatonin-rich foods into your diet, including tomatoes, rice, barley, strawberries, olive oil, milk, pistachios, walnuts, seeds, eggs, fish, tart cherries, and goji berries into the diet to naturally boost melatonin levels.
  • Dimming lights and reducing screen time before bed to minimize exposure to blue light, which suppresses melatonin production.
  • Establishing a consistent sleep schedule synchronizes the body’s internal clock and facilitates the natural release of melatonin at the appropriate times.
  • Supplementing with melatonin: Discuss the potential benefits and considerations of using melatonin supplements to regulate sleep patterns, emphasizing the importance of consulting with a healthcare professional before incorporating them into one’s routine.
  • Lifestyle adjustments for optimal sleep: Highlight the importance of creating a sleep-friendly environment, practicing relaxation techniques, and prioritizing self-care to support restful nights and overall well-being.
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