Melatonin is known as a sleep hormone, and it controls our circadian rhythms. The leading production site of melatonin is the pineal gland in the brain. However, other organs such as bowels, lungs, kidneys, bone marrow, and the eye's retina also contribute to melatonin production.
Various factors play a role in the production of melatonin. The most crucial factor is the body’s exposure to light. Melatonin production is increased by darkness and suppressed by light. The highest melatonin levels happen at night, and these levels drop down to almost zero during the day. It regulates our biological clock and plays a critical role in our health.
Recent studies show melatonin is not only a regulator of the biological clock. It has many other essential functions for maintaining mental and physical balance.
It has protective and therapeutic benefits in fighting against chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer's. It plays roles as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, an anti-tumour agent, and boosts the immune system. Melatonin shows its functions on many systems, which are very important for maintaining our health.
Health Benefits of Melatonin
Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant agent.
Antioxidants can neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals and protect cells and genes. Melatonin acts as a powerful antioxidant, which protects the cells from external damage, reduces harmful inflammation, and limits DNA damage from free radicals.
Melatonin decreases the risk for diabetes.
Melatonin has been shown to help regulate insulin metabolism and lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Lower melatonin production is linked to a higher rate of having diabetes. Maintaining good melatonin levels in the nighttime may cut the risk for diabetes in half.
Melatonin protects against age-related brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
Melatonin plays a protective role for brain cells, and decreased melatonin production is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. People with Alzheimer’s tend to show lower levels of melatonin compared to age peers without the condition. Studies show melatonin slows down the accumulation of harmful proteins and amyloid plaques in the brain, which many scientists think are behind the onset of the disease.
Melatonin acts as an anti-cancer agent.
Exciting research over the past several years has demonstrated that melatonin inhibits cancer cells and tumour growth. It boosts the effect of anti-cancer treatments. It can reduce the side effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. It also has a preventive role for some types of cancers.
Melatonin boosts the immune system.
Melatonin has a significant role in a healthy immune system. Melatonin is synthesized by fighter cells, called lymphocytes. Animals kept under constant light to inhibit melatonin synthesis showed impaired immune functions. Their symptoms can be reversed by melatonin injection.
Melatonin protects cardiovascular health.
Melatonin prevents cell death under ischemic conditions. It can also prevent and even treat the damage of chronic and age-related diseases, from cardiovascular disease to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Melatonin’s analgesic properties.
Many recent studies have demonstrated melatonin efficacy with pain syndromes. Melatonin relieves chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraine, chronic back pain, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Melatonin and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
ASD children showed lower levels of melatonin compared to kids without ASD. It is believed that melatonin production is impaired during the intra-uterine development of these children. External melatonin has a positive effect on problems associated with ASD, such as sleep disturbance, anxiety, pain/sensory processing, and gastrointestinal dysfunction. Melatonin can help children and adults with ASD sleep longer, get higher quality sleep, and fall asleep more quickly, with additional benefits of improved wellbeing.
Melatonin as an anti-ageing agent.
There is considerable evidence for melatonin to be an effective anti-ageing compound. Because of its broad antioxidant and radical scavenger properties, melatonin may act as a protective agent against UV-mediated damage to the skin
Melatonin as a supplement.
Melatonin intake has grown in recent years, often used for short-term sleep problems, from jet lag or shift work. It was approved for medical use in the European Union in 2007 but not approved for medical use by the FDA. Many side effects are reported when melatonin is used for the long term. Thus, it is not recommended to consume for long periods of time.
Without following the body’s natural circadian rhythm, melatonin intake disturbs its natural production due to the following reasons:
- To adjust the correct dosage for the body’s need for melatonin is very hard as it fluctuates from zero to maximum levels every day. The timing of taking melatonin also has a significant impact on its effect on the body.
- Too much melatonin can throw bio-rhythms out of sync. This may disrupt the body’s melatonin production and bring more sleep problems.
- The body’s melatonin production makes its peak during the late sleep stage in the night, which is very hard to adjust with different absorption and release levels of additional melatonin supplements.
- Also, some studies showed actual melatonin content in many supplements on the market might vary significantly from what product labels claim.
- A recently introduced melatonin analog, agomelatine, is also offered as an alternative to melatonin. But it can cause many side effects, especially when it is used as an anti-depressive agent.
There would be more information about how melatonin affects overall health with more researches. Melatonin’s use to treat and prevent illnesses, including the many that become more common with aging, needs more investigation.
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Author: Tina Ureten, MD, RDMS, RDCS