What is Melatonin and what is it used for?
Melatonin is a hormone that comes from the tiny pineal gland, which is found deep within the brain. The rate of production of melatonin and the timing of its release is based on the time of day; more released when it is nighttime and dark, less during the day when there is more light. Melatonin was first identified and isolated in the pineal gland of a cow and is also a key factor in the changes in skin color for some frogs and other reptiles and amphibians. But, as interesting as it may be, frog skin color changes will have to be left for another discussion.
Traditions that revolve around spirituality and mysticism refer to this area of the brain as the “third eye” because of its connection to light. There is a belief that the metaphysical world is a connection point between the physical and non-physical (spiritual) levels.
On a more practical level, melatonin is involved in the regulation of our circadian rhythm, or internal clock. The circadian rhythm controls when we are awake and when we sleep based on the cycle of hours of light and darkness in a 24-hour period. This is one of the reasons there has been so much written about the dangers of screen time at night. Exposure to light, including the seemingly limited amount coming from a smartphone, can interfere with the production of melatonin and throw off the sleep cycle. The amount of melatonin produced during the night is 10 times the amount produced during the day and nighttime levels remain elevated for about 12 hours. With aging, the pineal gland produces less melatonin and this decreased production accelerates after age 40. One cause of disrupted sleeping with aging is this reduction of nightly melatonin release.
What Exactly Does Melatonin Do?
Contrary to what many may believe, melatonin does not make you go to sleep. What happens is that as the evening hours progress and the level of light is decreased, melatonin levels rise and you become sleepy. The production of melatonin continues during the night. In fact, you produce as much as 10 times more during the night than during the day. This elevated amount of melatonin results in:
- Increased sleepiness
- Shortening of the time it takes to actually fall asleep
- Reduction of sleep interruptions or nighttime awakenings
- Counteracts fatigue developed during the day
What Else Does Melatonin Regulate?
Melatonin regulates many processes besides sleep. It is one of the most potent antioxidants in nature, helping to protect the body from degeneration due to free radical damage (free radical damage can lead to cancer). Melatonin also decreases susceptibility to stress, strengthens the immune system, helps with jet lag and improves mood. Low melatonin levels have been linked to hypertension and reduced immunity.
Because melatonin is also a powerful naturally-occurring antioxidant, it also tackles issues other than those that are sleep-related, such as:
- Reduces damage from free radicals
- Reduces stress-related conditions
- Strengthens the immune system
- Reduces jet lag
- Stabilizes moods
What About Melatonin Supplements?
In a perfect world, the pineal gland would just keep pumping out as much melatonin as we need for as long as we need it. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, we seem to be living beyond the time some of our systems were designed to function. Most older folks will report not being able to sleep the way they used to. This has a lot to do with the fact that the production of melatonin starts dramatically decreasing after we pass the age of 40.
Are melatonin supplements a good choice? They can be. Melatonin supplements can be found in pill, liquid and chewable form and may be synthetically produced or come from pineal glands in animals. People take them mainly for insomnia, fatigue and jet lag. Research is being conducted to determine if melatonin may be effective with a variety of other issues, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, ALS, high blood pressure at night and sleep issues for children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder).
Melatonin is considered to generally be safe, but there are possible side effects and negative interactions with certain types of medications. It is always important to consult with an experienced healthcare professional before taking melatonin or any other form of supplement.
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