Do you ever notice that life is more painful after a rough night’s sleep? This is true both emotionally and physically.
According to a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers discovered that poor sleep quality or lack of sleep can change the brain’s circuitry in ways that amplify sensitivity to pain.1
In part one of the study, 25 healthy volunteers got a good night’s sleep followed by staying up for 24 hours. Pain tolerance was measured after both days and there was a significantly lower threshold for pain when the subjects were sleep-deprived.
Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology, the researchers found that sleep deprivation is correlated with two kinds of negative brain changes linked to increased pain. Lack of sleep caused an increased reaction to pain in the somatosensory cortex of the brain, much like the body’s reaction to touching a hot stove. Sleep deprivation also caused a decreased reaction in areas of the brain that evaluate and mitigate pain (the insula cortex and striatum). These areas can respond to pain by producing natural pain-killing opioids, but such a response is dulled by lack of sleep.
A follow-up study evaluating the effect of poor-quality sleep on pain found similar results. Response to the pain signal was increased and ability to self-medicate the pain with natural pain relievers was decreased.
Circadian Reset for Better Sleep
So we can see the importance of good sleep, but why is it so elusive?
In nature, circadian light-dark cycles are the primary regulators of sleep and sleep quality.2 These natural cycles are often disrupted in our modern lives, full of artificial light.
There is a neurohormone we can turn to to help regulate these rhythms, through: a little secretion of the pineal gland called melatonin. Melatonin’s impact on natural circadian rhythms has been shown to stimulate numerous chronobiologic heath-promoting mechanisms such as antioxidant activity, immune function, reproduction, digestion, metabolism, mood regulation, weight management, sleep quality and quantity, as well as sleep’s analgesic ability in processing pain.2
Melatonin production is related to vitamin D production. When the sun rises, vitamin D levels surge, which naturally suppresses production of melatonin. This helps us transition from sleep to wakefulness. This is one reason I’m a fan of taking your winter vitamin D supplement in the morning.
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Many people with a circadian imbalance have surges of melatonin during the day and find themselves in need of a second cup of coffee, some dark chocolate, or a sweet treat pick-me-up. These ups and downs can lead to poor quality and less quantity of sleep each night.
Studies have shown that if you get less sunlight during the day (and thus less vitamin D), there will be a decrease in melatonin production that night and increased risk of sleep concerns.4
Vitamin D in the morning and melatonin at night are a great place to start getting yourself back into nature’s rhythms.
Melatonin supplementation has become a popular choice for improving sleep, but many are taking too high a dose. Sadly, healthy food stores and pharmacies mostly sell very high dosages—as high as 20mg. Studies have found that low-dose melatonin works as well as high-dose, without risk of having the melatonin spill over into the daytime cycles, making you fight bouts of melatonin-induced tiredness. In fact, one study found no difference in effectiveness of melatonin for sleep support with dosages of .5mg or 5mg.3,5,6
Another study stated: “Between two tenths of a milligram (.2mg) and five milligrams 60 minutes before bedtime is a typical dose for adults, while children should take a smaller dose. Too much melatonin can disrupt your sleep, so start with the smallest dose of two tenths of a milligram and increase it as needed.”3
Circadian Reset: Get the Most from Your Melatonin
At LifeSpa.com, I formulated a low-dose melatonin supplement called Liquid Melatonin, where one drop is only .1mg and 30 drops equal 3mg.
For a circadian medicine reset, I suggest my patients start with 1 drop or .1mg 45-60 minutes before bed and increase by one drop every two to three days until you have a deep and restorative night’s sleep without morning grogginess. Most never need to exceed ten drops. Once the best dose is found, stay on it for three months. Then, most of my patients can slowly lower their dose. The correct dose of melatonin will encourage natural production of your own melatonin (rather than suppress natural production).
As an added benefit, if you’re over 55, you can consider long term low-dose melatonin a natural aging hack! This is because we slow melatonin production as we age.
During the winter months, north of Atlanta, there is little to no UVB radiation from the sun, which is responsible for the production of vitamin D3 of our skin. Everyone has individual requirements for vitamin D3 and should be tested regularly (get your home testing kit here). The goal on a blood test is 50-80 no/mL year round. Most adults need 3-5000 IU of vitamin D3 each morning during winter to maintain optimal levels.
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Have you tried melatonin for sleep? How did it go? We always love to hear your stories!
Watch my podcast with melatonin researcher Dr. Paula Witt-Enderby here.
Read all my Circadian Medicine articles here.