It has been described as the “superhero of the night” and is now considered to be one of the most important hormones and antioxidants in the body – Melatonin.
Indeed, recent research is suggesting that the health benefits of melatonin supercede what was previously considered to be simply the ‘regulator of the sleep cycle’.
It is now suggested, with the backing of much research, that melatonin could in fact have fundamental benefits on our health – particularly in terms of neurodegenerative diseases.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland – a ‘pea sized’ gland located just above the middle of the brain. It is the hormone responsible for the regulation of our internal body clock which is also referred to as the “circadian rhythm”.
The production of melatonin is influenced by the amount of light in the external environment. Darkness stimulates the production of melatonin while brightness produces the opposite effect. The presence of light – whether it be artificial or natural – inhibits the production of melatonin.
The precursor to melatonin is serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is derived from the amino acid tryptothan. Within the pineal gland, serotonin is acetylated and then methylated to yield melatonin.
If you are not methylating efficiently then this is another reason why you might be experiencing sleep problems and poor melatonin output. We have various blogs on the subject of methylation and you can find links to these below.
How does Melatonin Work?
The process of sleeping during the night and waking up at ‘daylight’ is a natural aspect of human health, and one that we have become so accustomed too that many of us have probably never even pondered the question; why is this?
The National Sleep Foundation explain the biological mechanism behind this:
“The circadian biological clock is controlled by a part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals. From the optic nerve of the eye, light travels to the SCN, signalling the internal clock that it is time to be awake. The SCN signals to other parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or awake.
In the mornings, with exposure to light, the SCN sends signals to raise body temperature and produce hormones like cortisol. The SCN also responds to light by delaying the release of other hormones like melatonin, which is associated with sleep onset and is produced when the eyes signal to the SCN that it is dark. Melatonin levels rise in the evening and stay elevated throughout the night, promoting sleep.”
Melatonin helps to break down the active, energetic hormones in your system to allow your body to sleep and recuperate. It shuts down brain activity, and thus promotes relaxation. As a result, you feel tired and naturally want to sleep.
One of the most important mechanisms to note in respect of melatonin is that it is ONLY produced by the pineal gland when the subject is in a very dimly lit environment. The exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. This is where the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) submits signals to other parts of the brain that control the use of certain hormones.
If the retina initiates a signal of ‘light’ (whether it be artificial or natural) to the SCN then the production of melatonin is halted. It is delayed until a period of ‘darkness’ is recognised by the body. This goes a long way to explaining why watching television or sitting at a computer shortly before sleeping can often inhibit the time it takes to fall asleep.
The key indicator of poor melatonin production is “difficulty in falling asleep”. If you fall asleep easily and wake throughout the night or wake early – this is not due to insufficient melatonin and hence needs a different approach. Melatonin is responsible for inciting drowsiness such that we easily drift to sleep. As such it is a short lived hormone with a lifespan in the body of around 20 minutes only.
Research from the US National Library of Medicine has suggested that melatonin is one of the most powerful antioxidants in the body and the hormone has numerous health benefits in terms of immune system function, including acting as a free radical scavenger that helps to combat inflammation.
“The pineal product melatonin has remarkable antioxidant properties. It scavenges hydroxyl, carbonate and various organic radicals, peroxynitrite and other reactive nitrogen species. Melatonyl radicals formed by scavenging combine with and, thereby, detoxify superoxide anions in processes terminating the radical reaction chains. Melatonin also enhances the antioxidant potential of the cell by stimulating the synthesis of antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase, and by augmenting glutathione levels. The decline in melatonin production in aged individuals has been suggested as one of the primary contributing factors for the development of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases, e.g., Alzheimer’s disease”
Research has also suggested that good levels of melatonin in the body may play a significant role in terms of protecting against the following diseases:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Huntingdon’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Up regulates antioxidant defence systems
- Helps to reverse inflammatory processes
- Aids the breakdown of β-Amyloid plaque and inhibits tau tangles from forming (the build up of β-Amyloid plaque and tau tangles are central to the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease)
- Protects the brain mitochondria from free radical attack
- Helps to promote nerve growth factor for the development of new healthy neurons
- Helps to normalise neurotrophin expression
(references for the above claims are available upon request)
During sleep, metabolic activity is switched off and catabolic activity is initiated which places our bodies into a state of autophagy; a process which allows the degradation and recycling of cells all around the body. One of the most important phases of autophagy is the breakdown of abnormal proteins such as amyloid plaques – the build up of which, as mentioned above, is largely associated with the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease.
The process by which neurodegenerative diseases occur is extremely complex and multifactorial; there is very rarely one cause. However, one known factor is the action of ‘free radicals’ that cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. They are produced during the peroxidation of lipids and have extreme toxic activity. When an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants occurs in the body this causes oxidative injury – a known precursor to neurodegenerative disease.
Free radicals cause the destruction of cells, particularly in the brain where the neurons are so exposed.
Research has suggested that “melatonin exerts an important protective role against free radical injury by stimulating gene expression for antioxidant enzymes and it may be considered as a potential therapeutic agent in some age-related neurodegenerative diseases”.
Scientists have also considered that the high incidence of neurodegenerative disease increases with age because of the inefficiency of antioxidant defences and the increase of mitochondrial dysfunction. Because melatonin can efficiently cross the blood-brain barrier and has a low toxicity, scientists consider that it could be useful as part of a treatment for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Research also suggested that subjects with Mild Cognitive Impairment – a common precursor to Alzheimer’s disease – showed significant cognitive improvement when supplementing with melatonin:
“A recent human study assessed the benefit of melatonin in 50 sufferers of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a collection of conditions that precedes dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. After giving melatonin 3-9 mg daily at bedtime for 9-18 months to half of the study group, researchers found that the supplemented patients had significantly better performance on a host of neuropsychological tests while experiencing improvements in sleep quality and wakefulness.”
Improving Melatonin Production
Melatonin is only available on prescription in the UK in doses over 1mg, although it is widely available in other countries. Doses vary from 2-4mg at bedtime. However, there is a natural alternative in terms of supplementing melatonin; Cytoplan has a product called Cyto Night which contains montmorency cherry – a natural source of melatonin.
However, in some cases there are slight lifestyle changes that can be made just before bed that can aid the release of melatonin from the pineal gland:
The following ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ can help to optimise your melatonin production:
- Ensure regular bright sun exposure (if possible): Your pineal gland produces melatonin in contrast of sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night. If you are in darkness all day long, your body cannot tell the difference and will not optimize your melatonin production.
- Sleep in complete darkness:Even the slightest bit of light in your bedroom can have an effect on the melatonin production in the body.
- Take a hot bath around 1-2 hours before bedtime: This increases your body temperature, and when you get out of the bath it drops significantly, alerting your body that you are ready to sleep.
- Watch TV or sit at your computer in the evening (An hour before bed): Both of these emit blue light, which tricks your brain into thinking it is still daytime. Your brain normally starts secreting melatonin between 9 and 10pm – and these devices emit light that can prevent the process from happening.
- Use loud alarm clocks: Being jolted awake in the morning can be stressful on the body. If you are ensuring you get enough sleep each night, an alarm may not even be necessary.
It is clear that there is much more than meets the eye in terms of the health benefits of melatonin and what was previously considered a ‘niche’ hormone is now proven to have a plethora of health benefits. Because of its efficiency as an antioxidant, ability to modulate the immune system, capacity to manage dangerous inflammatory responses and ability to cross the blood-brain-barrier, melatonin seems to be of use in nearly every biological mechanism.
The only natural form of melatonin comes from montmorency cherry so making the relevant lifestyle changes before bed and the possibility of supplementation is the best way to regulate your production of melatonin.
It is important to note that if you self-prescribe melatonin, take a small level only (1-1.5mg about 1 hour before bed. Sit in dimming light for the hour before bed and only use melatonin supplementation for a few weeks. If you need to supplement for longer or if it does not help there are probably other and deeper issues that need to be addressed. If you are taking sleep inducing medication do not supplement with melatonin.
If you have any questions regarding the health topics raised in this article then please do get in touch via phone (01684 310099) or e-mail ([email protected])
Cytoplan Editorial Team
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