Melatonin for more than just sleep

Are you aging and don’t feel as sharp as you used to? Do you have macular degeneration or other vision problems? Were you diagnosed with breast cancer, or other estrogen-sensitive cancer? Do you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or do you have an ulcer? Research is showing increasingly that people suffering from these and other conditions, in addition to those with sleep-related problems, can benefit from taking melatonin every night as a supplement.

The major concern I hear from people who consider taking melatonin is that it is a hormone and they worry that taking it as a supplement could impair the body’s ability to make its own. I understand their concern because many other hormones, including thyroid and sex hormones, have been shown to have such an inhibiting effect. However, this does not appear to take place with melatonin. Based on the studies I have seen, even administration of enormous doses of melatonin in experimental animals did not alter the body’s production of nighttime melatonin (see J Pineal Res. 1996 Nov; 21 (4): 231-8 and others like it).

Melatonin is, first and foremost, a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain at night. It is known to be essential for initiating and maintaining restful sleep. Healthy production of melatonin is dependent on an intact circadian or day-night rhythm; however, chronic stress – including chemical stresses resulting from exposure to toxins or improper diet – can alter circadian rhythms, thus leading to impaired production of melatonin.

Under these circumstances, taking extra melatonin at night is the only natural way to re-establish healthy sleep patterns. If this is done as part of an overall diet, supplement, and exercise program to restore the circadian rhythm, then supplementation is only needed for a short time. Many studies have shown beneficial effects of melatonin for sleep, particularly in people whose main problem is initiating sleep, and this has been demonstrated also for children – including those suffering from ADHD and autism who so often have disturbed sleep.

One reason why melatonin might be ineffective is that people actually don’t take enough of it given that 3 mg per day is considered as the top dose recommended for adults; but many studies, event those performed on children, used doses in the range of 5 to 7 mg and found dose-related benefits.

In my opinion, taking more than 3 mg of melatonin is still far preferable to taking any of the commonly prescribed hypnotic drugs, or a high-blood pressure medication often given to children because its side effect is drowsiness (see J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2003 Nov; 42 (11): 1286-93, and in the same journal 2006 May; 45 (5): 512-9, and many others).

In addition to stress, aging is another reason why melatonin levels decline. This is particularly significant considering that, aside from sleep, melatonin also plays other critical roles: it is one of the most powerful antioxidants produced in the body; it helps normalize estrogen levels while protecting sensitive areas of the body from cancer-causing estrogens; and it helps promote optimal thyroid function. Possibly the most important benefit of melatonin is that it induces the liver to make glutathione, a critical protein for detoxification. Although a supplement called NAC (N-acetyl-cysteine) is often recommended to stimulate glutathione production, melatonin at normal doses of 3 mg per night has been shown to do this more effectively (Cell Mol Biol 2004; 50: OL543-OL551).

A double-blind study of menopausal women provides a clear example of the far-reaching benefits of melatonin in an aging population. In this study, nighttime administration of melatonin at a dose of 3 mg led to higher thyroid hormone output and a shift in pituitary hormones towards more youthful levels. In addition, women who received the melatonin reported a general improvement in moods and a significant mitigation of depression not reported by those receiving the placebo (Exp Gerontol. 2001 Feb; 36 (2): 297-310).

A weakening immune system is often considered a “normal” part of aging, but melatonin has been shown to help preserve a healthy immune system in aging individuals (Immun Ageing 2005 Nov 29; 2: 17).

With Alzheimer’s disease becoming more and more widespread, research has shown that individuals with this condition have extremely low levels of melatonin, and supplementing this hormone at night produces measurable improvements in their cognitive function while also slowing down decline (Acta Pharmacologica Sinica 2006 Feb; 27 (2): 129-39).

Macular degeneration is another increasingly common problem in an aging population. Here too, melatonin at the same common dose of 3 mg each night was shown to delay

progression of the disease (Ann NY Acad Sci. 2005 Dec; 1057: 384-92).

In cancer research, melatonin has been shown to have significant benefits by inhibiting division and spread of cancer cells. This benefit was shown particularly in breast and other

hormone-sensitive cancers, but also in other forms of cancer (see Int J Cancer. 2006 Jan 15; 118 (2): 274-8, and Endocrine. 2005 Jul; 27 (2): 179-88). Melatonin can therefore be

considered as a valuable adjunct to any type of cancer treatment program, whether conventional or alternative.

In other studies, melatonin was shown to reduce chronic inflammation, which can be a cause of heart disease (J Neuroimmunol. 2005 Aug; 165 (1-2): 139-49). It was also shown to

prevent stomach ulcers and gastritis from a variety of causes (J Pineal Res. 1997 Sep; 23 (2): 79-89), and to reduce abdominal pain in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Gut.

2005 Oct; 54 (10): 1402-7).

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