Nice things to know about melatonin

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I WENT to a local health shop that sells vitamin supplements recently.

I must admit that I was lured into this store because I, too, am a fan of these promising pills, powders and tablets perhaps because of the nature of my profession that inevitably requires an added boost of endurance, energy and vitamins to keep me going extra miles.

As my eyes run through all those medicine containers with colorful labels on display, it was a byword among other customers the word “melatonin” as they searched high and low among the counters of this wonderful sleeping pill.


Melatonin is actually a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland, which is a tiny gland located within the brain just behind the eyes.

Chemically known as N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine (forgive the jargon, I shall explain later why), this compound is normally found not only among humans but also among animals, plants and microbes.

Literatures share that this hormone helps maintain normal circadian rhythms.

In other words, its function is to regulate sleep-awake patterns.

Simply put, melatonin sets our biologic clock that tells us what time of the day we should be awake or asleep.

So how does melatonin exactly work?

Our eyes have specialized light-sensitive receptors called “suprachiasmatic nucleus” (SCN), which relays messages to the brain to inform the latter when to produce melatonin.

Therefore, the anatomical location of the pineal gland just behind the eyes is not accidental.

If the environment is dark such as during night time, the SCN sends messages to the brain for the pineal gland to produce melatonin.

In turn, the person may feel drowsy or sleepy.

On the other hand, when the environment is bright, like in broad daylight, the SCN sends out messages to the brain to inhibit melatonin production thus; the person is fully awake.

Various studies have also found that melatonin levels are highest during bedtime and lowest during mid-day.

Hence, sleep experts have coined melatonin as the “hormone of darkness.”

It must be thought however, that the environment can override the daytime or night time “triggers” or cues for the melatonin to be synthesized by the pineal gland.

In other words, exposure to artificial bright light can stimulate the pineal gland to release melatonin; dimming the room by closing the dark curtains and switching off the lights can inhibit melatonin secretion.

For instance, how many times have we felt drowsy in the middle of plot of a film while in a dark movie house? We feel sleepy because of melatonin.

In another instance, why do people suffer “jet lags” when traveling by air and crossing different time zones?

Those who could relate would agree that jet lags are tormenting especially if one just came home from Europe or North America and find sleeping a problem.

A slightly similar dilemma is shared by those who work in shifting especially the graveyard shifts—healthcare professionals, call center agents and security staff.

For these people, falling asleep is not as easy as it was.

All these cited examples reiterate one general truth: the rise and fall of melatonin levels determine wakeful and sleeping patterns.

And those who experience disturbed sleeping patterns due to jet lags or the nature of work can benefit from melatonin supplements, which are available over-the-counter.

But supplementation is just an option as apart from controlling one’s environment to induce melatonin secretion, one may choose to drink milk instead to sleep, as according to doctors, this dairy product contain tryptophan, which has almost similar chemistry to the chemical name labeled to melatonin.

Therefore, milk can actually help one fall asleep.

Moreover, melatonin is also contained in such fruits as cherries, bananas and grapes.

Amazingly, melatonin is not only about sleeping: it also has antioxidant properties.

Therefore, melatonin offers protection against the damaging free-radicals.

As such, supplementation may a good option to those who need a good night sleep and antioxidants.

Unfortunately, experts warn that the following are some manifestations of melatonin supplementation excess: confusion, headaches; and abdominal discomforts.

Therefore, take it easy when taking supplements.

Meanwhile, several books also share that sources of melatonin synthesis other than the pineal gland are the retina, bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract and the bile.

However, the volume of melatonin produced is significantly low compared to the amount synthesized by the pineal gland.


Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on July 08, 2014.


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