Melatonin, the Essential Molecule

Levels of this hormone decrease with age, limiting its ability to protect brain cells, boost memory, and more.

Melatonin levels decline with age, but you can increase them naturally, Dr. Gobbi says. She suggests that you:

  • Seek morning exposure to bright light
  • Consider using bright light therapy, in which you expose yourself to a specially designed lamp or light box capable of producing about 10,000 Lux of light for about 30 minutes each morning
  • Respect your natural light-dark cycle: exposing yourself to light during the day and sleeping during the night.

Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant and hormone that is involved in many essential processes in the body and the brain. Although it is best known for its role in regulating sleep/wake cycles, research suggests it may also be involved in other important functions, such as inhibiting the growth of certain cancers, fighting inflammation, protecting against neurodegeneration, and facilitating learning and memory. Recently, a large 12-year study raised the possibility that the hormone may play a part in preventing the development of Type 2 diabetes. In the brain, Type 2 diabetes is associated with blood vessel injury, the formation of toxic brain plaques, and insulin abnormalities, all of which have been linked to brain atrophy and cognitive decline.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Melatonin levels decline with age, but you can increase them naturally, Dr. Gobbi says. She suggests that you:

  • Seek morning exposure to bright light
  • Consider using bright light therapy, in which you expose yourself to a specially designed lamp or light box capable of producing about 10,000 Lux of light for about 30 minutes each morning
  • Respect your natural light-dark cycle: exposing yourself to light during the day and sleeping during the night.

Researchers reviewed medical data on women who participated in a long-term health study, looking at the differences between those who developed Type 2 diabetes, and those who did not. They found that women who developed diabetes had significantly lower levels of melatonin than the healthier participants, according to a report in the April 3, 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Women with the lowest melatonin levels had more than twice the risk of diabetes as those with the highest levels, even after controlling for risk factors such as weight, family history, and dietary habits.

“This is a very interesting study that adds to a growing body of evidence that low levels of melatonin increase the risk for metabolic disease,” says psychiatrist Gabriella Gobbi, MD, PhD, an Associate Professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, whose area of interest is the effect of melatonin on mood, anxiety, and sleep regulation. “Earlier research suggests that there may be a strong link between the production and metabolism of insulin and a specific melatonin receptor in the brain.

“These new findings are another indication of the importance of melatonin, whose many roles are still being uncovered. And because melatonin levels decrease with age, understanding the effects of melatonin deficiency may well lead to ways to prevent or slow the progression of physical and mental problems associated with aging.”

Multiplicity of Actions

Melatonin is produced primarily by the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland in the brain. The synthesis of melatonin is activated by darkness and depressed in the presence of light—a factor that explains its essential role in the regulation of the circadian rhythm and sleep cycles.

Research in animals has linked the hormone to a broad range of other positive brain effects, including: reducing inflammation; acting as a powerful antioxidant that scavenges cell-damaging free radicals; helping to regulate the immune response; reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol; buffering against the effects of aging; participating in neurogenesis (the creation of new nerve cells); combating depression; promoting healing following brain injury; and facilitating learning, memory, and cognition. Recently, Spanish researchers working with mice bred to develop Alzheimer’s disease (AD) found that exercise and daily melatonin intake, alone or in combination, resulted in a reversal in early symptoms of AD.

Supplements vs. Sunlight

“Much of the research involving the effects of melatonin on the brain has been conducted in animals given doses of the hormone as supplements,” says Dr. Gobbi.

“Clinical trials with human subjects often do not produce the same results, although there are certain instances—such as taking melatonin supplements for jet lag or some sleep disorders—in which some benefits can be observed. One problem with melatonin supplementation in humans is that the benefits may be short-lived, since the hormone is metabolized in about 20 minutes or so. We need more clinically controlled studies to help us understand the effectiveness of supplementation in humans, and to establish whether factors such as dosage levels and/or timing of doses affect the action of the hormone.”

Given the questions about the benefits of melatonin supplements, Dr. Gobbi suggests getting melatonin the natural way—from exposure to the bright light of early morning. Recent studies have shown that morning light increases melatonin production during the night and diminishes production of cortisol, and that exposure to bright light in combination with melatonin supplements is associated with benefits such as reduced depression, better quality of sleep, and improved cognitive scores in older adults.

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