How Does Melatonin Work and How Does It Affect Your Overall Hormone Health

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If you think of literally any biological process in the body, from birth to old age and death, hormones play an essential part in it. When you think about health, most often you focus on other organs and systems. You think about the heart and blood vessels, the liver, or the lungs. But the system that never seems to be in focus is actually the one that connects all of the others. Most times, it is even in charge of them – your hormone health.

The endocrine system consists of all the glands in the body as well as the hormones they produce. It’s an incredibly complex system that, in a healthy body, regulates the release of hormones ensuring they are finely tuned. However, when the natural hormone balance gets disrupted, it can seriously affect both your physical and your mental wellbeing.

First, you need to understand how this system works. That’s the only way to understand how to maintain your hormone health and wellness, and how to balance hormones that are already out of order.

The Natural Diurnal Rhythm and Hormone Health

Some people who suffer from insomnia, or prefer sleeping in will sometimes proudly declare themselves nocturnal. But is there any truth to this claim? Being a night owl is mostly a matter of preference (and not a very healthy one). But humans have naturally evolved to be diurnal.

Simply put, our bodies are tuned to sleep at night and be awake and active while it’s light outside. This is the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is all of the cycles that happen in the body during a 24-hour period, and that follow the shift from day to night. Essentially, it’s your internal clock that tells your body what needs to happen, and when.

The circadian rhythm is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of other cycles. It involves body temperature changes, blood pressure oscillations, sleep and waking, and hormone level changes, to name just a few. 

But how does the body know when all of the different phases of these cycles should happen? The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a part of the hypothalamus in the brain, acts as the internal clock and sends signals to different systems. Light triggers this circadian pacemaker.

Everyone’s vaguely heard of melatonin – the sleep hormone – but what role does this hormone play in this cycle? In the morning, when your optical nerves get into contact with light, the master clock (SCN) lowers the levels of adenosine and melatonin.

These are the hormones that make you sleepy. At the same time, it boosts the production of cortisol as well as other hormones. These hormones wake you up and make you feel alert – epinephrine, norepinephrine, histamine, and serotonin.

So, how does melatonin work? Lower or higher levels of melatonin during a 24-hour period signal to our body when it’s time to rest.

What Happens When Your Circadian Rhythm Is Disrupted?

The most obvious and direct consequence of a disrupted circadian rhythm is insomnia. There are many possible causes of insomnia – stress, environmental factors, mental health issues, sleep disorders, and jet lag. The list goes on and on.

Light plays an important role in sleep patterns. Blue light – which makes us alert and awake – is typical of midday. However, the screens that most of us now use throughout the day, including in the evening, emit blue light.

How does melatonin work in the evening then, if your body is getting the blue light signal from your phone or computer that it’s time to be awake? In short, it doesn’t.

Red and near-infrared light are the most intense at dawn and sunset. A dose of red light in the evening signals to our body that it needs to wind down and get ready for sleep. However, it’s impossible to enjoy these evening melatonin benefits, if the melatonin production doesn’t work.

The problem is twofold. A huge number of our bodily processes require natural sunlight. Due to our mostly indoor way of life, as well as skin cancer concerns, nowadays we just don’t get enough sunshine. 

Secondly, the artificial lights we only emit the visible spectrum of light. The glands don’t get the necessary cues to increase or decrease hormone production at appropriate times. Worse still, research shows that artificial light causes “light stress” – increased production of the stress hormone cortisol.

In short, when your internal clock is out of order, your natural hormone balance is off as well.

The Role of Melatonin in Hormone Health and Wellness

As science advances, melatonin is viewed less and less as just the hormone of sleep, and more as the hormone that signals the changes between light and dark, and synchronizes a number of other hormones and processes. 

Through other hormones which act as its intermediaries, such as ghrelin (the hunger hormone), leptin (the fullness hormone), reproductive hormones, and corticosteroids, melatonin affects everything from our body temperature, eating habits, and sexual behaviour, sometimes causing lower energy levels and bad mood. 

So the question of how to balance hormones often comes down to the question of how to balance your melatonin levels.

Sources of Melatonin

Many people resort to melatonin supplements, mostly for sleep trouble. However, there are concerns regarding its long-term safety.

In the body, the melatonin that you can find in the bloodstream comes from the pineal gland – a gland in the center of the brain that consists of light-sensitive cells.

However, a study by the scientist Scott Zimmerman revealed that there is another significant source of melatonin in the human body. According to the findings of this study, there is a much bigger reservoir of melatonin in the cells of the body. But how did it get there?

Apparently, the mitochondria in many cells produce melatonin. The hormone from these reserves does not fluctuate with changes in the circadian rhythm or enter the bloodstream.

Well then, what good is it? This cell-based melatonin is used by the cells themselves to fight free radicals. This “daylight melatonin” has a powerful antioxidant effect and is able to help prevent and reverse the deterioration in ageing or damaged cells.

The production of both kinds of melatonin – the cellular and the kind produced by the pineal gland, is stimulated by sunlight. Today, when people don’t spend enough time outside to ensure proper melatonin production, it’s wise to turn to other means of stimulation, such as red light therapy devices.

Red Light Therapy and Natural Hormone Balance

Red and near infrared light are present during the whole day in natural sunlight, although they are the most intense in the morning and late afternoon or evening. The blue light dominates the middle portion of the day. The circadian rhythm follows this natural progression of light. Is red light therapy safe? Yes, when done properly.

A sufficient amount of red and near infrared light in the morning and the evening boosts the production of both varieties of melatonin – cellular and pineal. Unlike blue light, which you should avoid at night because it brings on insomnia, red light doesn’t interfere with sleep cycles.

Red light therapy devices can be a supplemental therapy to neutralize the effects of blue light and ensure healthy melatonin production and overall hormone health.

The effects of red light on hormones are not limited just to melatonin. There’s evidence to suggest that it also has a role in weight regulation through the hunger and fullness hormones, ghrelin and leptin.

It is not easy or sometimes even possible to model your life so you get enough natural red light at dawn and sunset, which is why red light therapy devices play an increasingly important role in health today.

Evolution of Red Light Therapy: Portable, Wearable Devices

The first scientifically significant attempts to harness the power of red light came from NASA. While trying to figure out a way to grow food on space missions, NASA scientists accidentally discovered that red light therapy helped them heal their wounds faster. That’s when their interest in red light therapy shifted toward using red light for more therapeutic purposes.

In Europe, athletes used red light lasers as a form of injury treatment for decades. However, the success rate was patchy. Lasers need to be used by trained experts and the treatments were expensive in the beginning. The results were somewhat limited.

The next step in the evolution of red light therapy, was red light therapy panels. This type of red light therapy is still very present today and it is quite effective. The treatments involve exposing the body directly to the light of the panel (with no clothing that would block it). 

The panels come in different shapes and sizes and can be quite robust. There are several downsides to using this type of red light therapy.

First, standing naked in front of a panel for 30 minutes daily is not that convenient. It requires a level of organizing and privacy not everyone has.

There is also the question of how far away you are from the source of the red light. The power of red light diminishes dramatically with every inch away from the source. Panels aren’t that convenient to stand close to.

Panels aren’t ergonomic. You can expose one side of your body to it, but what about the rest of it? How about the curves of your body? Do they get the same dosage of red light? It is something to think about.

For all of these reasons, people started making red light therapy lamps as the first attempt in creating an effective portable red light therapy device. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but there are benefits of proper red light therapy that many of these portable devices simply don’t deliver.

How to Pick the Best Red Light Therapy Device

For red light therapy to be efficient, the output of such a device needs to meet the following criteria:

  • The proper wavelength of light: Scientific research shows that the healing effects of red light therapy usually come from light within the range of 600 to 1020nm. In our extensive research, both by experimentation and reviewing the research done by others, we conclude that the best range for red light is between 625 and 635nm, and near-infrared light in the range between 800 to 870nm
  • Energy density: The best results are achieved with a steady stream of energy that is around the 70 J/cm2 mark.
  • Irradiance: Look for irradiance within the range of 20-200 mW/cm2

All these factors make for a truly beneficial red light therapy device. However, the delivery of this dose is also crucial, as well as the portability of the device. They both need to be correct so that getting your daily dose is easy to incorporate into your day.

That is why the latest step in the evolution of red light therapy is a powerful, portable red light therapy device. It needs to deliver targeted red light. The latest designs involve flexible red light therapy devices that are ergonomic. They need to easily fit the shape of the human body.

Soon enough, given the tempo of modern life, it is safe to predict that a personal, portable, and targeted red light therapy device will become mainstream. Just like noise-cancelling headphones, Fitbit, smart watches, and smart water bottles. All these have become irreplaceable parts of our daily lives. Portable and wearable red light therapy devices are striving to make the same breakthrough. 

And that is one trend we should all be looking forward to. Finally, there is an easy and convenient way to get an easy-to-use, portable red light therapy device. The one that will provide you with melatonin benefits and maintain your hormone balance at all times.