Sleep Doctor Explains 7 Ways to Increase Melatonin Naturally

You can increase melatonin levels naturally by timing your light exposure right. Get out in natural light in the morning and daytime and avoid light before bed.
Published
2024-02-26
11 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, Rise Science Scientific Reviewer
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How to Increase Melatonin Naturally? What You Need To Know 

  • Getting and avoiding light at the right times is the best way to increase melatonin levels. Get out in natural light in the morning and daytime and avoid bright light about 90 minutes before bed. 
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime can also increase your melatonin levels. It’s unclear whether a melatonin-rich diet can improve your sleep.
  • Knowing when your body’s rate of melatonin production is at its highest — and therefore when you should go to bed to fall asleep faster — may be more beneficial for improving your sleep than just increasing your melatonin levels. The RISE app tells you when this time is for you each day so you know the best time to head to bed. 
  • The RISE app can also tell you the best time to do certain behaviors to boost your melatonin naturally — including light, alcohol, and caffeine timing.

Melatonin is the sleep hormone, but it doesn’t just help you drift off at night. It’s an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and it even has anti-tumor properties.  

As important as it is, you don’t need to take a melatonin supplement to get better sleep and health. 

Below, we'll explain how to naturally increase melatonin levels. We’ll also show you how to use the RISE app to boost your natural production of the sleep hormone and go to bed when your body’s rate of melatonin production is highest for an easier time falling and staying asleep.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“Light is our most powerful tool when it comes to increasing melatonin. Try to get some natural light exposure each morning and day, and then avoid bright light in the run-up to bedtime.”

Advice from Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, who's double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

Here’s how to increase your melatonin levels naturally.

1. Get Out in Natural Light First Thing Each Morning

Aim for 10 minutes of natural light exposure as soon as you can each morning. And make that 15 to 20 minutes if it’s overcast or you’re getting light through a window. 

If it’s dark when you wake up, try light therapy. Sit in front of a 10,000 lux light therapy lamp for 30 minutes. Place the lamp about 16 to 24 inches from your face and positioned over your eye-level at an angle. Then try to get outside when the sun is up.  

Light suppresses the production of melatonin by your pineal gland, which is a good thing in the morning. When you get out in natural light, you reset your circadian rhythm — your body’s roughly 24-hour internal clock that helps control your sleep-wake cycle.

2. Get Natural Light Throughout the Day 

Try working by a window, going for a walk, and exercising outside. The more light you get throughout the day, the less sensitive you’ll be to it in the evening, when it can reduce your natural melatonin levels. 

One study found daytime bright light exposure increased nighttime melatonin compared to dim light exposure. 

More research needs to be done to find the ideal amount of light exposure needed during the day, but one of our science advisors, Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, who’s the Co-Director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Sciences at Stanford University, says an hour or two may be enough, but the more light you can get the better. 

Early evening bright light exposure may also help — the key word here is early. A small 2019 study found bright light exposure from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. reduced how much late evening light exposure (10:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.) suppressed melatonin levels.  

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3. Avoid Bright Light About 90 Minutes Before Bed

This is a key behavior to increase melatonin naturally. About 90 minutes before bed, turn off overhead lights and switch to dim lighting, turn on a blue light filter on your TV or the f.lux app on your computer, and put on blue-light blocking glasses. You might want to avoid screen time before bed altogether.

One study found exposure to room light in the hours before bed can delay melatonin production and shorten how long your body makes it by about 90 minutes. This was compared to dim light conditions. 

If you’re trying to fall asleep earlier, avoiding bright evening light can make a big difference. One study found when night owls went camping for a week and were exposed to natural light only — so no artificial light in the evening — their circadian rhythms shifted earlier and looked more like those of early birds.

RISE can tell you when to get and avoid bright light based on your circadian rhythm. 

RISE app screenshot showing when to get and avoid bright light
The RISE app can tell you when to get and avoid light exposure.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their get bright light reminder here.

4. Avoid Light at Night 

Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Use blackout curtains or blinds, wear an eye mask, and turn off or cover up any electronics that emit light. 

If you wake up in the night to use the bathroom or check on a child, keep the lights off or as low as possible. The same goes for if you wake up and can’t fall back asleep.

Research shows room light exposure during normal sleep hours can reduce melatonin levels by more than 50%!

Expert tip: Consider a red light lamp or flashlight if you’re often up at night. Research shows red light may not disrupt your melatonin secretion as much as blue light. 

We’ve covered other reasons why you shouldn’t sleep with the lights on here.

5. Avoid Alcohol Close to Bedtime 

It may make you feel drowsy, but alcohol isn’t doing your melatonin levels any favors. As a general rule, avoid alcohol three to four hours before bed to minimize the risk of sleep disruptions.

One study found when participants drank alcohol an hour before bed, their melatonin levels were down by 15% two hours 20 minutes later and reduced by 19% three hours 10 minutes later. 

This was after a relatively moderate dose too — about three standard drinks for men and two and a half drinks for women weighing about 154 pounds. 

We’ve covered more on how alcohol affects your sleep here. 

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6. Eat Foods High in Melatonin, Maybe 

Eating melatonin-rich foods can increase your melatonin levels, but more research is needed to know whether dietary melatonin can improve sleep problems. Your diet may play a bigger role in your daytime levels of melatonin than your nighttime levels.

Even if it can, the amount of melatonin in a normal portion size may not be enough to affect your sleep.

Dietary sources of melatonin include: 

  • Tomatoes 
  • Rice
  • Barley 
  • Strawberries 
  • Olive oil
  • Milk 
  • Pistachios 
  • Walnuts  
  • Seeds 
  • Eggs
  • Fish 
  • Tart cherries 
  • Goji berries 

And your melatonin levels may increase as certain foods increase your natural melatonin synthesis, as opposed to you getting melatonin content from the food itself. For example, foods that affect the availability of the amino acid tryptophan, which is synthesized into melatonin, could also impact your melatonin levels if you are tryptophan deficient (this is uncommon but may be true for some vegan or vegetarian diets). Foods high in tryptophan include tart cherry juice, quinoa, and poultry. 

The health benefits of melatonin may come from an overall healthy diet, not one specific food. Other factors, like your weight, may have as much of an impact on melatonin as specific dietary choices. And diets rich in fruits, veggies, and grains contain high amounts of melatonin and help keep your weight in check. 

Even if melatonin doesn’t help your sleep, it may come with other health benefits. It’s an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and may even have cancer-fighting properties.

Beyond what you eat, how much you eat may also make a difference to melatonin. Research shows cutting your calories or fasting can reduce nighttime melatonin secretion. But again, more research is needed.  

Expert tip: Light is much more important than diet for melatonin, however. As one paper published in Food & Nutrition Research puts it, “Diet and nutrients modulate fluctuating melatonin levels, but the influence is minor if compared with the power of the light-dark cycle.” 

7. Avoid Caffeine About 12 Hours Before Bed 

As a general rule, avoid caffeine about 12 hours before bed. 

Coffee contains melatonin, but it’s not clear whether caffeine can affect your melatonin levels. Some studies suggest caffeine can increase melatonin, while other studies have found it can reduce nighttime melatonin levels.

Caffeine can definitely affect your sleep in other ways. A 2023 systematic review and meta-analysis found it can reduce your sleep time by 45 minutes — so it’s worth cutting yourself off early. 

Cutting yourself off from caffeine at the right time can make sure that you’re not undermining any steps you’ve taken to increase your melatonin levels via light or alcohol timing. You want to feel sleepy (not wired on caffeine) when your body is producing melatonin at bedtime. 

You can learn more about when to stop drinking coffee here.

RISE can give you an exact time based on your circadian rhythm each day. 

RISE app screenshot showing when to limit your caffeine intake
The RISE app can tell you when to have your final coffee of the day.

Caption: The RISE app can tell you when to have your final coffee of the day. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their limit caffeine reminder here.

8. Go to Bed During Your Melatonin Window 

Your Melatonin Window is what we at RISE call the roughly one-hour window of time when your body’s rate of melatonin production is at its highest. Going to bed during this window can help you fall and stay asleep more easily compared to going to bed earlier or later. It won’t help increase your melatonin levels per se, but it can help you get the result you’re really looking for: better sleep.

About two hours before your typical bedtime, your body starts producing melatonin. This moment is known as the dim light melatonin onset (DLMO). Melatonin levels rise as it gets closer to your bedtime and they peak overnight. 

Melatonin levels over the day and night
Melatonin levels over the day and night. Source: https://sites.psu.edu/lifeitmoveson/2018/01/26/sleep-external-influences/

When it comes to falling asleep fast, the timing of your melatonin production may be more important than your melatonin levels alone. You want your rate of melatonin production to be at its highest around your bedtime to help you drift off. Your melatonin levels could be high — they typically peak early in the night when you’re hopefully asleep — but if you’re trying to go to bed at the wrong time in your melatonin cycle, you may still struggle to drift off. 

RISE predicts the timing of your Melatonin Window, so you can go to bed when your body’s more primed to fall asleep. Keeping a regular sleep schedule can help keep your Melatonin Window at a similar time. And avoiding light at the right times can make sure your body starts producing melatonin in the run-up to bedtime. 

This feature is a game-changer for RISE users who say it helps them fall asleep more easily: 

“This app is life-changing. If I go to sleep according to my schedule, within my Melatonin Window, I am guaranteed to satisfy my sleep needs without any additional sleep aids, supplements, or medications.” Read the review.

RISE app screenshot showing your melatonin window
The RISE app can tell you the best time to head to bed.

More Sleep Hygiene Tips for Better Sleep 

Your body should produce about 10 to 80 micrograms (about 0.01 mg to 0.08 milligrams) of melatonin per night. But everybody produces a different amount of melatonin, and it’s tricky to find out if you’ve got low melatonin levels. Plus, even if you do, low melatonin may not be the reason you can’t sleep

Beyond the above melatonin-boosting tips, try improving your overall sleep hygiene. Light, alcohol, and caffeine timing are just three aspects of sleep hygiene.

Other good sleep hygiene habits include: 

RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits at the right time for your circadian rhythm to help you fall and stay asleep. 

We’ve covered other ways to fall asleep faster here and how to sleep without any sleeping pills at all here.

If you still struggle to sleep, speak to a healthcare provider about sleep disorders, medical conditions, and medications that could be causing sleep problems. If melatonin supplements are the answer, a doctor can tell you what you need to know about when and how much to take for your situation.

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app can tell you when to do daily sleep hygiene behaviors.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

Heads-up: Synthetic melatonin supplements can add to your natural melatonin levels, but you shouldn’t take melatonin every night to fall asleep

Melatonin use can be safe when used short term to: 

We’ve covered how many mg of melatonin to take for each scenario here. 

Exogenous melatonin (the kind made outside of your body) works best when you take it when endogenous melatonin (the kind made inside your body) is low, like during the day. So supplements aren’t that effective if you take them at bedtime to fall asleep at your usual bedtime. 

Supplements also come with potential side effects like daytime drowsiness. They aren’t suitable for everyone (seek medical advice if you’re pregnant for breastfeeding, for example), and they may not be the best treatment for insomnia

Expert tip: Sleep hygiene is the science-backed way to optimize your natural melatonin levels for better sleep, but better sleep starts with knowing how much of it you need to begin with. Check RISE to find out how much sleep you need — it varies from person to person. When we looked at how much sleep 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up needed, we found it ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. Almost half needed eight hours or more. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
RISE users' sleep needs

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here

What Causes Low Melatonin Levels? 

Getting light exposure and drinking alcohol close to bedtime can cause low melatonin levels. But so can:

  • Medical conditions like dementia, cancer, type 2 diabetes, severe pain, a spinal cord injury, or mood disorders
  • Working night shifts
  • Being overweight
  • Being older — melatonin may not decrease with age, but many older people produce less melatonin due to medical conditions

The good news is having lower melatonin levels doesn’t guarantee you’ll have sleep problems. 

“There are many people, like those with specific kinds of spinal cord injury, who don't make any melatonin and can sleep just fine,” says Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, the Co-Director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Sciences at Stanford University and one of our sleep advisors. 

Boost Melatonin Levels Without Supplements  

You can increase your natural levels of melatonin by getting out in natural light during the morning and daytime and avoiding light and alcohol close to bedtime.

Use RISE to see when exactly you should do these behaviors, as well as other habits that will help you fall and stay asleep. 

RISE can also tell you when your body’s rate of melatonin production will be at its highest, so you can harness your melatonin levels and have an easier time falling asleep.

All this can help you get a good night’s sleep in no time — 80% of RISE users get better sleep within five days. 

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