In spite of the mounting evidences concluding that disrupting our circadian rhythm by staying awake at night while our body expects to be sleeping is harmful to our health, the luxury and privilege of choosing work hours may not be an option for everyone. Fortunately, there are some non-medical options to increase melatonin levels and for improving symptoms associated to Shift Work Disorder.
Choosing the Right Light Exposure. Optimal melatonin
production by the pineal gland occurs in approximation to the contrast of bright sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night. Getting bright sun exposure during the day and sleeping in complete darkness is crucial. If you need a source of light for navigation at night, install a low-wattage yellow, orange or red light bulb. Since humans have evolved in the glow of firelight, these colors’ wavelengths don't suppress melatonin production the way white and blue wavelengths do. As a matter of fact, the range of light that inhibits melatonin is fairly narrow — 460 to 480 nm. In order to protect melatonin production, it is best to opt for a low wattage bulb with yellow, orange, or red light when the sun goes down. A good option would be to use a salt lamp illuminated by a 5-watt bulb in this color range.
Another important point to mention is to avoid watching TV or using computer, tablets and cell phones in the evening, at least an hour before going to bed. These devices emit blue light, which stifle melatonin production.
Adjusting the Temperature
Looking at the available research, most studies agree that a temperature between 16 ͒C and 20͒C is optimal for sleeping.
Taking a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime
The increase in core temperature followed by an abrupt drop when we get out of the bath signals to the body that we are ready to sleep. The addition of 2 cups of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) to the bath water has a relaxing and mild detoxifying effect. We can also mix in a few drops of relaxing essential oils such as Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana), Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara), Rose (Rosa damascena), or Sandalwood (Santalum album). The key to essential oils is to be sure that you are choosing only high-quality oils.
Be mindful of electromagnetic fields in your bedroom
EMFs can have a disruptive effect on the pineal gland and its melatonin production. There have been many studies investigating EMF and melatonin suppression and although the general consensus is that we are lacking convincing evidence that EMF exposure affects melatonin production or action at this time, deficiencies in the existing research leave open the possibility of an effect. To be on the safer side, limit exposure in the bedroom and use a gauss meter in case of doubt.
Vitamins B Complex supplements
B vitamins are often considered the vitamins of the nervous system act as coenzyme in various biochemical pathways in our body, including the production of important neurotransmitters. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is particularly important as it is required in the transformation of the amino acid tryptophan – found in proteins – into serotonin, the precursor to melatonin. When choosing a B vitamins complex, it’s important to select one that contains the bioactive form of pyridoxine - pyridoxal 5'-phosphate or P5P – since enzymatic variant can predispose us in having a poor conversion of this precious B vitamin and limiting the production of serotonin/melatonin.
It’s preferable to support the body to produce its own melatonin in order to reach our optimal melatonin dosage. However, if you are struggling with insomnia or needing to adjust to an irregular schedule, taking melatonin supplements may help to “reset” your internal clock. According to scientific studies, melatonin can help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep, experience less restlessness, and prevent daytime fatigue. It is best to start with a small dose - typically 0.5mg – and to increase it up from there. Higher doses can produce a ‘rebound’ effect in some people and make them more wakeful instead, so it’s better to adjust the dosage carefully and to always combine it with a B vitamins complex for maximum efficiency.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
The most important inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA acts like a “brake” during times of stress or anxiety, regulating brain excitability and inducing relaxation. GABA receptors are highly concentrated in the hypothalamus; the region of the brain associated with sleep. GABA is effective against insomnia, and has been shown to affect the brain directly, increasing α-brain waves - associated with relaxation - and reducing β-brain waves - associated with anxiety and stress.
Is a non-essential amino acid found in green tea and is responsible for the ‘relaxed alertness’ state associated with this famous eastern beverage. L-Theanine can influence brain wave patterns in a similar fashion to GABA, and it can also act indirectly on the brain by stimulating GABA production. L-Theanine has been shown to reduce anxiety by increasing α-brain waves preceding stage I sleep.
- Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) has a long history of traditional use in a wide range of cultures to promote calmness, relaxation and sleep. Valerian root contains essential oils which provide most of its sedative effect, while fractions known as valepotriates add a regulatory inhibiting effect on the central nervous system. There are about 150 other constituents of Valerian, a great many of which act synergistically to account for Valerian’s overall efficacy, which includes the stimulation of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate L). The clinical studies involving passionflower pertain mainly to anxiety and are in combination with other substances. Nonetheless, it is officially listed as a sleep aid in the monographs of the European Medicines Agency (an EU organization) as well as the National Heath Products Directorate (a division within Health Canada).
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis L.) The roots of lemon balm originate in the folk medicine traditions of southern Europe. It has demonstrated its greatest efficacy when used with other herbal extracts Lemon balm is classified as a sleep aid in the monographs of the British, European (EU) and German Commission E Pharmacopeias, as well as in the compendium of the Natural Health Products Directorate of Health Canada.
There are no doubts that shift work affect our health negatively, but it is a reality that one third of us are currently experiencing. When having or choosing to work at night or on rotating shift, it is crucial to try adopting even healthier diet and life habits in an attempt to minimise the increased risk for various chronic diseases associated with the chronodisruption and resulting reduced melatonin production associated with shift work. When possible, it is better to establish a routine, even if it is at night – than to rotate schedules and to try limiting the duration of exposure to shift work in our life, especially if we are at higher risk for breast cancer. In the meantime, some suggestions have been proposed in this article to increase natural melatonin production, as well as useful supplements to help counteract the symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder.