A friend of mine recently wrote me the following letter asking for more information on melatonin. I dedicate this article to her:
"My husband had trouble sleeping the last few months of his life, and the doc prescribed 1mg of melatonin. He didn't want to put Jim on any more drugs. He was already taking insulin for diabetes, and something for blood pressure, and others I've forgotten for now. After taking the melatonin he was asleep and comfortable for the night.
After he died I was having trouble sleeping (something I'd never experienced before). I decided to try the melatonin I had left. It worked very well, and now I take it only once in a while when I can't sleep."
Melatonin - the wonder drug of the decade. Or is it? In the first place, melatonin isn't a drug. It's a hormone produced by a pea-sized gland nestled between the two hemispheres of the brain.
This gland is called the pineal gland. The scientific name for melatonin is N-acetyl-5 methoxytryptamine. In the second place, the claims of miraculous cures for a wide range of complaints have never been proven.
Researchers became aware of its existence about four decades ago.
Melatonin is found in many different species from people to protozoa. It's presence in the lower life forms has lead scientists to believe that it has been a part of life since the beginnings of time.
The pineal glands of young people produce copious amounts of melatonin. However, after the age of forty, production slows down. This reduction in melatonin production is why younger people have an easier time to fall asleep and to stay asleep than the elderly.
NATURAL OR SYNTHETIC
Since researchers isolated the hormone melatonin, it has become available in tablet form as a food supplement that aids in sleep problems. Two grades are available -- natural and synthetic.
Natural melatonin, made from the extracts of the pineal glands of animals, usually sheep, is not necessarily of a better quality. It could contain impurities such as those that caused tryptophan supplements that were taken off the market several years ago.
Synthetic grade melatonin is manufactured under laboratory control. Measurements are exact so if the tablets are supposed to contain 3 mg. of melatonin, you can be sure that is what they contain. Synthetic melatonin is identical to the melatonin produced by the pineal gland, and the possibility of contamination is greatly reduced.
Melatonin in the body controls the circadian rhythm so we sleep at night and stay alert during daylight hours. The amount of light that reaches the eyes controls the amount of melatonin the pineal gland produces. Light slows production of the hormone, so on a bright sunny day, we are often alert and filled with energy.
On a dull, cloudy day when the house is full of dark shadows, we become more lethargic and sleepy. When evening falls and the lights go out, the pineal gland increases its production of melatonin. The hormone flows throughout the body and makes us sleepy. People in the northern areas of the world have to adjust to a different rhythm as some of their nights last for weeks. In polar regions, the animals have larger pineal glands to compensate for the many hours of darkness.