Most of us tend to compromise on our nightly sleep to buy in some time for the daily chores we consider more important. This, however, is a wrong practice that can take a toll on our health. A regular good night sleep is important since it aids many vital body functions, including repair, rejuvenation, and hormone and insulin regulation. Sleep deprivation at night can lead to many health problems and thus it should not be taken for granted. So let us see how this important mechanism takes place in our body and what effect does it have on our health.
Circadian Rhythm & Melatonin
The human body is inherently programmed to sleep at night as darkness sets in and to wake as light increases with dawn. This cycle is regulated by a genetic body clock called the Circadian Rhythm and runs on 24-hour synchronization with the natural phenomenon of day and night. It also responds to seasonal changes, as the main factors affecting it are light and temperature.
The circadian rhythm is maintained with the release and suppression of a hormone called melatonin, secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin secretions occur in darkness, giving rise to its title as the “hormone of darkness”, though negligible levels are also produced during day light hours. Melatonin levels peak about two hours after sleep at night. When the retina is exposed to day light, this reception of light is transmitted to the hypothalamus. From here, the message is relayed, via electrochemical impulses by the sympathetic nervous system to the pineal gland, where it works as a signal to suppress melatonin production. As night falls and light fades, these electrochemical impulses recede in intensity and their power of suppression drastically reduces, allowing melatonin secretion to increase once again.
Many people sleep during the day, due to disorders or insufficient sleep during night; however, this sleep does not involve melatonin production. In conclusion, this means that if we fulfill the body’s genetic instruction of sleeping at night, we are able to enhance melatonin secretion, which leads to optimum health. Reduced melatonin can lead to a number of health issues.
Health issues caused by reduced Melatonin
Insufficient melatonin secretions can cause:
- Depression and Irritability
- Memory loss and low concentration, with anxiety and confusion
- Stomach problems
- Pre-mature Ageing
- Increased PMS symptoms
- Imbalance of hormones and thyroid function
- Reduced immunity
Long-term effects of reduced Melatonin levels can lead to a number of cancers, such as breast, colorectal and prostrate. Research has found that normal levels of melatonin inhibit cancer cells. When external melatonin was used to treat cancer patients, who were undergoing chemotherapy, they responded better to the treatment.
Factors leading to Reduced Melatonin
Several factors lead to reduced melatonin levels and these are:
- Bright light or sleep deprivation at night, both inhibit melatonin production.
- Travelling fast across time zones upsets the natural rhythm of the inner body clock, causing a “break” commonly called “the jet lag.”
- Disturbances in circadian rhythm caused by rheumatoid arthritis or by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
- Tumors or lesions of Pineal Gland – Such tumors are very rare, but when they do occur, they decrease the production of melatonin.
- Old Age – Pineal gland activity almost comes to a stop with old age.
- Medications and Pregnancy can also adversely affect melatonin production.
Tips to Optimize Melatonin Secretion Holistically
Melatonin is best increased by a good 8 hours of nightly sleep. Here are a few tips to optimize melatonin production:
- Follow the natural circadian day/night rhythm. Work and sunlight exposure, accompanied by sleep at night balances this body clock.
- Sleep in as much darkness as possible.
- Daytime exercise actually boosts melatonin production.
- Avoid stimulants, such as coffee a few hours before sleeping.
- Supplements, such as Vitamin B-6 (Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate), Zinc, Magnesium and Folic acid increase melatonin production.
- Certain foods also enhance the production of melatonin. When the body digests foods containing Tryptophan – an essential amino acid, the brain converts it into melatonin. Some of the rich sources of Tryptophan are
- Dairy Products
- Whole Grains
- Sweet Corn
Yoga and the Pineal Gland
Classic yoga has several Pranayam (breathing) and meditation exercises that can stimulate the pineal glands, enhancing melatonin production. Doing these exercises not only induces sleep but also helps in regularizing the sleep pattern overtime.