Marvelous melatonin

If you’re like me and thought melatonin is basically all about promoting sleep, get ready to look at melatonin in a whole new light. I’ve discovered that supporting sleep is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many functions of melatonin, and thought I’d share my insights with our NeuroScience friends.

Melatonin synthesis

Studying the melatonin synthesis biochemical pathway may help you fall asleep.

Okay, so let’s start with sleep. Following the onset of darkness, there is a surge in melatonin secretion from the pineal gland that initiates the onset of sleep. Circulating, pineal-derived melatonin continues to rise until the middle of the night and then falls again by morning. This nocturnal elevation is essential for sleep and for regulating the body’s circadian rhythm. Messing with this diurnal variation in melatonin output disrupts not only sleep, but numerous other biological processes that follow a circadian pattern as well.

In addition to promoting sleep onset, melatonin supports sleep quality by increasing levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the hypothalamus (Xu et al., 1995). Melatonin also reduces the negative effects of glutamate signaling (Kumar and Singh, 2009). Consequently, melatonin can reduce stress and anxiety. And by promoting restful, restorative sleep and reducing stress, melatonin can help prevent short-term cognitive deficits.

Now let’s move beyond sleep. Melatonin’s well-documented antioxidant effects are at least as important as its sleep benefits. These effects are triggered by (1) its own intrinsic antioxidant activity; (2) upregulation of other antioxidant systems such as glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase, and superoxide dismutases; and (3) down-regulation of pro-oxidative enzymes (Hardeland and Pandi-Perumal, 2005; Kumar and Singh, 2009).

marvelous melatonin

What can’t melatonin do?

But the marvels of melatonin aren’t restricted to the brain. Melatonin can aid in digestion and may be useful in  managing constipation and other smooth muscle-related health issues (Pozo, 2010).

You may have noted that several conditions I’ve mentioned in this post occur more frequently with aging. Probably not coincidentally, nighttime melatonin production decreases as we get older.  Melatonin may combat the aging of the immune system, or immunosenescence (Cardinali, 2008). And finally, the observation that calorie restriction can help prolong lifespan has recently been complemented by observations that hunger boosts gastrointestinal melatonin production (Bubenik and Konturek, 2011). Coincidence? Maybe, but given a choice between melatonin and feeling hungry every day…I’ll take the melatonin!


About Jeannemarie Beiseigel, PhD, RD

Jeannemarie is a Registered Dietitian with a PhD in Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise from Virginia Tech. She is a self-employeed nutrition consultant. As a scientist, she relies on the evidence to guide her beliefs, practices and recommendations. That said, she is open-minded to new approaches and recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all, particularly when it does to diet and health. Jeannemarie enjoys keeping abreast of new foods on the market and in restaurants along with their nutritional value (or lack thereof!). She's currently working w/ Nomolos Inc. on development and advancement of its weight-management app, Zestar, for i-phones and such. And she's keeping herself abreast of new regulations and advances in food label regulations, restaurant nutrition postings, revising of the school nutrition and health programs, and developing science in nutrition, food science and integrative health.
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