If you are one of those people who rarely sleep, maybe you should re-think your sleeping patterns. Melatonin, the principal hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, is secreted with nightfall (when we get sleepy at night). It is also involved in the timing and release of other hormones in the body and helps to regulate our circadian bio-rhythms. Not only that, but it is in fact one of the most potent antioxidants in the human body.
As we age, our DHEA serum levels (also known as biomarkers) drop. One of the main scientific interests in anti-aging is how to restore these biomarkers so that we can maintain, or preserve our youthful looks. Melatonin is also one of the most important biomarkers involved in aging, since as we get older, melatonin production significantly drops. The age-related decline in melatonin is so significant that it has been elucidated as an index for brain aging in humans.
Melatonin not only acts as a strong antioxidant, it also serves as a hormone, a hormone-receptor sensitizer, a mitochondrial resuscitator, as well as an immune enhancer.
Here is everything you need to know about melatonin and your health!
Melatonin functions via a number of ways (both direct and indirect) to reduce oxidative stress. It is a direct free radical scavenger, and an indirect antioxidant when stimulating antioxidant enzymes and synthesis of glutathione (major intracellular antioxidant) (1). These antioxidant effects have been demonstrated to help support the central nervous system by preventing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease in rats, as well as protect the cardiovascular system such as reducing cholesterol levels by up to 40% and lowering blood pressure via a relaxation of the smooth muscles of the aortic walls. It also protects the GI tract from ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and diarrhea.
As stated earlier, as we grow older, our levels of Growth Hormone start dropping dramatically. Numerous human studies have found that melatonin significantly stimulates the release of growth hormone (2), which means more lustrous looking hair, greater vigor, better posture and more activity. Declines in melatonin is also a trigger for menopause. Bellipanni and colleagues (3) found that when administered for six months, melatonin helped increase thyroid hormone levels and suppressed LH (a hormone that rises with age) in women under 50.
Melatonin also has the ability to stimulate electron transport and ATP production in the inner-mitochondrial membrane, allowing it to actively restore the activity of our mitochondria (naturally, as we age, our mitochondria deteriorate due to oxidative changes). A common feature of many degenerative conditions like aging, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and sepsis is mitochondrial damage due to oxidative stress. This leads to a reduction in ATP production and poor mitochondrial efficiency, leading to increased free-radical generation (4). In general, melatonin preserves the integrity of the mitochondria by stimulating anti-oxidative enzymes and improving the efficiency of the electron-transport chain (limits electron leakage and free radical generation and enhances ATP synthesis).
Immune Enhancer (and cancer)
The immune system is strongly modulated by little proteins called cytokines. Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) are cytokines that both rise with age and weaken our immune system. These inflammatory cytokines were reduced to normal values when old mice were treated with melatonin for six weeks (5), helping support the fact that melatonin is important in improving our immune system. Not only does melatonin improve our immune system but it also helps inhibit growth of cancer cells by inducing apoptosis (cell suicide). Many human clinical trials have used melatonin as a treatment for cancer in addition to other forms of cancer treatment, and has been shown to enhance the efficacy of other forms of cancer treatment, increases the survival of patients, improves their quality of lives and helps reduce the adverse side effects of other treatments (6).
But I’m Not Tired! Tips to help you improve melatonin production:
1. Eat healthy foods, especially those that help stimulate melatonin production like fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds (specifically, raspberries, cherries, almonds, flaxseeds, walnuts and tomatoes). Stimulating foods like caffeine, alcohol, drugs, chocolate, sugar and soda drinks will all leave you feeling awake and not able to rest properly.
2. Dim lights 1-2 hours before bed-time, and make sure you are in a well-lit area during the day so as to not confuse your brain’s production of melatonin. Short intervals of light at night, whether it be from your TV, computer screen, tablet screen or smartphone, will all affect your melatonin levels. Wind down before bedtime by closing your blinds, dimming the lights, or better, investing in a red light bulb which will have the least impact on melatonin.
3. Try to aim falling asleep at the same time each night so as to train your brain, and get your melatonin production into a steady routine. Your body likes regimen. If you get into a proper sleep routine, your body will release melatonin at the right time too.
(1) Reiter, R., Tan, D., Mayo, J., Sainz, R., Leon, J., and Czarnocki, Z. (2003). Melatonin as an antioxidant: biochemical mechanisms and pathophysiological implications in humans. Acta Biochimica Polonica, 50, 1129-1146.
(2) Valcavi, R., Zini, M., Maestroni, G., Conti, A., Portlioli, I. (2008) Melatonin stimulates growth hormone secretion through pathways other than the growth hormone-releasing hormone. Clinical Endocrinology, 39, 193-199.
(3) Bellipanni, G., Bianchi, P., Pierpaoli, W., Bulian, D., Ilyia, E. (2001) Effects of melatonin in perimenopausal and menopausal women: a randomized and placebo controlled study. Experimental Gerontology, 36, 297-310.
(4) Okatani, Y., Wakatsuki, A., Reiter, R., & Miyahara, Y. (2002) Hepatic mitochondrial dysfunction in senescence-accelerated mice: correction by long-term, orally administered physiological levels of melatonin. Journal of Pineal Research, 33, 127-133.
(5) Sharman, K., Sharman, E., Yang, E., & Bondy, S. (2002) Dietary melatonin selectively reverses age-related changes in cortical cytokine mRNA levels, and their responses to an inflammatory stimulus. Neurobiology of Aging, 23, 633-638.
(6) Lissoni, P. (1999) Melatonin and cancer treatment, in: Melatonin in the promotion of health. Watson, R., CRC & Raton, B. pp.175-190.