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How Melatonin Works for Sleep + Ways to Boost Levels Naturally 

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Many people are using melatonin supplements to fall asleep and stay asleep. This bears asking— How does melatonin work in the body? Is it habit forming? And is melatonin supplementation a safe & sustainable solution to sleep issues?

how melatonin works

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Many people are using melatonin supplements as a crutch to help them fall asleep and stay asleep. This bears asking— Is it habit forming? And is melatonin supplementation a sustainable and safe solution to sleep issues? In order to understand this, you must understand how melatonin works in the body.

Sleep trouble is a problem that too many people struggle with on a day to day (or night to night) basis. About 35.5% of American adults reported sleeping fewer than seven hours in a 24-hour period according to the NCOA. That is simply not enough rest! Lack of sleep is detrimental to your body, especially if you’re healing your gut and reversing autoimmunity. 

And so, if you find yourself struggling to shut your brain off at bedtime, staying up until the wee hours of morning, or waking up several times throughout the night, let’s explore if melatonin supplementation is a healthy solution, or if it can cause further imbalance. 


First off, melatonin is not just a supplement designed to help you sleep. It’s actually a hormone your body naturally produces! It’s derived from the neurotransmitter serotonin and the amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin stabilizes your mood and is known as one of the “happy hormones.” Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that your body doesn’t produce on its own, but rather gets from the food you eat. You know how Thanksgiving turkey notoriously makes the whole family ready for bed right after dinner? That’s due to its high levels of tryptophan, which gets converted into melatonin. 

Melatonin is produced primarily in the pineal gland in your brain. Its purpose is to regulate our circadian rhythm, which is why melatonin levels actually fluctuate throughout the day. The hormone is intended to help your body fall in line with the natural dark to light cycles of the sun rising and setting. How melatonin works is, when the sun sets, your pineal gland is activated by the part of your brain called the hypothalamus. Once this gland turns on, it spikes your melatonin levels, making you sleepy. This is why melatonin is often called the sleep hormone! 


While melatonin is at its highest at night, it fluctuates significantly throughout the day and takes along some other hormones and neurotransmitters for the ride.

Here is what the cycle looks like:
  1. In the morning, melatonin levels are low. At this time cortisol, the stress hormone, spikes to get you up, out of bed, and ready for the day!
  1. Then throughout the day, melatonin levels start to increase and cortisol levels decrease. Exposure to sunlight at this time also helps to produce serotonin, a precursor to melatonin. The more sunlight you’re exposed to, the more serotonin you produce. 
  1. Eventually when the sun starts to set, melatonin levels surge as the serotonin converts to the melatonin hormone. This spike in melatonin causes decreases in body temperature and a slowed breathing rate, helping you feel relaxed and ready for bed. 
how melatonin works with the hormone cycle

This cycle happens every single day for every healthy human on the planet. We are biologically programmed to be awake and alert when the sun is shining and yearning for rest as the sun goes down. 


While natural melatonin’s main function is to regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycle, it plays a role beyond making you feel sleepy at nighttime and energized during the day. This is because a balanced circadian rhythm is essential for other important processes throughout your body to work properly. 

Your body utilizes melatonin for many functions. It plays an important role in:

  • Managing healthy immune function
  • Regulating blood pressure and cortisol levels 
  • Maintaining healthy eye function
  • Balanced oxidative stress levels
  • Reducing inflammation and infection 
how melatonin works in the body

First of all, balanced melatonin means a healthy circadian rhythm, and therefore deeper, more restorative sleep. Adequate rest is essential for a healthy gut. This is especially true when healing from intestinal permeability, as your gut lining heals during deep sleep. 

About 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut microbiome. And remember, serotonin eventually gets converted into melatonin. This is why it’s no surprise that balanced melatonin levels support gut health and melatonin imbalance is linked with leaky gut. 

Melatonin also supports immune function in the gut microbiome. The hormone interacts with immune cells in the gut, which promotes a healthy inflammatory response and antioxidant levels. It can also affect gut motility as it stimulates receptors that produce smooth muscle relaxation and contraction, allowing for healthier and more regular bowel movements. 


Melatonin is clearly an essential hormone that affects important functions throughout the body. So what happens when your melatonin levels are out of whack? What does a melatonin imbalance look like? 

As we’ve discussed, a healthy circadian rhythm consists of:

  • High cortisol and low melatonin in the morning
  • High serotonin throughout the day
  • High melatonin and low cortisol and serotonin at night

When your circadian rhythm is out of balance, the above hormone levels will be low when they should be high and vice versa. 

A major factor that contributes to these imbalances is adrenal fatigue. Our adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys, typically handle stress by producing cortisol, the stress hormone. When you’re faced with ongoing stressors, be that physical, mental, or emotional, your adrenal glands can’t keep up with the need for stress hormones and become overworked. Hence— adrenal fatigue or HPA axis dysfunction. The cause of adrenal fatigue can be complex, but is mostly a result of leaky gut and autoimmunity over the years, as these both put stress on the body. 

This affects melatonin production because the ratio of cortisol to melatonin is dependent on one another, due to the rise and fall of each respective hormone throughout the day. Melatonin is inversely proportional to cortisol. In other words, when cortisol is high, melatonin is low and when cortisol is low, melatonin is high. When adrenal fatigue occurs, this healthy hormonal rhythm is disrupted, causing imbalances. 


First and foremost, the biggest consequence of melatonin imbalance is lack of sleep. But it doesn’t only affect your sleep at nighttime. As we know, it throws the whole cycle out of whack. And when your biological cycles are thrown off, health issues ensue. 

A common sign of melatonin imbalance is hitting an intense midafternoon slump, usually between 2 and 3pm. If you feel like you need an extra long nap midday yet you feel wired once you go to bed at night, you likely have a melatonin imbalance. 

Melatonin also plays a huge role in reducing inflammation. It reduces the production of inflammatory cytokines and is also found in immune cells.  This is why melatonin balance is essential when it comes to reversing autoimmunity. 

Other consequences of melatonin deficiency specifically and/or the lack of sleep it causes include:
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Sensorimotor issues 
  • Risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Difficulty learning and focusing 
  • Difficulty recalling memories
  • Increased risk of diabetes
  • Accelerated aging/ age-related diseases 
  • Poor immune function/ autoimmunity 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Loss of vision

And this is not an exhaustive list! Remember, melatonin affects the balance of many important hormones and functions. When one thing is thrown off balance, many others follow suit.

how melatonin supplementation works

A sleep “remedy” often used by those with insomnia is taking melatonin supplements before bed. In theory, this works by boosting melatonin hormone levels at night to counteract the imbalance that results in low nighttime levels. While it may seem like the most obvious fix, there are potential consequences to relying too heavily on external melatonin. 

Remember, melatonin is an actual hormone that your body needs to produce on its own. Excessive use of supplements can inhibit your body’s ability to regulate your natural melatonin production, furthering imbalances. Because melatonin is considered a supplement, it is not regulated by the FDA and there is no recommended dosage information. Studies on long term effects of melatonin usage are also very limited. 

In fact, most people who do supplement with melatonin are taking far too much. As little as 1-3 milligrams can boost your melatonin by 20 times. However, many supplements come with dosages much higher, even up to 10 milligrams. If you find yourself needing a higher and higher dosage in order for it to work, your body is likely struggling to produce even remotely adequate amounts of melatonin. As you take more through supplement form, your body produces less. This creates a vicious cycle of reliance. 

how melatonin works and how to boost it naturally

I suggest supporting your body’s natural melatonin production before opting for a supplement. The key to insomnia relief is to look at your sleep habits first. Supplementation is not the ultimate solution but lifestyle shifts can be! There are powerful ways to help your body regulate its circadian rhythm naturally.

Here are four useful tips to boost melatonin levels and regulate your sleep-wake cycle:  
1. Get enough sunlight in the morning 

Exposing your eyes to sunlight in the morning can help regulate your circadian rhythm. This triggers your brain to reduce melatonin levels and start producing serotonin. The earlier you get sun exposure and start producing serotonin, the earlier you produce melatonin at night. This leads to happier moods, higher energy, more motivation, and better sleep. 

2. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule

A consistent sleep and wake time actually matters more than how much sleep you are getting! Try your best to maintain a consistent schedule, especially when it comes to sleep. This will help regulate your circadian rhythm which will in turn regulate your serotonin and melatonin levels. Aim for a time that works best for you and your lifestyle. Ideally, our body responds best when we go to bed at 10pm and wake at 6am.

3. Eat cherries or drink tart cherry juice at a bedtime 

Cherries are a rich source of tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin production. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that your body doesn’t produce on its own. If you eat cherries or drink tart cherry juice before bed, you provide your body with a necessary ingredient to produce more melatonin, and help you fall asleep and stay asleep. I recommend consuming around 7-8pm because you start melatonin production around 9pm. I also suggest opting for organic with no added sugars.

4. Limit blue light exposure

Phones, computers, and television screens emit blue light, which inhibits melatonin production. This light tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. Even if you know you should be tired, your brain is getting the message that it’s time to stay awake according to your surroundings. This is why you should avoid blue light at least 30 minutes before bedtime if you want more quality sleep. Instead, try reading a book, journaling, or listening to music.

I also suggest wearing blue light blocking glasses when using electronics after the sun goes down. This is a great way to help limit the amount of blue light your eyes and pineal gland are exposed to at nighttime. My favorite blue light blocking glasses to improve REM sleep quality are by Felix Gray. Their lenses actually target the range of blue light that impacts melatonin secretion (440-500 nm wavelengths) to help improve the quality of your sleep!

better sleep supplements other than melatonin
Magnesium Powder

Magnesium is a much better option as a continued sleep supplement. Most people are actually deficient in magnesium anyway! Stress, alcohol, processed foods, and antibiotics deplete our magnesium stores. When we’re deficient in this vital mineral, our bodies have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.

I like to take Live Pristine Magnesium Powder about 30 minutes before bed because it promotes relaxation and reduces stress before it’s time to hit the hay. The powder mixes with water to create magnesium bicarbonate, which has been known to reduce insomnia, headaches, and inflammation. It’s formulated specifically to help support healthy magnesium levels and help you feel calm!  

Epsom Salt Baths

Epsom salt baths are incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating. It is one of my favorite ways to combat stress and relax my body for bedtime. My favorite is this Primally Pure Sea Soak because it’s packed with detoxifying ingredients like magnesium that you can absorb through your skin. The epsom salt, dead sea salt, and french green clay relax your body, soften your muscles, replenish magnesium stores, and remove toxins. The scent of eucalyptus, spearmint, and peppermint essential oils are also so calming without any harsh synthetic fragrance. 

All ingredients are organic and I always feel refreshed and amazing after use. You can try Primally Pure Bath Salts or any other product for 10% off using code: NY10 at checkout! 

Earthly Sleepy Time Set 

I absolutely love Earthly products for sleep support! They’re a brand committed to natural wellness remedies. I recommend the Sweet Dreams Bundle gift set, which includes their Goodnight Lotion, Sleepytime Tincture, and Calming Essential Oil Roller. All products are free from parabens, fragrance, preservatives, or allergens like soy, corn, dairy, tree nuts, gluten, peanuts, sesame, or fish. They are vegan, non-GMO, and made in the USA!

The Goodnight Lotion contains magnesium chloride to promote restful sleep along with nourishing butters to soothe skin. The Sleepytime Tincture is a combination of  catnip, skullcap, and passionflower. These powerful yet gentle herbs naturally promote restful sleep. And the Calming Essential Oil Roller contains a blend of grapeseed, lavender, orange, cedarwood, and ylang-ylang to support peace and calm. 


CBD oil naturally helps your body regulate stress through the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a complex network of receptors in your body that help maintain balance by controlling pain response, moods, sleep cycles, appetite and more.

The cannabinoids in CBD mimic natural chemical processes within this system, which can reduce stress-induced cortisol release. This is why CBD oil reduces inflammation, calms the mind, and relaxes the body— all of which are necessary for a good night’s sleep!

I prefer Coseva Advanced CBD Oil because it’s 5-10X more potent than most CBD oils yet contains 0% THC. It goes through thorough third party testing to ensure it’s contaminant-free, and non-GMO. Plus, it’s US and 100% organically grown! 

Other Sleep Remedies

There are even more insomnia remedies to support restful sleep!  Learn more about the sleep stages, health implications of poor quality sleep, root causes of insomnia, AND 9 other natural sleep aids that actually work on this blog post right here. 


We’re all about getting to the root cause in this community, even when it comes to sleep habits! Looking at the big picture is key in order to beat insomnia and get the restorative sleep your body needs. I believe supplements have an important role in health and wellness, but you can’t supplement your way out of bad habits! 

If you have sleep trouble even after taking a hard look at your daily routine and trying natural remedies to balance your circadian rhythm, it may be time to work with a professional. I suggest working with a functional medicine practitioner like myself to dive deeper into underlying causes of sleep troubles. In my Microbiome Makeover program, we do in-depth functional medicine testing and work with you on strategies to heal your body from the inside out. You can learn more about the program at!

how melatonin works for sleep

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"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."

-Nikki Yelton, RD

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