Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced in an area of the human brain called the pineal gland. Since melatonin production is stimulated by exposure to darkness, and levels in the blood are highest just before a person’s normal bedtime, melatonin is believed to help regulate sleep patterns. The hormone is produced in the body from the essential amino acid tryptophan.
There are many potential benefits of melatonin, but not all have been thoroughly tested. However, the use of melatonin to adjust sleep patterns after time zone changes (“jet lag”) is one use that has been supported by several studies in humans. Physicians often suggest that their patients who are going on distant trips begin taking melatonin on the first day they travel at the time they will go to bed in the new time zone. Continued for several days, the synthetic hormone will improve recovery of normal sleep in up to half of individuals experiencing jet lag.
The use of melatonin in certain other groups is supported by a limited amount of research. Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) is a disorder of the circadian rhythms of the body. Patient with DSPS take longer to fall asleep and sleep less efficiently than others of the same age. Studies have suggested that taking melatonin in the evening will reset the timing of sleep; however, earlier administration (as much as 6 ½ hours before bedtime) is even more effective.
Insomnia prevalence increases with age because production of melatonin gradually decreases. As a result, sleep continuity and quality is greatly diminished. For insomnia of older people, melatonin supplementation decreases the amount of time required to fall asleep, but further study is needed, especially to determine long-term side effects.
Melatonin can also be used in children with neuro-psychiatric disorders such as autism or epilepsy, to help them fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. Research indicates that the hormone is safe and effective, at least for short-term use. However, it must be carefully administered and monitored, especially since most of the children take other medications as well.
Many studies have also indicated that melatonin aids in the quality and quantity of sleep for adults (age 18-50) with no diagnosed problems. The design and reliability of some of these studies has been questioned, though, and it is uncertain what the proper dose and timing is for this population. Future research should be better designed and more specific.
Melatonin has been suggested as a treatment for a host of other medical conditions, including aging, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, glaucoma, headache, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, smoking cessation, and tardive dyskinesia. None of these claims have been substantiated so far, but studies are limited. Research is ongoing in many of these areas.
Several potentially serious side effects have been reported with melatonin use, especially when it is taken for more than a few days. These include parasomnias such as sleepwalking, intense dreams and nightmares, confusion, increased risk of seizure (in those with seizure disorders), mood changes and psychosis, increased blood cholesterol, increased blood glucose, disruption of hormone production, and gastrointestinal distress. For this reason, melatonin is not generally recommended for patients with mood disorders, psychotic disorders, atherosclerosis, diabetes, thyroid disorder, or Crohn’s disease, except under close supervision by a physician.
Also, melatonin can interact adversely with certain medications. For example, the use of melatonin with other sleep aids such as Ambien or with any substance that can cause drowsiness (tranquilizers such as Valium, drugs containing codeine or hydrocodone, some antidepressants, and alcohol) should be avoided. The resulting daytime sleepiness may lead to accidents when driving or using machinery, as well as falls, especially in the elderly.
Melatonin should be avoided by individuals who take blood-thinners, anticonvulsants, heart medications, insulin or oral diabetes medications, or the illegal drug methamphetamine. If taken, it must be monitored by a physician.
Remember, even a hormone which occurs naturally in the body can be potentially dangerous under certain circumstances. You should consult your doctor before taking any type of supplement.
**** These statements have not been investigated by the FDA. Melatonin is not FDA approved to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease ****
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