Can melatonin levels be increased with food?

Melatonin is a hormone our body needs on a daily basis. Everyday it is produced, mainly by the pineal gland, in the brain, and lately it was discovered that the gut makes small quantities too. Once produced it is secreted into the bloodstream, with this step of the process being activated by low levels of light in your environment, typically once the sun has set. This is why all the talk about blue light at night disrupting your sleep patterns. Blue light is natural during the day, as part of the full spectrum of light and keeps us alert and awake. But once the sun is set, this blue light disappears and is the signal to our body to calm down and let rest take over. Exposing yourself to blue light at night-time is tricking the brain to think it’s still daytime and should be active and alert.  In relation to melatonin, this lack of darkness is problematic, as it inhibits the release of melatonin. 

Back to the melatonin process. 

Once in the bloodstream, it circulates, sending signals to different parts of your body that soon it’s time to sleep, rest and restore. The peak point is reached after midnight in most people (shift workers experience different peak points), and then it starts to gradually decline, as the morning approaches and lightness emerges. Its levels are in direct balance with cortisol, which increases from the early hours of the morning, as melatonin levels decline. Eventually cortisol takes over and we wake up ready to take on the day.

How does this relate to my sleep?

If you are experiencing poor sleep, melatonin has a role to play in either of these ways - your daily melatonin production is lower than it needs to be, resulting in weak signals being sent to different parts of your body; the secretion process is being disrupted because light is excessive at night-time, especially blue light, not allowing your body to register darkness; or for many of us, it’s likely to be both. 

So the question is - can I boost my melatonin naturally? It’s a popular supplement, but like all things for the body, finding natural ways to boost it is always the best approach, especially in the long-term.Yes you can buy melatonin supplements from any grocery shelf, but how do you know what it’s really doing to your body, because it’s a single component, and do you know whether it’s harming your ability to produce it naturally. 

How is melatonin produced by the body?

To answer the question of whether it can be boosted naturally, we first need to understand how it’s produced naturally. 

The melatonin synthetic pathway follows a series of sequential steps and it starts with tryptophan - an amino acid building block for protein in our body. 

Tryptophan (from food, primarily protein) is converted into the molecule 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which then forms into serotonin.

Serotonin (a neurotransmitter, responsible for sending messages between nerve cells) is most widely known for its role in how we feel. It regulates our behaviors, moods, and anxiety levels. 

Once it has been converted into serotonin, a quick two-step process occurs - acetylation and then methylation - to yield melatonin.

Of course the body is a complex system and there are many micro-steps in the whole process which I won’t go into in this article. This detailed pathway is well explained here

For the purposes of this post, the important point is that tryptophan is the building block for melatonin. It would then be sensible to assume that if we increase our consumption of tryptophan, we should be able to increase the levels of melatonin our body is able to produce on a daily basis. Reserves are depleted every day, so eating a variety of tryptophan-rich foods is likely to help you maintain adequate levels of melatonin.

Which foods are highest in tryptophan?

We cannot make tryptophan but luckily it’s in many easily available foods. And many of these tryptophan containing foods are appropriate for vegetarian and vegan diets.

Following are foods that are good sources of tryptophan, and finding the highest quality and the most minimally processed is always important:

  • Wild-caught salmon and cod
  • Pasture-raised turkey and chicken and all other kinds of poultry
  • Grass-fed beef and lamb
  • Cage-free eggs
  • Cashews and walnuts
  • Organic, non-GMO tofu
  • Whole grain oats and oat bran
  • Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds
  • Chickpeas and green peas
  • Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, broccoli
  • Watercress

Will eating tryptophan-rich foods be enough?

Just eating foods on this tryptophan-rich list alone will not immediately impact your serotonin or melatonin levels. It is one of many amino acids contained in food and they all compete to get converted and transported to the brain. Tryptophan tends to be shoved aside by other amino acids higher up the chain but there is a way around this situation. Including a carbohydrate with your tryptophan-rich meal will increase its likelihood of being absorbed and later converted to melatonin. 

To keep your insulin levels in check though, it’s best to choose carbohydrates that are lower on the glycemic index, like strawberries, berries, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and occasionally sweet potatoes.

Do any foods contain melatonin and will eating them help with sleep?

There are some foods that directly contain melatonin and can be beneficial in promoting a good night’s sleep. The levels are low though, so consider them an added bonus and eating them close to bedtime may provide the most beneficial effects.

  • Fruits - Tart cherries, strawberries, kiwi
  • Nuts  - Pistachios, almonds
  • Cereals - wheat, oats, barley
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables - peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes

Final Word

While more research is required, the existing studies report a correlation between including tryptophan-rich foods in your daily diet and an increase in your subsequent melatonin levels. You should also consider your magnesium levels too, considered to be the mineral that helps with the conversion of serotonin to melatonin. For a list of magnesium-rich foods, read this.

As mentioned at the top of the article, there are two components to melatonin - production and secretion. We have mainly dealt with production in this article, providing you with a list of foods that can help increase levels through your diet. 

The secretion of melatonin is also an important factor which needs to be addressed. A very simple tip that you can apply daily, is to make sure you aren’t exposing yourself to blue light after the sun is set. Melatonin is secreted when we experience darkness, so turn off those devices, reduce the light from LED light bulbs, and if all this is difficult to achieve because frankly we need to see and be entertained after a long day... wear blue light glasses that can effectively block 100% of this harmful light and let your melatonin free....

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And if you're interested in a lifestyle diet that incorporates the principles of healthy sunlight exposure, along with eating local, seasonal, whole foods, listen to the interview with Daniel Eisenman from Breaking Normal on The Light Diet for improving your mitochondrial health.

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