Melatonin has hit the news media with a big splash in recent months. According to major magazine articles, TV newscasts, and upcoming books, melatonin is touted as the new wonder drug. While it appears that melatonin might just live up to that claim, it is important to discuss the original benefits that made it so popular: its use effective, safe sleep aid.
Researchers discovered melatonin in 1959 and knew that the brain’s pineal gland secretes melatonin in cycles that correspond with day and night. Scientists suspected that melatonin had important functions, since every living creature produces this hormone.
Dr. Richard J. Wurtman, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first identified melatonin as a hormone in 1963. Wurtman researched melatonin for several decades, and his early work linked melatonin with sleep.
Today scientists understand that melatonin regulates the body’s circadian rhythm. When sunlight hit; the eye’s retina, melatonin in the pineal gland is suppressed. When darkness occurs, the pineal gland starts to produce sleep-inducing melatonin, which stays at high levels for the next eight to ten hours.
Melatonin levels rise and fail with the cycle of day and night, but levels of this hormone also change during different stages of life. Childhood produces the highest melatonin levels, and old age is associated with the lowest.
Melatonin offers real hope for the 33% of Americans who have trouble falling or staving asleep. Sleeping drugs can induce tolerance and dependence, should only be used for short periods of time, and often produce a “hangover” the next morning. On the other hand, melatonin can be safely used for long periods of time, is non-habit forming, and in recommended doses does not cause a morning hangover.
Researchers now know that as little as half a milligram of melatonin can convince the body that it is time to sleep. Most studies have found that three to five milligrams of melatonin taken an hour before desired bedtime generates sleep. Another major benefit of melatonin as a sleep aid is that melatonin-induced sleep is not different from natural sleep; there are no changes to the important cycles of dreaming.
The scientific research on supplemental melatonin and insomnia is solid and fairly uncontroversial.
A double-blind study of a group of chronic insomniacs reports that one to five milligram doses of melatonin before bedtime help alleviate insomnia symptoms. Another clinical report of double blind, placebo controlled design found that melatonin significantly shortened the time it took to go to sleep, reduced the number of night awakenings, and improved sleep quality.
Melatonin is also extremely useful for alleviating circadian rhythm disturbances, in which lifestyle or work schedules interfere with sleep patterns. Research published in Chronobiology International (Folkard, S., October 1993; 10(5):315-320) assessed the effectiveness of melatonin supplements in police officers working the night shift. Melatonin significantly improved adjustment to a new sleep schedule and enhanced alertness during the early morning work hours.
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