The value of the dark­ness hor­mone

Med­i­cal opin­ion varies on whether mela­tonin will have peo­ple sleep bet­ter

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - HEALTH - Dr. W. Gif­ford-Jones is a syn­di­cated colum­nist whose med­i­cal col­umn ap­pears in The Guardian ev­ery Tues­day. Check out his web­site,, which pro­vides easy ac­cess to past col­umns and med­i­cal tips. For com­ments, read­ers are in­vited to email him

“Do you think mela­tonin is of any value?” a doc­tor re­cently asked me.

So if a doc­tor is won­der­ing about this nat­u­ral rem­edy, there must be many pa­tients who are ask­ing the same ques­tion. So what do we know about it?

Mela­tonin has been la­belled “the dark­ness hor­mone” be­cause it’s pro­duced at night in con­trast to vi­ta­min D, “the sun­shine hor­mone”, that’s man­u­fac­tured dur­ing sun­light hours.

Mela­tonin is found in some plants such as bananas, cher­ries and grapes. A re­port in the Jour­nal of Medic­i­nal Food showed that tart cherry juice, com­pared to a placebo drink, helped some older peo­ple sleep bet­ter. But it re­quired 16 ounces a day, (the equiv­a­lent of 100 cher­ries) to have this mod­est ef­fect. It also added 250 calo­ries to daily in­take.

Mela­tonin is linked to our bi­o­log­i­cal time-clock which de­cides what hor­mones are re­leased at what times dur­ing the day. Stud­ies show that lev­els of mela­tonin de­crease with age, about 10 per cent each decade. So by age 50 the pro­duc­tion of mela­tonin has de­clined by one half and at 80 it’s one third of what it was at age 20. Some author­i­ties be­lieve this is why the el­derly have in­som­nia and why it’s pru­dent to use a mela­tonin sup­ple­ment.

In re­cent years mela­tonin has been touted as a way to treat or pre­vent ev­ery­thing from headaches, de­pres­sion, fa­tigue, ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome and anx­i­ety. In fact, some have sug­gested it can even cure menopausal symp­toms and be of help to those with heart prob­lems and can­cer. But ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, there’s no ev­i­dence that mela­tonin should be used for these prob­lems.

Dr. John Ale­vi­zos, a Cal­i­for­nia physi­cian, with an in­ter­est in in­som­nia, re­ports this in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tion about the deep sleep pro­duced by mela­tonin. He says deep sleep can trig­ger vivid dreams. This can be good news for some peo­ple, but if it’s caus­ing night­mares he says it’s best to stop mela­tonin.

Sleep­ing pills can pro­vide a good night’s sleep and make you feel great the next day, but also give you an old-fash­ioned hang­over. Mela­tonin can also have this two-edged ef­fect and no one knows whether pro­longed use of mela­tonin sup­presses the body’s nor­mal abil­ity to man­u­fac­ture it.

Re­search stud­ies have also linked the use of mela­tonin to high blood sugar, breast swelling in men, de­creased sperm count, gas­troin­testi­nal in­flam­ma­tion, sleep walk­ing and ver­tigo.

So how safe is mela­tonin? A re­view by the Cochrane Col­lab­o­ra­tion which eval­u­ates med­i­cal treat­ments con­cluded that mela­tonin is ef­fec­tive for pre­vent­ing or re­duc­ing jet lag and rec­om­mended it for adult trav­ellers fly­ing across five or more time zones, par­tic­u­larly for those trav­el­ling in an east­ward di­rec­tion.

The Na­tional Stan­dard which also re­views com­pli­men­tary and al­ter­na­tive treat­ments found some good for its use in treat­ing in­som­nia in the el­derly and for help­ing sleep in healthy peo­ple. But for all the other sup­posed ben­e­fits the ev­i­dence was in­con­clu­sive or con­flict­ing.

Another re­port from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and the Mayo Clinic agrees that mela­tonin is safe for short pe­ri­ods of time and may be use­ful for treat­ing in­som­nia in the el­derly.

But it’s not just peo­ple who fly across time zones who can­not sleep. Stud­ies show that 45 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion has from this prob­lem which has been linked to in­creased risk of heart at­tack, stroke, in­creased blood sugar, a crav­ing for food and a less ef­fec­tive im­mune sys­tem. So it’s med­i­cally im­por­tant to get your sleep.

For flights, the dose varies from 0.5 to 10 mil­ligrams (mgs). But since we all have dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions to med­i­ca­tion it is al­ways pru­dent to ask your doc­tor about the best dose for you. You can also get sound ad­vice by dis­cussing this prob­lem with some­one at a health food store.

To me, one thing is cer­tain. There are sev­eral pre­scrip­tion drugs for in­som­nia. But it makes more sense to try a nat­u­ral rem­edy first. They have been tested by tinc­ture of time and safer than pre­scrip­tion drugs.

Dr. Gif­ford Jones

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