Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. The pineal gland, the tiniest endocrine organ, located in the very center of the brain between the two cerebral hemispheres has been coined the “seat of the soul” by René Descartes, a 17th-century French philosopher-mathematician. With age, the pineal gland becomes calcified in all of us and as a result, our natural melatonin levels decrease. Our bodies heal while we sleep and melatonin levels are highest when we are asleep, which is when antibody production is greatest.
Melatonin, discovered in 1958 by Yale researchers, is the only hormone the pineal gland makes and secretes (in addition to peptides and neurotransmitters). Melatonin is a derivative of tryptophan, the amino acid that became popularized in turkey as it makes the body sleepy. Levels are known to be highest in children and lowest in adults.
Melatonin has two main functions in the body – it helps regulate circadian rhythm (wake and sleep cycles) and acts as a powerful antioxidant. The discovery of melatonin levels being naturally higher at night came in the 1970s. It was recognized that when individuals were exposed to light their levels dramatically dropped, even if it was night time. Melatonin, therefore, has been described as the “molecular equivalent to darkness”. It is during sleep that our bodies heal. Melatonin is also strongly tied to our immune system. Our bodies heal while we sleep and melatonin levels are highest when we are asleep, which is when antibody production is greatest.
The use of melatonin as an antioxidant wasn’t determined until 1993, as it was found that it is a direct scavenger of singlet oxygen species. Redox cycling is the most common form of detoxification, yet melatonin works differently. Instead, it forms several stable end-products upon reacting with free radicals. No recycling is necessary as it serves as an end point of oxidative elimination. Melatonin has strong antioxidant effects and is considered the body’s strongest natural antioxidant that is manufactured. As an antioxidant, melatonin helps the immune system, preventing colds as well as cancer. Things that naturally lower melatonin levels besides normal aging are caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.
Melatonin strongly influences the immune system by preventing both infections and prevention of cancer. Melatonin enhances interleukin-2, a cytokine immune system signaling system, which enhances lymphocytic (white blood cell) production. It has also been demonstrated in the laboratory that certain breast and prostate cancer cells grown in the laboratory test tube grow rapidly in melatonin deficient conditions, and when melatonin is added to the system, the cancer cells die off. In addition, patients with breast and prostate cancer have demonstrated to have the lowest levels of melatonin compared those who do not.
Anemia sometimes is related to lower levels of melatonin which responds to taking doses of 10 mg or higher each night.
It has been observed in both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism melatonin both enhances relaxation and improves behavioral symptoms. In a recent study (2008) it was discovered that parents of autistic children had lower melatonin which were a direct correlation to low activity of a gene that encodes melatonin synthesis.
Patients who suffer memory loss or have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease often have low levels of melatonin. Melatonin receptors play an important role learning and memory. It has been demonstrated that melatonin acts as a neurohormone and prevents neuronal death as well as preventing amyloid deposits in the brain, the distinguishing diagnosis if Alzheimer’s. Melatonin can be used to prevent both memory loss and Alzheimer’s due to these mechanisms.
Insomnia is caused by many things, one of them being lower melatonin levels. Since melatonin is the #1 produced antioxidant in the human body, it won’t hurt to try using melatonin to treat it. There is only one way to see if it will help. You start at a low dose, 1-2 mg, taking it one hour before bedtime. Each night double your dose. If you are deficient in melatonin, there will be a dose that allows you to fall asleep and stay asleep. The highest dose I’ve had to prescribe for an adult is 90 mg and for a child 20 mg. The lowest dose I’ve seen an adult need is 3 mg and a child 1 mg. If you experience a “hangover” in the morning, stay at the same dose for a few days and it should cease. If it does not, drop your dose back slowly. If you choose to use melatonin for sleep or any other condition, do it under the supervision of a physician.
It has been speculated that melatonin taken too early in life interferes with normal hormonal maturation by interfering with gonadotropin releasing hormones. Although both melatonin and gonatropin releasing hormones are secreted by the pineal gland, there have been no proven studies showing melatonin to be a correlator. Children with pineal gland tumors reach sexual maturity sooner due to the over secretion of gonadotropin releasing hormone. In fact, children often have a melatonin deficiency demonstrated by insomnia or restless sleep responding to melatonin supplementation and go through melatonin normally. There are certain conditions in children that require higher dosages of melatonin, specifically focus challenges and autism.
Some people are more sensitive to melatonin than others. Sensitive patients will notice more vivid dreaming which is due to deeper states of REM sleep. This is a beneficial effect especially if one learns to use dream therapy, however, it is well known that the deeper, longer and more frequent REM states one attains during sleep, the more benefits one receives from sleep. Some people wake with a headache in the morning. Just like the potential “hangover” effect, it clears within a few days or you drop the dosage back.
It is a general rule that pregnant and nursing mothers stay clear from melatonin. I have a differing opinion. The body naturally makes melatonin and less as we age. Replacing naturally lost stores can only benefit us if we want to sleep well, support our immune system and preserve memory. Often times, when children are born to older women, the baby becomes deficient due to the mom’s deficiency. I can speak of this first hand as it happened to me, and as a result both my youngest son and I take melatonin every single night.
There are some small studies suggesting that melatonin interferes with antidepressant medications, rendering them less effective. This might be due to the fact that melatonin works as an antioxidant and clears the medication from the system more efficiently. This being true, it makes sense and has been observed clinically that using precursors to serotonin production like tryptophan along with melatonin can work as well as reuptake inhibitors. This is a situation you would want to consult with your doctor about before attempting on your own. The other medication that may be affected by taking melatonin is Coumadin. Patients often need less Coumadin to get required blood levels. Keep your melatonin dose constant if on Coumadin.
In summary, recent research is bringing to the forefront more and more benefits of melatonin. Like all other hormones that the body manufactures, it declines with age. The aging process, as we all observe, is one of slow deterioration. By replacing lost hormones, cellular metabolism is enhanced. Melatonin replacement can be supportive in preventing insomnia, immune disorders and memory challenges. I believe that in the near future we will learn more about this powerful hormone.
Dr. Theresa Ramsey is a practicing physician, speaker, lifestyle expert, author of the best selling book, Healing 101: A Guide to Creating the Foundation for Complete Wellness, and a weekly guest expert on Arizona’s top morning show, Your Life A to Z. Dr. Ramsey has been nominated Phoenix Magazine’s Top Doc for two years in a row and recently selected as an eHow.com health expert, as well as the 2012 Natural Choice Award winning Naturopathic Physician. As a nationally recognized speaker, she elegantly bridges the gap between Allopathic and Naturopathic medicine educating patients & physicians on the language of wellness and root causes to illness & dis-ease.