Friday, January 25, 2013

Spotlight: Melatonin, the “Dracula of Hormones”

Can melatonin help cure insomnia?
Can melatonin help cure insomnia?
Image: Shutterstock
About a year ago, a co-worker told me that when she had trouble sleeping, she just took a small dose of melatonin and that helped her sleep through the night and wake feeling well rested. I had been having trouble falling asleep at night, and I asked her to tell me more. She told me that melatonin was a natural hormone and was sold over the counter for a relatively inexpensive amount. It sparked my curiosity, but I was too overwhelmed with work at the time to research it further.

I have a good friend who suffers from insomnia. She sometimes goes days without getting more than a few hours of sleep—and not for lack of trying. She often “rests” on days like that, which means she often spends hours lying in bed, exhausted, trying to fall asleep. From time to time I have bouts of sleep trouble as well, tossing and turning for several hours before drifting off into an uncomfortable sleep, only to reawaken a few hours later. As I continued to hear stories from my friend about her inability to sleep, I kept asking myself about melatonin. Finally, I sat down to learn more. Here’s what I discovered:
Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in our brains.
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  • Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pineal gland in our brains, which is a pea-shaped gland just above the center of our brains. It is produced to help control our sleep cycles, with larger quantities of it being produced starting around 9 PM and lasting until about 9 AM—our natural sleep hours.
  • Melatonin is found in some foods naturally, which is why it is the only hormone that the FDA allows to be sold as a dietary supplement.
  • Light directly affects how much melatonin our brains produce, which is part of what leads to symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
  • Melatonin is generally produced in higher amounts in children and adolescents, with that amount naturally dropping off as we age. Some older adults only make small amounts or none at all.
  • Not enough research has been done on melatonin, but scientists are looking into using it as a treatment for SAD, to help control sleep patterns, preventing/reducing sleeping problems after surgery, and reducing chronic clutter headaches.
  • It’s possible that melatonin may help slow or even stop the spread of cancer, slow aging, and strengthen the immune system.
  • Melatonin seems to help some people struggling with sleep problems, but during formal research it was shown to be ineffective as a sleeping pill. There is evidence, however, that it can help reset our internal clock—though whether it is more effective than light remains to be seen.
  • Some research suggests melatonin may help people fall asleep faster. It could also help those working night shifts adjust their schedules. It may also be an effective treatment for jet lag. For the treatment of insomnia, the study results have thus far been inconclusive.
Melatonin is sold as a dietary supplement over the counter (OTC).
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In sum, melatonin may or may not be effective as a sleeping aid. The good news is that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that use of it could be harmful, so it could be a good option to try if you’re wary of prescription sleeping pills (as I am). Dosage can vary from 0.2 mg to 20 mg, though, so if you’re considering giving it a go, you should discuss dosage with your doctor first.