Look beyond the basics of closing your eyes, emptying your mind and ensuring all the lights are out, what’s the real science behind what controls our sleep pattern. Well, here’s a starter for 10.
For many people out there, the reasons why we can or can’t sleep are a constant mystery. If you often struggle with insomnia or just broken sleep there can be seemingly no reason for your struggles. Yet the reality is that there are many factors at play. While this particular issue encompasses everything from nutrition to caffeine intake; stress levels to room temperature, getting to the heart of sleep patterns should really begin with two crucial neurotransmitters – serotonin and melatonin.
The seemingly simple act of falling (and staying) asleep actually relies on a number of different complex and delicate processes that control and are controlled by chemicals in the body. As neurotransmitters with practically opposing functions, both serotonin and melatonin are vital in ensuring that we fall asleep successfully at night and awaken feeling refreshed in the morning.
To help clear up some of the science behind sleep, we’re going to take a closer look at what these chemicals are and how they operate when it comes to sleep health. By understanding these processes, we hope you’ll gain a clearer idea of what is necessary in order to sleep well every night.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin is one of many neurotransmitters working in our body. It is involved in the function of several vital organ systems in the body. Serotonin has gained a reputation as a “happy chemical” as the release of serotonin is known to contribute to energy levels and a sense of wellbeing. Conversely, low levels of serotonin in the brain have been closely linked with depression.
In fact, serotonin (which is produced in the brain) impacts on more than just mood. It also has a role to play in appetite, sleep, temperature regulation, memory and even sexual desire.
The far-reaching effects of serotonin have led to it being studied widely in medicine. Today, synthetic serotonin is often used in the treatment of certain mental health conditions such as anxiety disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), epilepsy and even phobias. Too high or too low levels of serotonin have been linked to other diseases such as heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and osteoporosis.
What is melatonin?
Like serotonin, melatonin is a naturally occurring chemical produced by the brain. It plays a part in several key processes within our bodies, and is primarily used to help regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
When it is working optimally, melatonin levels rise in the evening and fall in the morning, as it is involved in helping us feel more relaxed and ready for sleep. Melatonin can also act as a powerful antioxidant, which helps to fight free radicals and inflammation in the body.
Serotonin vs. melatonin in sleep
Now that we’ve covered the background of these two vital hormones, let’s take a closer look at how they impact our sleep patterns. Serotonin and melatonin can be seen as sister hormones, playing different roles in the same process. While serotonin can help you feel more energised and ready to face the day in the morning, melatonin can help you to feel calmer and relaxed as bedtime approaches.
The production of these two hormones is directly influenced by light levels, as the receptors in the brain interpret the intensity of the light being monitored by the eyes. Natural light can help to boost your body’s serotonin production, while growing darkness will likewise boost the amount of melatonin your body produces.
Both serotonin and melatonin have a key role to play in establishing your circadian rhythm. Maintaining healthy levels of these chemicals at the appropriate time of day is what unlocks the key to a firm, reliable sleep-wake cycle.
It should also be noted that artificial light – particularly from TV and digital device screens – can have a serious, detrimental effect on the natural balance of serotonin and melatonin. It is for this reason that sleep experts often recommend turning off all screens at least 90 minutes before bed to aid quality sleep.
Melatonin tablets: useful in the short term
When falling asleep feels like a nightly battle, it’s tempting to seek out miracle cures that provide an immediate resolution to the issue. One of the most popular treatments people look to is melatonin supplements.
Melatonin supplements can be extremely effective when travelling. Jet lag can wreak havoc on your internal clock, as travelling between time zone leaves your circadian rhythm out of sync with your surroundings. In this situation, taking melatonin can help to encourage the brain to adapt the time at which it thinks it is ready for sleep. However, it is important to note that once you’re stable in a new time zone, melatonin supplements are not considered an effective, long-term solution to continuing sleep problems.
For older individuals whose circadian rhythm has become stunted and less rigid, taking melatonin of an evening can be useful. But if you are young and healthy, experts believe that tablets probably won’t make any difference to sleep quality.
It is worth noting, however, that the placebo effect attached to taking these supplements can have some impact on sleep quality as it can leave you in a more relaxed mental state – and therefore more likely to experience high quality sleep.
How can you improve your sleep quality in the long run?
While tablets and sleep aids can help tackle immediate issues of insomnia, treating more chronic sleep issues requires deeper changes to your sleep schedule. Evaluating your nightly routine and implementing a few key changes can be enough to see your sleep quality improve dramatically over time, leading to an all-round healthier lifestyle. Here are just a few ways to give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep.
Dim the lights
As we mentioned earlier, light plays a key role in the amount of serotonin and melatonin your body produces. Exposing yourself to natural light first thing in the morning can help you instantly feel more energetic and alert. While this is hard in winter, artificial sun lamps can have a similar effect.
Likewise, reducing your exposure to light in the run-up to bedtime can help promote an undisrupted melatonin production. Try to stay away from bright lights and screens for at least an hour before bed, giving yourself a strict curfew for things like laptops and phones.
If you tend to do things like work or check social media right up to the time you go to bed, this could be disrupting your body’s natural unwinding process. Try swapping out these activities with more relaxing undertakings like reading or meditation, in a space with dim lighting. This encourages your body’s melatonin production rather than inhibiting it, giving you the best chance of a good night’s sleep.
Avoid certain substances
Alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine can all disrupt sleep in different ways. While caffeine can make it more difficult to fall asleep, drinking alcohol can make falling asleep easier, but reduce the quality of the sleep you experience. Similarly, eating big or spicy meals can also cause discomfort and indigestion which disrupts sleep. Try to avoid eating large meals for two-three hours before bedtime. A good rule of thumb is don’t go to bed too full and don’t go to bed too early.
Invest in a premium mattress
Good quality sleep requires a good quality bed, so a comfortable and supportive mattress is imperative. Far too many people continue to sleep on a mattress that has exceeded its life expectancy and lost its support and pressure relieving qualities. If your mattress is over 8 years old, it may be time to invest in a new sleep surface.
Mammoth are proud to create the very highest quality mattresses available, using a blend of tried and tested materials and sleep science once reserved for the healthcare industry. Start improving your sleep quality today by test driving a Mammoth mattress for yourself. Click here to find your nearest retailer.