What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone, naturally produced in the brain, that has a wide range of functions and benefits. Perhaps the most commonly known one is the regulation of circadian rhythms, associated with jet lag and sleeping difficulties.
Melatonin is used increasingly for a number of medical conditions, like Alzheimer’s Disease, tinnitus, radiation exposure, and MS.
Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland, in the brain, and plays a part in the control of sleep-wake cycles. Melatonin is not only produced in the brain, but is present in some foods and can be taken as a supplement in pill form.
In this article, we will look at melatonin's role in the human body, why people take melatonin pills, along with any side effects and warnings.
Why does Melatonin Help You Sleep?
The part of the brain that controls circadian rhythms is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and is found in the hypothalamus.
The SCN creates and regulates the daily cycle of wakefulness and sleepiness, usually in concert with the light and dark cycles of day and night. It releases certain hormones at the appropriate time to promote a healthy rhythm of sleeping, waking, and the transitions from one to the other.
As part of this regulating process, melatonin is released at night by the pineal gland.
Though light-dark information is part of the process, a human being kept away from these external cycles will still maintain a natural rhythm totalling around 24 hours and 10 minutes, divided into periods of activity and sleep.
Melatonin for Sleeping Disorders
Melatonin has been used to treat insomnia in children and older adults; to counter the negative effects of jet-lag; to treat delayed sleep phase syndrome, in which the circadian rhythms are too long. Children with autism also often have lower than normal melatonin levels, perhaps associated with their abnormal melatonin pathways.
Research seems to show that melatonin can help to increase sleep duration, shorten times taken to fall asleep, and reduce the frequency of sleep interruptions in children due to unexplained waking. Much of the evidence is subjective, however, and more rigorous studies need to be done to verify and quantify these findings.
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Other Uses for Melatonin
Melatonin is being used to treat far more than sleep disorders. It is also being used to treat:
- Headaches - Some evidence suggests that melatonin can relieve headache, especially those called ‘cluster headaches,’ around the eyes on one side of the head.
- Cancer - Perhaps most exciting is that some clinical studies indicate that melatonin might function as an anti-cancer agent – in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation therapy – against colon, breast, brain, renal and lung cancer. Due to the low cost, low risk of adverse effects, and ‘substantial reduction in risk of death’ melatonin is seen as having great potential in the fight against various cancers.
- Alzheimer's disease - As we age, we tend to produce less melatonin naturally, but individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease show a much more pronounced decrease. Supplementing the body’s supply of melatonin seems to slow the cognitive decline associated with the disease.
- Tinnitus - Even the effects of tinnitus may be slightly decreased by melatonin.
- Gallbladder stones - Melatonin works in the gallbladder to convert cholesterol into bile, and seems also to help move gallstones through the organ. The antioxidant properties of melatonin also decrease free radicals, which is believed to decrease the chance of gallstone formation.
- Protection from radioactivity - Perhaps related to its efficacy in fighting cancers along with radioactive substances (such as in chemotherapy), melatonin helps otherwise healthy cells combat the effects of radiation poisoning – contact with harmful radioactive substances and the free radicals the cause.
Alternate Purposes of Melatonin
Melatonin also has other benefits and effects. It is a strong antioxidant, can combine with cadmium, aluminium, and copper to form helpful complexes, and has some anti-inflammatory properties. It also plays a role in the immune system, can protect against neurodegenerative diseases and pancreatitis, and even regulates fat cells.
The full role of melatonin is not yet known, but there are receptors for it in the brain, cardiovascular system, intestine, kidneys and liver. This is a clear indication that it is important to several systems in the body.
You should consult your doctor to get a medically sound dosage recommendation for your unique situation. However we have a rough guide of recommended dosages below.
Melatonin Dosage for Jet Lag
If using melatonin to treat jet lag, it is recommended that you take between 0.5 - 8mg of melatonin before you go to bed for the first 5 days in the new time zone. You can reduce this dose if you experience bad side effects.
Melatonin Dosage for Insomnia
To treat insomnia with melatonin, studies have used between 2 - 3mg of melatonin before you go to bed. This has been tested over 29 weeks and found to be effective.
You may also experiment with a larger dose over a smaller period of time.
Melatonin Dosage for Mild Sleep Problems
For mild sleep problems, you may want to experiment with a long period of supplementation of between 0.3 - 5mg of melatonin for up to 9 months.
Melatonin Side Effects
Melatonin has very few known side effects, but there are a few problems reported by subjects while undergoing melatonin use. At least one of the test subjects reported having dizziness, drowsiness, irritability, headache, and/or nausea. Studies on patients of advanced age noted at least one report of restless legs, change in skin pigmentation, and/or thrombosis (blood clots).
There are no known side effects for pregnant or nursing mothers or the foetuses or babies, but since receptors are found in areas that may affect the reproductive system, it is not recommended for use by pregnant or breast-feeding mothers.
How does Melatonin react with other medication?
In addition to those cautions, there are some people who should avoid using melatonin as it may affect conditions or other medications.
Patients taking drugs such as benzodiazepines, codeine, alcohol and/or barbiturates may feel an increase in any drowsiness that occurs as a side effect of the other drug.
Those taking immunosuppressant drugs should not take melatonin, as it influences the immune system in some way.
Melatonin can increase the risk of seizures.
It can also worsen depression.
Melatonin can interfere with medication taken for bleeding disorders, such a haemophilia, or for other blood-related conditions such as high blood pressure, or anticoagulants.
Melatonin may affect blood sugar levels, and so is not recommended for those suffering from diabetes.
Finally, it is recommended that those taking ACE inhibitors do not use melatonin.
Melatonin supplements come in many different shapes and sizes, including pills, chewable gummies, and liquid supplements. You will also find natural and synthetic varieties available. Natural melatonin supplements use the pineal gland of animals to extract the hormone.
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