Melatonin regulates our sleep, protects us against many diseases and has the ability to fight depression. While it has a number of beneficial features, it can also be dangerous as it is widely available at pharmacies just like popular vitamin supplements.
From the brain down to the intestines
Melatonin, also known as the “hormone of darkness” is produced by the pineal gland. It starts and stops the production, depending on the information from our eyes which report whether the day has already come or it is still night. In a healthy person, light inhibits the production of melatonin, so that we can function normally during the day – at school or at work. However, when it starts to get dark outside, the pineal gland starts to work more and more intensely, and when the “hormone of darkness” reaches a certain level, we feel drowsy and go to bed. This is an extremely important process for the proper functioning of our biological clock, because thanks to it, our body knows what time it is and how to adapt our activity to it. When the level of melatonin is insufficient, we feel tired but we cannot fall asleep – our body is ready for normal daily activity. What is more, the same chemical compound can be produced not only in the pineal gland but also in the bone marrow, intestines and eyes. What function can melatonin play in the digestive system? Well, it is produced in very large quantities to control bowel movements. Some scientists suspect that melatonin residues can get from the intestines to the bloodstream, which would explain the unrestrained drowsiness after eating a hearty meal.
Melatonin like steroids
When our body is not working properly and the level of melatonin is too low, we struggle with insomnia and lack of sleep. Long-term disruptions of melatonin secretion can also lead to depression or epileptic seizures. But what happens when we use pills in order to fall asleep and be effective the next day and – as a result – we provide our body with excessive doses of the hormone? According to Dr. George Bentley from the University of California, melatonin has very strong effects, even comparable with steroids. He claims that self-administration of melatonin can lead to a huge chaos in the body to say the least. Research performed on fish at the University of Houston shows that melatonin can impede storing new memories. From a biological point of view, our ancestors did not have to learn much information at night, so then the brain could “turn off” the memory function. Unfortunately, today, when we are active for a very large part of the day and treat sleep as a necessity, our evolutionary biological mechanisms increasingly disrupt our functioning. In the attempt to gain time and get the most of our day, we would work until late, and then reach for melatonin the “sleeping hormone”. Body confusion caused by an imbalanced life rhythm will have its consequences, and soon we may be struggling with even greater problems with sleep and normal functioning.
Geographical location, work until late or long operation hours forcing the use of artificial light can also have fatal consequences. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant, a substance that eliminates free radicals which damage healthy cells, accelerating the aging process and promoting cancer. Night-shifters working with strong lighting usually have low melatonin levels and are more likely to develop breast, prostate and colon cancer. Currently a research is being conducted to determine whether the low level of this hormone leads also to parodontosis, intestines and eyes inflammation. What is the happy medium for melatonin then? Natural methods are always the best. Take care of your health by the application of sleep hygiene principles in the first place. Check if your bed is adapted to your needs, and if the bedding does not irritate or sensitise you. Avoid distractions and artificial light from phones or computers in your bedroom. Find your natural circadian rhythm and stick to it consistently, even on weekends and holidays. If this does not work, seek advice from a specialist. Consider a melatonin pill only in extraordinary cases, for example, when struggling with jet lag after a flight.