If you're struggling to sleep, melatonin deficiency could be the culprit. Low melatonin levels not only make it difficult to sleep, they can also lead to serious health consequences such as anxiety, cognitive decline, weight gain, depression and diabetes.
The good news is that once you identify the root cause, you can develop a treatment plan to increase melatonin, promoting better sleep, reduced anxiety and overall physical and mental wellness.
- Melatonin deficiency, defined
- How to test melatonin levels
- Treatment: How to increase melatonin
Melatonin deficiency, defined
Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland and regulates our circadian rhythms. Often dubbed "the sleep hormone," melatonin is released at darkness to signal to our bodies that it's time to sleep. Melatonin production is reduced when it's time to wake.
In addition to regulating the sleep/wake cycle, melatonin plays a vital role in cardiovascular function, body temperature and female reproductive hormones (Association for the Advancement of Restorative Medicine). It also affects fertility, body and bone mass, and helps protect the brain, cardiovascular system and immune system (Antioxidants Journal).
Melatonin levels fluctuate throughout the day, night, and seasonally. On average, melatonin levels in young adults peak at 10pg/mL (picogram per milliliter) during the day and 60pg/mL at night. Those peaks decline by about 10 to 15% per decade (National Library of Medicine).
Melatonin deficiency symptoms
Melatonin deficiency can prove difficult to diagnose without testing, since symptoms are often similar to many other underlying causes. That said, the most common low melatonin symptoms include:
- Difficulty falling asleep (insomnia)
- Waking at night
- Daytime drowsiness
- Weight gain
- Confusion and trouble concentrating (brain fog)
- Mood disorders
"The symptoms of melatonin deficiency can include difficulty sleeping, slowed reaction times and changes in mood or behavior," says Dr. Sarah Watson, psychologist, certified coach and Chief Operating Officer at BPTLAB, an innovative personality testing solutions provider.
Wendy Lord, R.D., a registered dietician at Health Reporter, says you might be deficient in melatonin if you're generally not sleeping well at night and feel lethargic in the morning.
"Melatonin is responsible for promoting and regulating sleep patterns. Other symptoms of melatonin deficiency include daytime sleepiness, insomnia and anxiety," says Lord. "Left untreated, melatonin deficiency can lead to more serious problems."
For example, low melatonin levels in pregnant women could cause endocrine disorders in developing babies. Other potential complications of prolonged melatonin deficiency include:
- Lowered basal body temperature
- Sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep phase syndrome
- Neurological disease
- Elevated estrogen/progesterone ratio
- Menstrual irregularities
- Immunological disorders
- Cardiovascular disease
- Lower antioxidant levels
"Evidence suggests that prolonged periods of low melatonin levels can have serious health consequences, including an increased risk of cancer, cognitive decline, heart disease and diabetes," says Dr. Watson. "Research has shown that people with lower melatonin levels are more prone to anxiety and depression."
In one study, researchers discovered that nighttime melatonin levels were significantly lower in depressed children and adolescents who had psychosis versus those who did not have psychosis (National Library of Medicine).
Another study found that cancer patients with brain metastases due to solid neoplasms lived longer and had a better quality of life when given melatonin supplements (National Library of Medicine).
Melatonin deficiency causes
"Several factors may contribute to low levels of this critical hormone, including chronic stress, poor diet and disruption of sleep cycles by things like shift work or jet lag," says Dr. Watson.
Potential causes for melatonin deficiency include:
- Light exposure at night
- Chronic stress
- Night shift work and disrupted sleep schedules
- Melatonin signal disruptions
- Jet lag
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Caffeine and alcohol use
- Diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, dementia and schizophrenia
"One common cause of melatonin deficiency is excessive caffeine consumption prior to bedtime," says Lord. "Caffeine inhibits the production of melatonin for about 4 to 5 hours. Similarly, alcohol can also affect your melatonin levels and make it difficult for you to fall asleep. The other most common cause of melatonin deficiency is increased light exposure at night, which suppresses melatonin release."
How to test melatonin levels
Blood, urine and saliva tests all measure melatonin levels. You can get your levels tested by your doctor or at a local lab. You can also find at-home melatonin test kits online, though they might not be the best options.
"At-home tests can be a convenient way to measure these levels, but it's important to remember that they often only provide a partially accurate picture of one's melatonin status," says Dr. Watson.
As previously stated, normal melatonin levels in young adults range between 10 and 60 pg/mL (picograms per milliliter). Those averages decline with age at a rate of about 10 to 15% per decade.
That said, optimal melatonin levels vary depending on age, health and other factors, and you shouldn't rely on averages and at-home tests alone to determine whether you're melatonin deficient.
"Anyone with more serious and persistent sleep problems should consult a doctor for proper identification and treatment,” says Lord.
Melatonin deficiency treatment (how to increase melatonin)
"There are various ways that people may choose to manage their melatonin deficiency, including taking melatonin supplements, undergoing light therapy or engaging in regular exercise," says Dr. Watson. "Making healthy lifestyle choices like avoiding chronic stress, getting enough sleep and eating a balanced diet can also help to promote optimal melatonin levels."
Melatonin deficiency treatment options include:
- Melatonin supplements
- Light therapy
- Daytime light exposure
- Limited artificial light after sundown
- Sticking to a sleep schedule
- Daytime exercise
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine, especially in the evening
- Dietary changes
"The treatment for melatonin deficiency depends on the severity of the problem," says Lord. "People with short-term melatonin deficiency can be cured with a healthy diet, an active lifestyle and melatonin supplements. On the other side, those with serious melatonin deficiency should consult a doctor for an effective treatment plan, which may also include red light therapy."
A registered dietitian, Lord says the following foods may help increase melatonin levels:
- Tart cherries
"People with melatonin deficiency should eat a bowl of tart cherries regularly as they contain melatonin and tryptophan," she says. "Tryptophan is an amino acid that improves the production of melatonin and serotonin."
Ultimately, it's best to speak with your doctor to determine the severity of your melatonin deficiency and outline an effective treatment plan.
"Depending on the underlying cause of your low levels of this hormone, you may benefit from consulting a range of different types of specialists, such as sleep doctors, endocrinologists, psychologists, nutritionists or others," says Dr. Watson.
Low melatonin levels can lead to serious health consequences. The good news is that once you identify the root cause, you can develop a treatment plan to increase melatonin, promoting better sleep, reduced anxiety and overall physical and mental wellness.
Disclaimer: The information stated in this article is for educational purposes only. The information stated is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure any disease, condition, or other physical or mental ailment of the human body. The desire to make any changes to one's dietary habits or supplementation should be consulted and discussed with a licensed medical professional.