Melatonin Mania?

freelance writer living in Coral Springs, Florida
New Age Journal

It's been hyped as a miracle drug. What's the truth behind the trend?

It’s the hottest hormone since estrogen, which ushered in the sexual revolution via the birth-control pill thirty-five years ago. Melatonin, which is gaining widespread use as a natural sleeping aid, also offers promise for another sort of revolution--one that keeps us young as we grow old.

It's no wonder interest in melatonin is exploding. This summer, Newsweek touted the hormone as one that "could reset the body's amino clock, turning back the ravages of time." Then in November it revisited the supplement it helped hype with a cover story called "Melatonin Mania." In the past few months no fewer than five books on melatonin have been published. Health-food stores, which sell a month's supply for less than ten dollars, have trouble keeping it on the shelves, and heightened demand is driving a worldwide production shortage.

Why are so many folks turning to melatonin? Perhaps because it may offer hope for fighting a host of medical conditions, from the mere annoyers to the major killers. Thousands of animal, laboratory, and small-scale human studies-discussions of which form the bulk of all the new books--have demonstrated the hormone's numerous properties. Preliminary research shows that even minute doses of synthetic melatonin may boost our immune system, slow the growth of tumors, and reduce cholesterol and hypertension. It also offers immediate gratification to those hoping to combat jet lag and the bodily confusion that comes from shift work, and it has proven effective in the treatment of insomnia.

But not everyone is so excited. [..... and certainly not the pharmaceutical industry - MStM] Although side effects appear minimal, no one yet knows the health implications of long-term melatonin use, which would be required in efforts to ward off the diseases of aging. Because of the lack of long-term research, the National Nutritional Foods Association, the leading natural-products trade group, issued an advisory to its members in 1994 stating that "melatonin may be inappropriate as a product to be sold in a health-food store, and...retailers [should] seriously consider the propriety of its continued sale." The group still holds that position, although it "may be revisiting that statement in light of more research and the product's wide availability," says spokesperson Karen Klemens.

Regardless of whether you opt for melatonin supplements or not, there are also a number of lifestyle changes that can help you protect your body's natural supply of melatonin.

Western Medicine had long considered the pineal gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain, to be a useless remnant of our prehuman past [a misunderstanding of history - MStM] . But in recent decades, researchers discovered that it secretes melatonin, and that melatonin has a vast and complex role in harmonizing the hormones that affects many of the body's systems. More is secreted at night and during certain phases oŁ women’s monthly cycles, thus keeping us in sync with the rhythms of the day, month, and seasons.

Found in every living organism, melatonin plays a role in determining when birds migrate and goats mate - the latter in time to ensure that their young will be born in the food rich spring.

In 1992, researchers were surprised to find that melatonin also acts as a potent antioxidant. Like all antioxidants, it mops up free radicals, those extra oxygen byproducts that, left unchecked, lead to many degenerative diseases. Yet unlike vitamins A and C, which go only into the fatty or the watery parts of the cell, respectively, melatonin is everywhere, protecting all parts of every cell from free-radical damage," says Russel J. Relier, a pioneer of melatonin research and coauthor of Melatonin: Your Body’s Natural Wonder Drug (Bantam). "And unlike some antioxidants, it even crosses the blood-brain barrier [a mechanism that prevents large molecules in the blood from entering the brain], so it protects our brains, too."

Our bodies naturally produce large quantities of melatonin during our childhood and early adulthood, but by age forty production levels start to taper off. By age sixty melatonin levels are less than half what they were when we were kids. Not so coincidentally, melatonin researchers believe, these post-middle-age years are also when many immune-systems and degenerative diseases kick in.

Why the levels drop off with age is the subject of much speculation, but as Reiter says, the reason probably isn't one we want to hear. "After any animal--including humans --reproduces, it is of no advantage to the species as a whole, and it is even a detriment because it is using resources that could better go to the young," he says. "It's just a theory, but we believe that melatonin levels may drop off to help ensure that older animals have a relatively early death." [a rather wild guess! - lifestyle and the environment play a major role in physical deterioration - MStM]

Research suggests that increasing your supply of melatonin may help treat or prevent a wide range of conditions. Supplements are used short-term to treat minor ailments, but to try to ward off degenerative diseases, a pill a day for decades would be necessary [?? no documentation available to suggest this length of time would be ‘necessary’ - MStM].

It was 1985 when researchers first came upon melatonin's ability to help mice extend their lives. Middle-aged rodents given daily doses of melatonin were still cavorting in their cages like kids at a carnival some five months later (an eternity for this strain of mice, who generally live just two years), while their counterparts had slowed down considerably. Moreover, the mice on melatonin actually lived some 20 percent longer.

In other studies, young rodents deprived of melatonin by the removal of their pineal glands had cholesterol levels--a risk factor for heart disease - some 30 percent higher than normal when they reached adulthood. In humans, a small group of patients with high blood pressure saw their pressure decline to normal levels when they started taking supplements.

Because melatonin scavenges free radicals, researchers hope that it may someday prove useful in preventing or alleviating such degenerative diseases as Alzheimer's, arthritis, and Parkinson's. Even so, Russel Reiter notes that degenerative diseases "are very complex" and that "there is no such thing--melatonin included--as a miracle drug that will cure all problems."

Before you rush out to your natural-food store in search of the fountain of youth, keep in mind that even Reiter and other melatonin advocates caution against taking the supplement haphazardly [i.e., instead of pharmaceuticals! - MStM]. All new books agree that some people should definitely avoid the hormone, or at least consult their physician before swallowing: children, pregnant or lactating women, people with hormonal imbalances, people with a tendency toward depression or those on antidepressants, those taking steroids, and people with auto-immune disorders or with any other serious illness.

Even using melatonin for insomnia has potential pitfalls. While melatonin isn't addictive, says Ray Sahelian, people can become over reliant on it: "When bedtime rolls around, people think, Should I toss and turn on my own, or should I just take the pill? More often than not, the pill will win." Adds New York University sleep specialist Edward B. O'Malley: "I believe that people with insomnia should work out behavioral techniques rather than rely on any supplement. That way they can go to sleep any night without worrying that the health-food store might be closed."

A more-troubling issue is long-term use. Although people hoping to ward off degenerative conditions need to take the supplement daily, there have been no long-term human studies of continual use. A few are now getting started, but it will be years until their results are known. The longest use of melatonin supplements appears to be in a group of Canadian doctors who have been taking the product themselves for fifteen years, not long enough to evaluate either its effectiveness against aging or the possibility of long-term adverse effects. [so what would ‘long enough’ be interpreted as??? - MStM]

Even the most-vocal melatonin advocates are uneasy about its use against degenerative diseases. "People taking high dosages for its anti-aging properties concerns me, because we have no idea what taking that will do to our system if it continues [for decades]," says Sahelian. Sharing his concern is Russel Reiter: "We simply don't have studies that show who, when, or how much you should take to delay degenerative diseases. Younger people should especially be more cautious about jumping in indiscriminately."

Natural Medicine guru Andrew Weil, M.D., concludes that while it's an effective remedy for jet lag and sleep problems, "I’m uneasy recommending that people take it every day. Because it's a brain hormone, it is certain to have general effects on many systems of the body, and we may not know what all of its actions actually are." Or, as Edward O'Malley succinctly puts it: "Just because melatonin isn't being regulated by the FDA, people should realize that it is still a drug." [can anyone explain exactly what is, and what is NOT, a "drug"? - MStM]

Whether or not you take melatonin supplements, researchers are discovering that the way we live may in itself rob us of the melatonin we're naturally entitled to have. "There are so many things in our culture that are unfriendly to our body's melatonin production, but changing them can be a big help," says Steven J. Bock, M.D., of Rhinebeck, New York, coauthor of Stay Young the Melatonin Way (Dutton).

Turning on a bright light if you awaken in the middle of the night, for example, virtually shuts down the manufacture of melatonin that would otherwise continue until morning, reducing our body's overall supply. Leaving off all lights (other than night lights) at night can prevent this. Moreover, by turning off lights earlier in the evening, we can also increase our daily supply. Ditto for getting out in the sun during the day and not sleeping in on weekends, since too little daylight exposure and irregular sleep cycles wreak havoc on our melatonin levels.

Scientists believe that the body's melatonin can also be diminished by excessive exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs), the invisible energy that flows out from power lines and electric appliances. Studies have found that users of electric blankets (large emitters of EMFs) and animals exposed to high levels of some EMFs in the lab have measurably lower levels of melatonin [this is not the only negative effect!- MStM].

Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs inhibit melatonin production, too. "My melatonin levels have been virtually destroyed by taking beta-blockers for hypertension," the fifty-nine-year-old Reiter says, which is why he takes 1 milligram of melatonin supplements daily. Aspirin, ibuprofen, calcium channel blockers, tranquilizers, and even caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol depress your body's natural supply.

Conversely, certain foods may give you a melatonin boost. While this area of research is just beginning, a handful of foods have already been identified as rich sources of the substance. Of those studied so far, the best source is the grass plant tall fescue, which can be included in the grass-juice shakes frequently made at health-food-store drink bars. Other chart toppers, in order, include oats (a sweet irony to skeptics who believe that melatonin rivals oat bran as health fad of the month), sweet corn, rice, ginger, tomatoes, bananas, and barley.

Eating foods high in tryptophan (such as soy nuts, cottage cheese, turkey, and tofu) may also boost melatonin levels, since tryptophan--along with serotonin--is what your pineal gland converts to manufacture melatonin. And mind-body practices may also be beneficial: One small [therefore not to be taken seriously? - MStM] study found that women who meditate regularly have higher levels of melatonin than women who don't.

In the years ahead, researchers are likely to learn more about boosting your body's natural supply of melatonin - as well as the possible side effects of long-term melatonin supplementation. in the meantime, supplements may prove a boon to people seeking a good night's sleep. As for whether melatonin can "reset the body's aging clock"? Only time will tell.

This article shows the danger of accepting articles written by those with limited knowledge of the wider aspects of life as authoritative, as well as the limitations on such articles by editing/censorship restraints, yet it does allow a certain amount of Truth to be known. The most important statement herein is that melatonin is created by the body itself - and must consequently be considered beneficial! MstM.

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