This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed
Among the most common points of debate related to autism has been its effects on healthy sleep patterns. From what numerous studies suggest, somewhere between 60 and 70% of children with autism have issues falling asleep or sleeping throughout the night without waking up a couple of times in between.
So, bearing this in mind, to find practical and effective solutions for this problem, it is essential to accept the issue and determine what the trigger of it is. While in many cases, it’s external stimuli that cause sleeping problems, melatonin deficiency has a significant effect on this condition as well.
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But what is melatonin in the first place? And is there a therapy that sleeplessness can be treated with? We have prepared this article to answer these questions and inform people about how hormonal imbalances may affect a healthy sleep pattern.
Let’s take a look at the connection between autism and melatonin deficiency and see what this means for you and your child’s sleep patterns.
Melatonin and its Role
Before we get into how melatonin affects the sleep pattern in children with autism, it is vital to give it a proper definition. Apart from being a hormone, melatonin is also a neurotransmitter that is produced by the pineal gland.
However, not only is it located in the pineal gland, but it’s also secreted in the lungs, retina, and GI tract as well.
Not only this but apart from regulating the natural circadian rhythm, melatonin has a role in maintaining healthy reproductive and strong immune systems. But how is a circadian clock developed in the first place? There are two categories of factors that affect it. The first one is controlled by the combination of retina and hypothalamus and is related mostly to vision (photic).
The second is the non-photic group and is highlighted by the rhythm of social interaction and other activities. Combining these two, and with the support of melatonin, your brain creates a natural sleep pattern that should involve about 8 hours of rest during the nighttime. But if the process of how it happens is quite clear, what goes wrong in children with autism?
Melatonin Production in Children with Autism
Following what we said above, melatonin levels seem to affect the circadian rhythm and thus one’s ability to get the much-needed nighttime rest. Numerous studies suggest that levels in children with autism were not nearly as same as those that don’t suffer from the condition.
In fact, even when the melatonin levels for the night were the same, the levels during the day were increased, which messed up the circadian rhythm in the long term. These abnormalities have been successfully related to issues with social interaction, focus, as well as repetitive use of objects.
It seems that the relationship between melatonin and autism is much more significant than it was once thought. While it is true that external stimuli profoundly affect sleep patterns by triggering children and keeping them awake, adjusting the atmosphere seems to be much easier than balancing melatonin levels. But can it be done, and if so, how does it affect autism as a whole?
Melatonin Therapy for Autism
First researched back in the 1990s, melatonin therapy is now proclaimed to have a positive effect on a sleep pattern in children with autism. As mentioned above, it is a hormone that regulates the natural circadian rhythm, which is why balancing out its levels may help improve the nighttime routine.
Adding exogenous melatonin supplements to your diet can help manage your sleep disorders caused by ASD. ASD is known to cause physiological abnormalities and reduce the level of melatonin in our system, making it a lot more difficult for people to fall asleep.
Any variations or changes in melatonin concentrations can have a significant impact on a child’s sleep, especially if that child has ASD. In some cases, too low melatonin levels have been found to affect autistic behaviors, making them more severe than they are supposed to be.
According to research, these supplements help us sleep longer, fall asleep quicker, and wake up less often at night. Based on the randomized study in this research, supplements such as these are effective for improving our quality of sleep, which in the end, can help individuals get a proper night’s rest.
If used correctly at the right time and with proper dosage, these supplements can help us be more positive and full of energy, ready to take on daily activities. Supplements such as these seem to succeed where other conventional medications failed. The key to its success lies in the anti-nociceptive effect, research shows.
In other words, these supplements directly affect the receptors in the spinal cord and brain, while they also have an indirect effect on the calcium and potassium channels in our system. Due to its sedative effects, exogenous melatonin could be useful for managing pain. Animal studies have pointed out that exogenous melatonin might help with fibromyalgia, neuropathic pain, and different painful minor sensations.
Furthermore, 20 different other reports have shown that supplements such as these have little to no side effects. They are safe to use and effective for managing sleeping disorders. The positive effects of these supplements are supported by evidence, which is why they are a great choice for individuals with ASD.
Not only this but given the strong correlation with lower levels of melatonin and issues with communication and social interaction, these supplements can also contribute to daytime behavior as well. However, you shouldn’t take any of this for granted.
Studies are yet to conclude on whether taking melatonin supplements on its own is going to be enough for treating problems with sleeping. On the other hand, in most cases, it will not hurt to try, as long as you have consulted your pediatrician. Apart from increasing the levels of melatonin, these supplements should provide a soporific effect, which should make your child sleepier and allow them to get some rest without waking up a few times in the night.
One of the most common questions concerns what comprises melatonin therapy. The answer is that it usually comes in pills and features a synthesized form of the hormone, along with some digestive compounds that will facilitate its absorption. It is generally recommended to give your child one pill or liquid drop 30 minutes before bedtime, as that is how long it takes to kick in. As for the costs, those depend on the dosage, as well as the brand which produces the supplements you are using. Amazon offers child-friendly melatonin supplements for 3+ years old that have high ratings.
It is vital to remember that before giving your children this therapy, they should go through a sleep assessment to determine whether there is a point in trying something like this or not. Additionally, always consult your GP or pediatrician before embarking on such therapy. If they determine that a melatonin therapy can be beneficial for your child, your duty as a parent will be to monitor the daily intake and report on the effects.
Not being able to fall asleep is excruciating for both kids and adults. With this in mind, you shouldn’t be surprised by exaggerated behavior and anxiety that your child may express throughout the day. Therefore, to both help them get the much-needed nighttime sleep, and behave better during the day, you should determine the cause and efficiently address it with some form of therapy.
As we mentioned above, melatonin levels are significant when it comes to the regulation of the circadian rhythm, which is why deciding to use supplements that can help regulate your autistic child’s circadian rhythm can be quite efficient and helpful in your child’s day-to-day life.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.