TRU researchers aim to help kids sleep better

A group of researchers at Thompson Rivers University are investigating how children’s sleep reacts to the common sleep-aid melatonin.

The lead investigators on the study are Dr. Allyson Davey, Mark Rakobowchuk and Les Matthews, joined by medical, research and respiratory therapy students. The project is a collaboration between the Thompson Rivers University Center for Respiratory Health and Sleep Science, and the biological sciences department.

Rakobowchuk said the team is designing a study to look at melatonin, which he says isn’t that well researched.

Melatonin is a naturally occurring substance that helps your body know when to fall asleep and when to wake up. It is commonly used as a supplement to help people get to sleep by resetting their sleep pattern when it’s been altered by such things as travel. Melatonin’s benefits hold true for both children and adults, but it doesn’t work for everyone. The research underway at TRU aims to understand this better by investigating why some children see a benefit from taking melatonin and others don’t.

At this stage in the investigation, the team is monitoring melatonin levels as they change throughout the night to see how these levels differ between children with normal sleep patterns and those who have sleeping difficulties.

The testing procedure is simple. Children enrolled in the study have saliva samples taken throughout the afternoon and overnight. The samples are then processed at a TRU lab to check the levels contained within them. Researchers are then able to see if the child’s melatonin levels follow a normal cycle overnight.

“Normally, melatonin increases throughout the night while someone is sleeping, and decreases just before they wake up,” Rakobowchuk says.

Previous research has suggested that some people with sleep disorders may have different patterns in their melatonin levels. Rakobowchuk said the first step is to see what the normal curve looks like for kids with normal sleep patterns and children with sleep disorders.

“Once we figure that out, there might be subsequent studies where we look at: is a dual dose the best way to create a normal curve and does that normal curve relate to better quality sleep?”

Figuring out why this is could be very helpful for Davey’s medical practice at the TRU sleep clinic. She focuses on treating children suffering from sleep deprivation which, if left untreated, can lead to a variety of behavioral problems such as memory and attention problems, hyperactivity and increased anxiety or depression.

This research may become even more relevant in the future, as studies have found that the average amount of sleep that children get is decreasing. Many of the sleeping issues in children can be improved with behavioural changes, but having a clear understanding of how melatonin affects children’s sleep will be important in facing these challenges.

Some of the key techniques recommended by experts to improve sleep at any age include keeping bedtimes and wake-up times consistent throughout the week, avoiding stimulating activities close to bedtime and restricting caffeine to lunchtime or earlier.

For more information on TRU’s pediatric melatonin study, contact the TRU sleep clinic or James Matthews at 604-363-7598.