Scientists have found out that we all have body clocks, not just in the brain but all over the body — in the pancreas, liver, kidneys, fatty tissue and muscle. Each of these operates on its own timetable, directing when hormones are released or when the organs are busy at work or most relaxed.
We know that reflexes are sharpest midafternoon, and blood pressure peaks toward the evening. We know some medicines need to be taken in the morning and others in the evening. When any of these body clocks get out of sync, problems can occur and contribute to obesity, depression and heart disease, to name a few.
The hormone melatonin is produced in a pea-sized gland, the pineal gland, in the middle of the head. The function of this gland is to produce melatonin, a hormone that helps the brain track day-length. It’s not understood how melatonin is related to sleep, but we know the levels rise in the evening and peak in the middle of the night. However, this also is true of animals that are awake in the night.
There has been an increase in the use of melatonin during the pandemic, and the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to talk to their pediatricians about giving melatonin supplements to children.
In the United States, melatonin is considered a dietary supplement, so it’s not tested like a medication. It’s advised that parents look at the label to see a logo that shows the product is certified by a third-party such as ConsumerLab, NSF International, UL and U.S. Pharmacopeia. This means the group has tested the product to make sure it has the ingredients listed in the correct amount and it’s not contaminated with other substances.
Melatonin comes in many forms, such as gummies, capsules and tablets. There are many different doses. It’s also advised you start with the lowest dose while working on a normal, healthy bedtime and sleep routine. Normal secretion of melatonin seems to be related to decreasing light, such as evening, so beware of the blue light of our multiple screens that suppresses secretion.
Melatonin can help your child to fall asleep, but it doesn’t keep them asleep. There are long-acting products available, but they haven’t been studied yet for effectiveness and safety.
It’s important to keep melatonin (and all medications) out of children’s reach. Calls to poison control centers for melatonin increased 70 percent from mid-March 2020 through the end of 2020.
About 15 to 25 percent of children and adolescents have trouble falling and staying asleep. Good sleep is important in all ages, and getting good sleep is associated with less screen time and more physical exercise.
Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.