In research indicating that a new weapon may have been found to combat insomnia, researchers say pills of the natural hormone melatonin will bring on slumber quickly with-out the addictive effects of drugs.
Dr. Richard J. Wurtman, professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said today that the studies showed that melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, functioned naturally as a sleep-inducing hormone, even when given as pills in very small doses.
“Our volunteers fall asleep in five or six minutes on melatonin, while those on placebo take about 15 minutes or longer,” Dr. Wurtman said.
Although the research is encouraging, Dr. Wurtman cautioned that the wrong doses of melatonin could cause mood-altering side effects. “People should not self-medicate with melatonin,” he said, because there is some risk in taking the hormone without supervision. A report on a study of melatonin is soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other researchers have shown that melatonin can speed adjustment to jet lag.
Dr. Judith L. Vaitukaitis, director of the National Center for Research Resources, said the MIT findings offered hope “for a natural, non-addictive agent that could improve sleep for millions of Americans.”
In the MIT studies, twenty young men were given various doses of melatonin or dummy medications and then placed in a dark room at midday and told to close their eyes for 30 minutes.
“In the stressful environment of having to sleep on demand, it may take our volunteers twenty-five minutes to fall asleep on placebo and five or six minutes to get to sleep on melatonin,” Dr. Wurtman said. Subjects on melatonin also tended to sleep about twice as long those on the dummy medication, he said.
Dr. Wurtman said that the study was “simply the first step” in proving the use of melatonin for sleep, but he predicted a formal application for that use of the hormone within a year. The researcher said that melatonin might also be effective in treating jet lag, the effect caused when the body is taken across many time zones and endures a daylight-darkness change that disrupts sleep patterns. Dr. Wurtman said that by taking melatonin at appropriate sleep times, the body would naturally adapt to the altered day-night cycles caused by the trip.
Reprinted from The New York Times, March 1, 1994, by permission of Associated Press.