Scientists have discovered that we all have body clocks, not just in the brain but all over the body – in the pancreas, liver, kidneys, adipose tissue and muscles. Each of these works on its own schedule, determining when hormones are released or when the organs are busy or most relaxed.
We know that reflexes are at their peak in the mid-afternoon and blood pressure peaks towards evening. We know that some medications should be taken in the morning and others in the evening. When one of these body clocks becomes out of sync, problems can arise and contribute to obesity, depression and heart disease, just to name a few.
The hormone melatonin is produced in a pea-sized gland, the pineal gland, in the center of the head. The function of this gland is to produce melatonin, a hormone that helps the brain track day length. It’s not clear how melatonin is related to sleep, but we know that levels rise in the evening and peak in the middle of the night. However, this also applies to animals that are awake at night.
Melatonin use has increased during the pandemic, and the American Academy of Pediatrics is encouraging parents to talk to their pediatricians about giving children melatonin supplements.
In the United States, melatonin is considered a dietary supplement, so it is not tested as a drug. It is recommended that parents look at the label to see a logo indicating that the product has been certified by a third party such as ConsumerLab, NSF International, UL and US Pharmacopeia. This means that the group has tested the product to ensure that the ingredients are listed in the correct amount and that it is not contaminated with other substances.
Melatonin comes in many forms, such as gummies, capsules, and tablets. There are many different dosages. It is also recommended that you start with the lowest dose while working on a normal, healthy bedtime and sleep routine. Normal melatonin secretion seems to be related to decreasing light, such as in the evening, so beware of the blue light from our multiple screens suppressing the secretion.
Melatonin can help your child fall asleep, but it won’t keep them asleep. Long-acting products are available, but they have not yet been studied for effectiveness and safety.
It is important to keep melatonin (and all medications) out of the reach of children. The number of calls to poison control centers for melatonin increased by 70 percent between mid-March 2020 and the end of 2020.
About 15 to 25 percent of children and adolescents have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Good sleep is important for all ages, and good sleep comes with less screen time and more exercise.
Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This section is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s doctor.