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Mysterious Melatonin December 18, 2010

Posted by Kyle in Biology, Chemistry, Health, Medicine, Neuroscience, Nutrition, Physiology.
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I am sure everyone has already heard of a little compound known as melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that can be found in many different organisms including plants, although most people know melatonin for its actions in mammals. In humans, melatonin is produced in the brain by the pineal gland. Circulating melatonin levels have been found to be high at night and low during the day, which is consistent with research that has shown that light suppresses melatonin. Because melatonin plays a role in controlling the circadian rhythm, it has received much interest for its use as a treatment for various sleep disorders. Because melatonin is a hormone, supplementing melatonin can present some issues.

Many people have used melatonin supplements to help them sleep at night. If you take a trip to your local drug store you are likely to find melatonin on the shelf. The first time I came across melatonin supplements I couldn’t help but think about the potential negative aspects to selling melatonin over the counter, unregulated. As many of you know, the human body likes to maintain homeostasis. When this delicate balance is interrupted, the body will react to return to homeostasis. I started to wonder what happens when someone takes melatonin supplements. The first thing that comes to mind is a decrease in the amount of melatonin receptors or a decrease in the production of melatonin itself, or both. I also wondered about possible side effects of increasing melatonin levels. As we have seen with many other hormones, multiple pathways and mechanisms can be influenced by a single hormone. So someone taking melatonin to help them sleep could inadvertently throw off other pathways, like those involved in reproduction for example.

Melatonin has been shown protect against reactive oxygen species, which can wreak havoc inside cells. This could potentially be an obvious benefit to taking melatonin supplements, especially if it helps an individual sleep at night. While sifting through the literature, I was unable to find any studies specifically looking at the negative effects of taking melatonin supplements, if any. But just because it isn’t proven that something is bad, doesn’t mean the potential for bad isn’t there. Also, other countries have taken action to stop over the counter sale of melatonin. Of course, there is also the question, do melatonin supplements even work?  How much of the melatonin present in a melatonin pill is denatured by stomach acids or excreted in urine before it even has an effect?

I am skeptical of melatonin supplements, if you haven’t noticed yet. To each his own, but I don’t think I will be purchasing or taking any melatonin supplements in the near future.  Good luck to everyone on their upcoming finals. Make sure to get plenty of sleep, although if your to-do list looks like mine, that won’t be happening.

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