The Many Roles of Melatonin: Beyond Just Sleep

Melatonin has become a popular supplement for improving sleep and fighting jet lag. But new research reveals that melatonin has a diverse range of functions throughout the body, leading experts to recommend taking melatonin supplements to support overall health as we age.

What Does Melatonin Do in the Body?

Melatonin is produced not only by the pineal gland in the brain, but also by cells throughout the body. While pineal melatonin regulates circadian rhythms, melatonin produced elsewhere acts locally as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and regulator of mitochondria.

“Melatonin is made throughout the body and pervasive in pretty much most cell types,” so,  different types of melatonin receptors allow it to have diverse effects in different tissues.

Melatonin is Powerful Antioxidant

One of the most important functions of melatonin is as a powerful antioxidant. Melatonin is even more effective than vitamins C and E at neutralizing dangerous free radicals. Plant-based melatonin is especially potent – in one study it had 646% greater antioxidant effects than synthetic melatonin.

By protecting mitochondria and cells from oxidative damage, melatonin helps slow aging and age-related decline.

Melatonin has Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Melatonin also has significant anti-inflammatory activity. One study found phytomelatonin has strong COX-2 enzyme inhibiting effects, similar to anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and Celebrex. Reducing excess inflammation is key for conditions from autoimmunity to neurodegeneration.

Immune System Modulation

Melatonin interacts with the immune system in various ways. In addition to generally reducing inflammation, melatonin helps immune cells fight infection more effectively.

Melatonin is being explored as a supplemental treatment for conditions like multiple sclerosis and COVID-19. During the day, the immune system is more focused on general surveillance, while at night it shifts to clean-up mode – so melatonin helps facilitate these daily immune fluctuations.

Gut and Digestive Benefits

A significant amount of the body’s melatonin is actually produced in the gut. Melatonin helps maintain the health of the intestinal lining and reduces gut inflammation. Supplemental melatonin is being studied as a treatment for IBS, GERD, and leaky gut syndrome.

Melatonin Levels Decline As We Age

Circulating melatonin levels decline significantly as we get older, starting in early adulthood. By ages 60-70, nighttime melatonin levels are dramatically lower compared to youth. This reduction in melatonin corresponds with aging processes like decreased mitochondrial function, impaired immunity, and higher inflammation.

Lack of Darkness At Night Reduces Melatonin

Too much light exposure at night suppresses pineal melatonin production. Being exposed to phones, TVs, or room lights in the evening and night leads to much lower melatonin levels. Ensuring complete darkness could boost melatonin.

We need darkness, we need both light and dark together to create the entire circadian rhythm balance.

Should You Take Melatonin Supplements?

Given all the roles melatonin plays throughout the body. Supplementing with low doses of melatonin in older age may be advisable. It’s recommended starting with 0.3 mg, which animal studies suggest is the equivalent physiological dose that restores blood levels to youthful norms.

Phyto-melatonin Better Than Synthetic?

For those choosing to supplement, phyto-melatonin derived from plants may be preferable to synthetic versions, which can contain contaminants. Plants like coffee beans, cherries, and walnuts all contain small amounts of melatonin. Phyto-melatonin also has higher antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity in studies.

Is Melatonin Safe?

While regulated as a dietary supplement in the US, melatonin possesses remarkably high safety and low side effects for most people, even at doses tens of times higher than usually referred as recommended. As always, consult your doctor before beginning any new supplement regimen.

The Verdict?

While melatonin has traditionally been thought of as just a sleep aid, new evidence indicates it plays important roles in circadian rhythms, aging, inflammation, immunity, and more. Melatonin levels decline significantly as we get older, corresponding with age-related health decline.

Ensuring adequate melatonin levels through diet, darkness, and potentially low-dose supplementation may support lifelong health.

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