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Sleep Fundamentals || P is for Pineal Gland

From our Sleeping is Fundamental series

Leave it to a pea-sized gland in the brain to help us decide when it’s time to fall asleep.

pineal gland melatonin sleepyhead central sleep fundamentals "third eye"What is the pineal gland?

The pineal gland (also known as the pineal body and referenced as the “third eye” in alternative medicine) is a tiny endocrine gland the size of a pea that is buried deep in the center of the brain.

What does the pineal gland do?

You’ve heard of melatonin, right? The pineal gland produces hormones. It is the original producer of melatonin, a naturally occurring brain hormone that is released to stimulate the transition from wake to sleep. Its presence modulates and regulates sleep-wake functions.

It’s important to note that its functional is influenced significantly by exposure to light (both natural and artificial) through the optic nerve. This is why natural levels of melatonin tend to be lower during the fall and winter months in the north: lack of natural light leads to dips in the pineal gland’s production of melatonin.

This is also why blue-light exposure at night can be problematic for some at any time of year. Exposure to blue-spectrum light after the sun goes down (usually through backlit handheld devices) results in confusing the transitional biological cues that lead to sleepiness at night. The pineal gland receives these light signals through the eyes and simply stops releasing melatonin. Use of blue-blocking filters can help correct this problem.

Melatonin release is also curbed by the pineal gland at the end of the sleep cycle. This is normal and allows for other hormones such as cortisol to move in a spur wakefulness. This is usually timed with morning light exposure.

Artificial melatonin is a man-made substance formulated on the chemical properties of natural, or endogenous, melatonin created by the pineal gland. It is used to help people with sleep-onset insomnia to fall asleep. It is also used for other therapeutic applications related to the maintenance of one’s circadian rhythms especially as it relates to medication schedules for chronic illness that are informed by chronotherapy.


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