Melatonin is an important hormone which helps regulate our sleep cycle and is produced by the pineal gland. However, there are natural sources of melatonin which can be obtained from different foods and is able to be absorbed and pass the blood-brain-barrier because of its lipophilic nature, making it an effective sleep aid for some people.
Melatonin can be sold as a health supplement in many countries, while others it is restrictive for medical use only.
Although, given its very safe profile and lack of serious side effects in most people, laws have become more relaxed over the years and more people are taking it not just to help promote sleep, but for its other health benefits as well.
What is melatonin and why it’s important
Melatonin is not something that just affects the brain, but the hormone is distributed throughout the body to different organs. such as the lungs, muscles, bones, reproductive system and other major organs.
The level of melatonin starts to rise later in the evening around 8 pm and reaches its peak around 3-4 am. By 8 am, levels have fallen to its lowest level.
Like other hormones in the body, this normal daily cycle can be disrupted by various things such as shift work, blue lights emitted from TV screens, phones and computers, and other health conditions.
Maintaining a healthy sleep cycle by avoiding things which will delay the production of melatonin during the night will help improve your ability to fall asleep earlier and to have a better night’s rest.
Potential uses for melatonin in humans
- Sleep onset insomnia
- Jet lag
- Shift work
- Help increase REM sleep
- Traumatic brain injury
Other beneficial effects
- Boosts immune system
- Anticancer effects
- Anti-diabetic effects
There’s still a lot to learn about the benefits of melatonin, but it’s clear that as we age, our levels of melatonin decrease and this may contribute to some of the conditions mentioned above. And it might also explain why older adults have a more difficult time with sleep quality.
Melatonin and risk of disease
Sleep is a very important factor in health. People who lack sleep are at higher risk of various diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, autoimmune diseases, and also tend to suffer from poor immunity.
Lack of sleep can also be a major contributor or cause depression, anxiety, and increase the risk of accidents. It may also shorten one’s lifespan.
Getting a good night’s sleep should be a priority if you’re trying to stay healthy!
How much sleep is needed?
It’s recommended we get over 6 hours sleep minimum. Between 7-9 hours seems to be a good target for most adults according to research.
Some people can survive and even thrive on less sleep than others, so sleep requirement does vary from person to person.
One way to know if you’re getting the current amount and quality of sleep you need is just by how you feel during the day.
If you feel lethargic, need regular naps, or your eyes feel heavy and tired, you probably should think about improving your sleep habits. You can start by learning some of the best sources of melatonin in various foods! 🙂
Best natural sources of melatonin
Whether or not you are an omnivore, vegetarian, or even a vegan, there are many different foods you can choose from which contain melatonin.
Research has shown that after consuming foods high in melatonin, there is a significant increase in circulating levels, and thus can have a real benefit if consumed at the right times to help regulate your sleeping pattern.
Some people report that they are able to sleep better when they eat certain foods, while other foods they might not sleep as well. Researchers are still looking at the link between macronutrients, micronutrients, amino acids and hormones on the effect of sleep.
The types of foods we eat and also the time we eat can significantly alter our sleep cycle.
Tart Cherry Juice
In one pilot study in 2010, researchers investigated the effect of cherry juice on insomnia in older adults. They reported that the group who received the cherry juice had significant reductions in insomnia severity and affected all sleep variables. There was no such improvement in the group who took the placebo.
Another study published in 2012 looked at the levels of a metabolite of melatonin in the urine of volunteers after consuming tart cherry juice and saw a significant increase compared to the placebo group. They also reported some improvements in time in bed, total sleep time and sleep efficiency.
Each serving of cherry juice had the equivalent of around 100 cherries and was diluted with 200 ml of water. Each dose of cherry juice contained 42.6 mcg of melatonin.
Cereals are one of the most commonly eaten foods in the world and also contain a small amount of melatonin. Some cereals are also are enriched with an amino acid called tryptophan and is a precursor to melatonin, thus helping improve sleep cycle and provide other benefits.
Wheat 124.7 ng per gram
Barley 82.3 ng per gram
Oats 90.6 ng per gram
List of cereals high in tryptophan
Fruits are one of my favorite foods, so it’s good to know that they are also a good source of the health-promoting hormone melatonin. Below are some fruits which are reported to have the highest levels of melatonin.
Grapes – 8.7 – 158 ng per gram
Tart Cherries – 13.46 ng per gram
Strawberries – 11.26 ng per gram
Vegetables should be a staple of any healthy diet since they contain a high level of antioxidants and beneficial compounds which promote good health.
Vegetables have also been studied looking at their concentration of melatonin. Below is a list of the melatonin concentration in popular vegetables.
Peppers – 11.9 ng per gram (fresh weight) and 93.4 ng per gram (dry weight)
Tomato – 14.77 ng per gram (fresh weight) and 249.98 ng per gram (dry weight)
Mushrooms – 12,900 ng per gram in Basidiomycota and 6800 ng per gram in Basidiomycota
Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes
Mustard Seeds – White mustard seeds have approximately 189 ng of melatonin per gram and Black mustard seeds have 129 ng per gram.
Soybeans – 1.89 ng per gram
Lentil – 1090 ng per gram
Kidney bean – 529 ng per gram
Pistachio – 233,000 ng per gram *
Walnuts – 3.5 ng per gram
Should you supplement melatonin
Supplementing melatonin is an option for people who require a higher dose of melatonin to see any effects. Depending on which country you are from, this may or may not be something you can buy over the counter.
However, there are many popular stores, including Amazon, where you can find a variety of melatonin supplements up to 5 mg – which is significantly more than you would get from eating foods.
You can also get melatonin prescribed by a doctor if you have a medical condition.
Potential side effects of prescription and OTC melatonin (high dose supplements)
- Hormonal changes – Women who are pregnant should not take melatonin and should speak to a doctor if considering taking it
- Headaches – A very high dose of melatonin may cause headaches
- Stomach cramps
Again, melatonin is very safe and has been studied long-term and the majority of people take it without any issues for up to 2 years. These side effects are often mild, transient.
Melatonin is just one component of a healthy sleep cycle, but a very important one. Try to include a few of these melatonin-rich foods in your diet to improve your sleep!
Melatonin for Treatment of Sleep Disorders: Summary
Melatonin in Patients with Reduced REM Sleep Duration: Two Randomized Controlled Trials
Impact of Melatonin Enrichment during Germination of Legumes on Bioactive Compounds and Antioxidant Activity.
Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin
Efficacy of melatonin for sleep disturbance following traumatic brain injury: a randomized controlled trial. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29347988