Sunday, May 3, 2009

Melatonin (Part 1)

Insomnia can have a serious impact on your immune system and make you incredibly susceptible to colds, viruses, and other infections. I experienced this first hand this past winter. After weeks of sleepless nights, I turned to friends and colleagues for advice. I got great advice – reiki, acupuncture, foods rich in tryptophan, a hot shower/bath, exercise, relaxation techniques and supplements. One colleague suggested trying melatonin, while another suggested taking valerian. I tried many of the sleep remedies suggested, including taking a melatonin supplement. And...I think the supplement worked! Could this be a placebo effect? Or could there be something to melatonin?

My fascination with melatonin prompted me to read a book on the topic entitled “Melatonin: Your Body's Natural Wonder Drug” by Russel J. Reiter. Dr. Reiter is the world's leading authority on melatonin and has spent his career investigating the effects of this critical hormone. My husband noticed my bedtime reading and made the following comment “How can someone write an entire book on one supplement?”. As I pointed out to him "Its not the supplement the author discusses but rather the hormone, which also functions as an antioxidant". That was all my husband needed to hear. He pulled the covers over his head, rolled over and fell into a deep sleep! Clearly his natural production of melatonin is fine.....mine on the other hand was impaired.

Some highlights from the book....

On page one of his book, Dr. Reiter writes

“In the exact center of your brain resides a tiny organ called the pineal gland, which is about the size and shape of a kernel of corn. The pineal was the first gland in your body to be formed, clearly distinguishable a mere three weeks after conception. Yet ironically, it has bee the last to reveal its secrets to medical science”.

He goes on to describe how it was not until the late 1950s that the principal hormone secreted by the pineal gland was revealed - melatonin. It is a hormone involved in regulation of

  • mood
  • sleep
  • sexual behavior
  • reproductive alterations
  • immunologic function
  • circadian rhythms

But as I mentioned, melatonin also functions as an antioxidant i.e. it stops free-radical damage and helps to preserve the integrity of our cells and protects our overall health. Dr. Reiter presents some interesting evidence to suggest that melatonin plays a role in slowing the aging process. He discusses how melatonin may be of use in the treatment of many pathophysiological disease states including various cancers, hypertension, and a variety of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. But the main reason I was reading this book was because I was taking a melatonin supplement and I was curious to read what the author had to say about supplement use.

“The conservative course of action is to refrain from taking melatonin at the present time. In five years we should know a great deal more about the possible benefits and risks of taking the hormone, especially in regard to treating insomnia, biological rhythm disorders, and cancer, which are the most active areas of research at this time. As you wait for the results of these studies, you can focus on preserving and enhancing your own natural melatonin supply. If you are in good health and 40 years old or younger, this may be the wisest course of action.” (page 202).

This is all well and good, but what happens if you've got insomnia and you are too tired to enhance your natural production of melatonin? Dr. Reiter does go onto to say if you are suffering from a condition that could be aided by melatonin therapy, you may want to consider taking a melatonin supplement. As a sleep aid, he recommends a dose of 0.1 to 10 milligrams. That's a wide range in dosage and the reason is because there is no clear recommendation.

Now that spring is here, and my circadian rhythm is back to normal, I'm going to try to boost my own melatonin production and cut back on the supplement. I believe melatonin did help me catch up on some lost sleep and get me back into a good sleep pattern.

So how do we protect and enhance our natural production of melatonin?

Dr. Reiter suggests the following:

  1. Increase your daytime exposure to sunlight or bright artificial light – ideally first thing in the morning.

  2. Sleep long enough at night that you wake up feeling fully rested.

  3. Avoid bright lights at night.

  4. If possible, avoid night-shift work and travel that involves frequent crossing to time zones.

  5. Reduce your exposure to electromagnetic fields.

  6. Do not smoke. Drink in moderation.

  7. If possible avoid melatonin-lowering drugs, or take steps to minimize their impact on your melatonin production.

  8. Eat foods rich in calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and niacinamide, or take supplements of these vitamins and minerals.

  9. Eat foods rich in antioxidants or take antioxidant supplements.

  10. Eat snacks high in tryptophan or melatonin last thing at night.

  11. Spend sometime each day in restful contemplation, meditation or prayer.

[My next blog will focus on the points in bold]

After reading his book I have come away somewhat enlightened and also a little curious about the potential role of this antioxidant. I recommend you read it for yourself. Oh, and by the way, the author takes a nightly melatonin supplement (1 milligram dose), as does his wife.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. GREAT Post... Thank you!
    I have heard about Dr Reiter, but I forgot thename of the book.

    Incidentally; it would be helpful to note that melatonin is very difficult to buy in the UK & Europe, (I live in London).

    I did find a website that caters to the UK called 'Vitasunn'

    So far they've delivered my melatonin, (among other items) with no problems.

    Anyway; keep up the great work, and thanks again!

  3. Good productive information about Melatonin!! You can browse GNC for those supplements.