Melatonin is considered the “sleep hormone” as it is usually recommended for supporting a good night’s sleep, but it turns out that the benefits of melatonin don’t just stop at sleep.
Understanding how melatonin works to support your immune system, weight loss and disease prevention can pave the way to better health. Let’s take a closer look at how melatonin works.
Melatonin is produced mainly by the pineal gland, which is a pea-sized gland located above the middle of the human brain. It’s a misconception to think of melatonin as a natural sleeping pill. Instead, it is a hormone that promotes a state of calm to help you feel relaxed and fall asleep faster.
Low levels of light encourages melatonin production, which regulates the body’s circadian rhythm, i.e. the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin production can be disrupted by any interference in natural darkness (such as prolonged exposure to light) and this can affect the body’s sleep cycle.
Poor sleep habits, shift work and too much screen time can also greatly upset melatonin production. Your body produces melatonin during rest periods at night, so when something like jetlag or night shift work disrupts your sleep cycle, you’ll start experiencing sleep issues.
So, cultivating a strict sleep schedule – going to sleep and waking at the same time each day, including weekends – can work wonders to turn around poor sleep quality. Too much screen time on your phone, tablet, computer and/or TV in the hours leading up to bed can also disrupt melatonin production.
That’s because you are extending your exposure to blue light into the evening hours when that should only occur during the day. Removing all screen time and dimming the lights several hours before bed can help recalibrate your circadian rhythm.
Try a blue light screen protector that filters blue light from reaching your eyes to reduce the exposure if you must work in the evening hours.
Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant that neutralises free radicals and protects against chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It shines by supporting mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are like tiny powerhouses in our cells, which break down nutrients to produce energy for our cells.
Indeed, melatonin is found in higher concentrations in the mitochondria than other sub-cellular locations. When the body’s tissues experience oxidative stress – i.e. when antioxidants are losing their fight against free radicals – the cells’ detoxification abilities are impaired, leaving the body vulnerable to diseases such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Certain cancers (leukaemia, melanoma, breast, prostate, colorectal, gastric, lung and ovarian)
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Huntington’s disease
- Wilson’s disease
- Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and
- Viral illnesses such as colds, the flu and Covid-19.
The mitochondrial membranes allow for the rapid uptake of melatonin, enabling this antioxidant hormone to annihilate free radicals and help prevent disease.
In the immune system
Our immune system works hand-in-hand with melatonin to fight off diseases and infection. White blood cells have melatonin-specific receptors and the enzymatic machinery required to synthesise melatonin.
Melatonin also triggers the production of T-cells, which combats infected host cells, activates other immune cells and helps regulate immune response. In addition, melatonin enhances the phagocytosis process, which removes pathogens and debris from cells.
Analysis of patient data from Cleveland Clinic’s Covid-19 registry in the United States revealed that melatonin usage may help prevent Covid-19 infection.
Covid-19 prevention is further enhanced if melatonin is combined with vitamin D, vitamin C, quercetin (a plant flavonol) and zinc supplements, as stated in the FLCCC (Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care) alliance prevention and treatment protocols.
The protective effects of melatonin due to its antioxidant powers also help in regulating and preventing chronic inflammation. It is also known to inhibit NLRP-3 inflammasomes, which lead to respiratory distress in the lungs. NLRP-3 inflammasomes are also associated with diseases of the central nervous system, including:
- Subarachnoid haemorrhage
- Parkinson’s disease
- Cerebral haemorrhage
- Glutamate-associated brain damage
- Ischaemic stroke.
Heart, brain and weight
Melatonin also contributes to a healthy cardiovascular system. It helps regulate the function of the mitochondria in the heart, brain, kidneys and the renin-angiotensin system – the hormone system responsible for regulating blood pressure, fluid and electrolyte balance, as well as blood circulation.
It also plays a protective role in the brain, where its antioxidant properties fight the free radicals that cause oxidative stress. Melatonin might serve as potential therapy for certain neurodegenerative disorders, such as:
- Huntington’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease.
The protective effect of melatonin on the mitochondria has also been shown to have an impact on diabetes, insulin resistance and obesity. Melatonin regulates insulin secretion and decreases blood glucose levels.
Research suggests that melatonin does the following:
- Tips the energy balance in the direction of reducing food intake and increasing brown adipose tissue (also known as brown fat or “good” fat) energy expenditure, thus preventing excessive body weight gain.
- Regulates energy homeostasis and influencing feeding, energy storage and expenditure.
- Regulates glucose metabolism by inducing insulin resistance at night and insulin sensitivity during the day, which is closely associated with nocturnal fasting and daytime feeding.
Supplements can help with melatonin deficiency, which occurs naturally with ageing and/or frequent night shifts. Even at higher dosages, melatonin is generally safe, but do seek the guidance of a medical professional for dosage recommendations.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 01 Nov 2021