Melatonin is a hormone most often associated with sleep. Recently, new research has uncovered additional melatonin benefits that demonstrate the crucial ways in which this substance helps our bodies to function.
How Does Melatonin Affect Sleep?
The pineal gland naturally produces melatonin in response to decreased light levels. The production of this hormone begins as the brain registers that the environment has grown darker, and continues through the evening hours. As the sun rises and more light is introduced, the amount of melatonin produced by the pineal gland is gradually decreased and ultimately stops altogether.
For decades, researchers have examined how melatonin production helps the brain regulate sleep patterns. This early research has led to melatonin supplements geared towards encouraging sleep, which is especially helpful for people suffering from shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) and from jet lag. Similarly, those who suffer from insomnia may also benefit from taking a melatonin supplement, as supplementing with melatonin increases the level of this hormone in the brain. Additionally, taking beta blockers or benzodiazepine drugs, smoking cessation, autism and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may cause sleep disorders that can be successfully treated with melatonin supplements.
One reason melatonin supplements work so well is that people suffering from sleep disorders often have a melatonin deficiency. In 2007, The National Health Interview Survey found that more than 1.6 million Americans were taking some type of sleep aid to resolve sleep disorders. The study also revealed that most of those individuals chose melatonin supplements over other types of sleep aid.
Research Discovers More Melatonin Benefits
Recently, a wealth of melatonin benefits were discovered through various studies, suggesting this hormone does much more than simply help us sleep. The surprising discoveries have revealed that melatonin influences disease and boosts the strength of our immune system in some very unique ways. While further studies are needed, early results have suggested that melatonin can promote health in many more ways than previously realized. Below, we examine some of the recent findings.
Melatonin Protects the Brain
Aside from prompting sleep, melatonin also acts as an antioxidant in the body, working to protect proteins and lipids from the damage that free radicals can cause. The characteristics of melatonin allows it to pass easily into cells, which also means it can get past the blood brain barrier more efficiently. Once there, it works to fight off free radicals, particularly those responsible for degenerative cognitive illnesses.
As we get older, the level of melatonin produced by the body decreases, leaving the brain more susceptible to diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In older adults, taking a melatonin supplement may help the brain fight off oxidative stress, which is a precursor to many neurodegenerative diseases. Increasing melatonin levels in elderly individuals may be an effective way of reducing symptoms associated with certain forms of dementia.
In research that examined the effects of melatonin on individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, it was found that there was a pronounced deficiency of the hormone in these subjects. These individuals also suffered from more sleep disorders and more commonly experienced “sundowners,” or the confusion and agitation that becomes more advanced in the evening hours. Administering melatonin supplements helped to decrease these symptoms and also reduced the risk of further cognitive degradation in the Alzheimer’s patients.
Melatonin Promotes Cellular Health
Another promising melatonin benefit recently discovered is the way in which this hormone interacts with various types of cancers. It has been found that melatonin may be benficial in several kinds of cancer, including liver and breast cancer. It has also been shown to affect some types of lung cancer and the growth of tumors in the brain.
One study looked at women suffering from metastatic breast cancer who had not sufficiently responded to a common chemotherapy drug. When the women were given a melatonin supplement in addition to the standard cancer treatment, their response to the drug was significantly improved. Women whose breast cancer was expected to worsen actually showed improvement, in addition to reduced anxiety.
In a laboratory experiment, scientists also looked at how melatonin affects prostate cancer in men. When a concentration of melatonin was injected into cultivated prostate cancer cells, the number of cancer cells decreased and the production of additional cancer cells was slowed. Additionally, healthy, non-cancerous cells began to develop. The research indicated that, whether or not men were hormone-sensitive, melatonin supplementation may be a promising adjunct treatment when dealing with prostate cancer.
Separately, researchers looked at a series of 10 random trials to determine how melatonin affected several different types of cancer. The risk of death by one year was reduced by up to 34 percent when melatonin supplements were administered. This was true regardless of the specific kind of cancer or the amount of melatonin administered, suggesting the mere presence of the hormone can have an effect on healthy cell growth.
Melatonin for Migraines
Since melatonin does regulate sleep and reduce anxiety, it may not come as a surprise that migraine relief is one of the possible melatonin benefits recently discovered. The results from a recent study suggest that taking melatonin supplements can help reduce the number of migraines one experiences. Also, the study found that melatonin may inhibit the severity of each migraine, providing additional relief to sufferers.
Researchers assembled a test group of 29 women and 5 men for the three-month study. Each individual was administered a nightly melatonin dose of three milligrams, about half an hour before bed. By the end of the three months, two-thirds of the subjects reported that they had experienced only half as many headaches as usual. Of the migraines that did manifest, subjects reported they were less severe and were of much shorter duration. In their findings, researchers noted that melatonin may benefit migraines due to its anti-inflammatory effect, as well as its role in helping to fight off the free radicals that can contribute to migraines.
These are just a few of the melatonin benefits that science is uncovering. While its ability to help us sleep may be its most common use, this hormone seems to function in a variety of ways to help us live healthier and longer lives. Future research may uncover more reasons for each of us to add melatonin supplements to our daily routines.