When you hear the word “melatonin,” you might automatically think about sleep. After all, melatonin is the hormone-like compound that helps you nod off at night by regulating your circadian—or sleep-wake—cycle. But if you think melatonin is only good for catching some zzzz’s, you’re missing out on a host of other health benefits, from your head all the way down to your toes!
Melatonin is produced by your body from the amino acid tryptophan and the neurotransmitter serotonin. Technically known as N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, melatonin is primarily created by a small pea-shaped gland in the brain known as the pineal gland.
The production of melatonin depends on your body’s response to light and dark. When daylight begins to dimmish, the retina in your eyes sends a signal to the pineal gland, telling it to trigger melatonin production. This, in turn, regulates your sleep-wake cycle and your core body temperature. Melatonin also increases antioxidant enzymes that help neutralize harmful free radicals and acts as an anti-inflammatory, much like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
The problem is, melatonin production peaks between the ages of one and three. From there, levels gradually wane as you age. And these diminishing levels can impact more than the quantity and quality of your sleep.
Melatonin Keeps You Healthy
Melatonin works in several ways to regulate your immune system. Researchers have found that white blood cells—which are the body’s primary immune cells—have melatonin receptors. Melatonin appears to stimulate these white blood cells to release cytokines, small messenger proteins that regulate inflammation and how the body responds to an invading infection. In the right amounts, cytokines work with your immune system to modulate the body’s response to foreign invaders. This means it stimulates immunity when needed while also guarding against out-of-control inflammation that can trigger an overreaction to an infection.
Melatonin also improves the body’s immune response to a variety of pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. It does this by stimulating the production and the activity of key immune cells such as T-cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and macrophages. T-cells destroy harmful microbes. NK cells are a type of T-cell that bind to and eradicate virus-infected cells. Macrophages gobble up foreign invaders that can make you sick, as well as cellular debris. They also produce Tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a protein that kills some tumor cells, regulates inflammation, and triggers the creation of new blood vessels. Plus, melatonin regulates several immune system signaling factors needed to mount an effective immune response.
Melatonin is especially effective against viral infections like influenza-related pneumonia. More recent studies have looked at its potential impact on Covid-19. A 2020 study in the journal Life Sciences posited that melatonin’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-modulating properties may be able to lessen the chances of the virus causing acute lung injury or acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Melatonin Makes You Smarter
Because your body produces less melatonin as you grow older, some researchers think that the uptick in age-related neurodegenerative diseases may be directly linked to a drop in melatonin production. But there may be a silver lining. A growing number of studies suggest that taking supplemental melatonin might have a protective effect on cognitive decline and memory loss.
One way melatonin does this is by strengthening the blood-brain barrier—a protective semi-permeable barrier that prevents harmful substances and pathogens from entering the brain. As you age, the blood-brain barrier begins to break down and becomes less efficient at filtering out compounds that can damage the brain. This infiltration of harmful compounds can also trigger inflammation that, over time, contributes to cognitive decline.
Research has also found that melatonin aids in brain regeneration and neuroplasticity by activating brain-derived neuropathic factor (BDNF). BDNF is an important protein that promotes the growth and survival of the neurons that transmit information between different areas of the brain, as well as the brain and the rest of the body. This may not only improve brain health as you age, it may also help regenerate brain cells in stroke patients and in those with a traumatic brain injury.
These actions might also help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s. Clinical trials report that boosting melatonin through long-term supplementation slows the progression of cognitive impairment and reduces sundowning in those already living with the disease. Supplementation also improves sleep in Alzheimer’s patients—an important benefit since about 45 percent of patients suffer from sleep problems.
Melatonin Keeps Your Heart Pumping
Because of melatonin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers, researchers are discovering that it may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a dangerous condition during which plaque gradually accumulates along the inner lining of your arteries. As this plaque accumulates, it can reduce the amount of blood that flows to your heart, brain, and other vital organs. Worse yet, if this plaque becomes unstable, it can rupture and cause a blood clot to form. This clot can then block the artery and trigger a heart attack or stroke.
A growing number of studies suggest that supplementing with melatonin may help protect against the potentially deadly effects of atherosclerosis. In one study, researchers found that melatonin halted the progression of atherosclerosis by reducing low-level inflammation. Another study reported that supplementing with melatonin stabilized existing plaque, thus reducing the risk of a blockage that can lead to a cardiovascular event.
Melatonin also supports healthy cholesterol by preventing the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Oxidized LDL is produced in the body when normal LDL cholesterol is damaged by free radicals. This oxidized LDL further damages arteries and sparks harmful inflammation. Studies show that melatonin also lowers triglycerides and raises HDL (good) cholesterol.
But melatonin’s heart-healthy actions don’t stop there. Research has found that it can help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range. During one of these studies, researchers documented the blood pressure of 63 seniors. Each participant then took 1.5 mg of melatonin each night for two weeks. The melatonin supplements lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 8 mmHg, while diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) dropped by 3.5 mmHg. In addition, the participants’ average blood pressure declined more during the second week of supplementation, suggesting that melatonin has a gradually increasing impact on blood pressure levels.
Boost Your Levels with a Melatonin Supplement
Despite all of melatonin’s benefits, there is one caveat. Melatonin supplements reduce sleep latency and foster healthier sleep quality—and that’s why it’s recommended that you take it before bedtime. You can find melatonin supplements in capsule or pill form, as well as a chewable tablet. Some melatonin supplements are also sustained-release formulas. These variations ensure that there’s a melatonin supplement to fit everyone’s personal needs.
How much should you take? Even though melatonin provides potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, taking more isn’t necessarily better. Finding the right dose is a highly individual pursuit. For some, taking just 5 mg does the trick. Others need 10 mg or more. To find the dose that’s right for you, start with a small dose of sustained-release melatonin and gradually increase the amount until you discover the dose that works for you. This type of formula not only improves the quality of your sleep, it will also help you sleep through the night.
Melatonin is an excellent supplement for nearly everyone, especially as they age. Not only is it a powerful antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory nutrient, it protects the entire metabolic system in the body. However, be aware that although melatonin is generally safe, it’s wise to talk with your health care provider if you are taking blood thinners, blood pressure lowering or diabetes medication, birth control pills, anti-seizure drugs, or some antidepressants.
Melatonin’s Bonus Benefits
Melatonin’s ability to enhance your immune system while helping to protect your brain and heart make it a smart addition to your daily supplement routine. But it turns out that this sleep-enhancing compound can also offer a multitude of other benefits.
Helps protect against diabetes. New evidence suggests that the natural age-related decrease in melatonin may be linked to the development of type 2 diabetes.
May guard against GERD. Data suggest that melatonin supplementation may be a useful remedy for heartburn and GERD. It may also be effective for treating ulcers.
Might boost fertility. Research suggests that melatonin’s antioxidant properties help optimize ovarian health and enhance fertility.
Relieves tinnitus. Scientists at the University of Texas have found that melatonin was 150 times more effective than pharmaceuticals at decreasing tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
Helps maintain vision. Adequate melatonin levels protect the cells in the eye from cell death and decreases pressure in the eyes. Melatonin plays such a critical role in maintaining healthy vision that some scientists believe that a disturbance in its production may be one of the causes of glaucoma.
Might stop hair loss. Used topically, some studies suggest that melatonin might help treat age-related hair loss as well as alopecia.
Eases migraine. One promising study published in the journal Neurology found that daily 3-mg doses of melatonin helped reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.
Jettisons jet lag. One large study review found that melatonin effectively decreased jet lag in people crossing five or more time zones.
And improves sleep. In one study of people age 55 and older, melatonin greatly improved sleep quality and daytime alertness. Other research reports that supplementing with melatonin can help you fall asleep and stay asleep, improving your total sleep time.
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