Melatonin: So Much More Than A Sleep Aid

March 9, 2011

You probably associate melatonin as a sleep aid, after all, it’s well known that melatonin plays a critical role in regulating humans circadian rhythms (it tells you when to go to sleep), but melatonin may be useful in treatment and prevention of many common diseases and aging, in fact, it’s a pretty powerful antioxidant.

First, Melatonin As A Sleep Aid

Insomnia affects millions of people, and there’s tons of natural ways to improve your ability to sleep, one of which is ensuring that your room is dark, and turning off electronic (back-lit) devices well before bed. The reason darkness is beneficial is that it stimulates the pineal gland to produce melatonin.

If you aren’t experiencing regular light/dark cycles, then your circadian rhythms are probably off, causing insomnia and frustration. Taking melatonin as a dietary supplement can help restore your circadian rhythm, but it’s always best to balance treatment, no matter how natural, with life-style changes (in this case-turn those lights off!).

But Melatonin Is So Much More…

Sleeping in the dark is not just about preventing insomnia, some evidence indicates that women who sleep in rooms that have ambient light are more likely to get breast cancer, and this may be due to their lack of melatonin production (which is inhibited by the light). Why? Melatonin’s role as an antioxidant includes protecting nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, meaning it reduces carcinogen’s in the body, reducing the risk of cancer.

  • Melatonin may also play an important role in protecting heart and brain health similarly, by reducing inflammation.
  • Autism is associated with low-levels of melatonin. Although this is likely a symptom, and not a cause, some think there is benefit to supplementing with melatonin.
  • Migraine sufferers may find relief when supplementing with melatonin.

Melatonin Plays A Role In Immune Defense

Melatonin isn’t just produced by your pineal gland to stimulate sleep—it’s produced by bone marrow and lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are an important part of the immune system, and research shows that melatonin plays an important role in immune system response (especially when taken with calcium!).

Further, when not stimulating your brain for sleep, melatonin roams the blood stream as an antioxidant, preventing the release of free radicals into the body.

Melatonin may even be useful for people who suffer auto-immune disorders, although there’s not consensus. Some research shows that Melatonin can stimulate the immune system in a positive way that does not trigger auto-immune reactions, while others believe any stimulation of the immune system can have long-term negative consequences for those with auto-immune disorders.

Can I Get Melatonin From My Diet?

While melatonin is found in many foods, including cherries and rice, studies show that melatonin from food does not increase the amount melatonin found in the blood stream. For this reason, if you need more melatonin, it’s best to get it from a supplement in a form designed to be readily absorbed.

Why Should I Take Melatonin?

Besides all the possibly health benefits? Melatonin production decreases with age. It’s a common misconception that the older people get the less sleep they need, one of the reasons older people sleep less is because they no longer have the melatonin levels they had when they were young.

So what? Again, besides the important role as antioxidant that melatonin provides, sleep in general is important for the rejuvenation of the body: rebuilding damaged cells, recharging the brain, etc. Lack of sleep can cause many problems, the least of which is increased aging.

What Else Should I Know?

Most of the potential health benefits of melatonin are still being researched, meaning that science may change its mind about the benefits of melatonin for heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and its other beneficial effects. More human testing is needed for many of the purported benefits of melatonin.

However, things look good. Melatonin is safe up to 100-200mg daily, which is a lot of melatonin, and can be taken safely on a short-term basis (there’s not enough research for long-term safety, although anecdotally, it appears safe).

As far as side-effects caused by melatonin, they appear to be minimal to non-existent. Don’t take melatonin if you’re a woman trying to get pregnant, as it may mess with your hormone levels.

Has a doctor ever recommended melatonin supplementation to you or a loved one? What was it for? Have you noticed any other benefits of melatonin?

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