by Lynn Hinderliter CN, LDN

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that as we age, we need less sleep. If this is so, I have often wondered, why do I see so many older people looking for help with chronic insomnia? Obviously, they don’t think much of this theory – some of them are desperate for a good night’s sleep. Therefore, when the research on a substance called Melatonin began to surface, it immediately made sense: Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, and its production lessens as we age.  Eureka! a connection!

The chief effect of Melatonin is to modulate the circadian rhythms that govern how we perceive night and day: some of the first interesting results, in fact, were shown in studies on how to lessen the inconvenience of jet lag  The recommended nightly dosage in combating jet lag is 3 to 5 milligrams taken at bedtime at your destination, but don’t continue this high dose after your jet lag is controlled, and don’t combine melatonin with a sleeping pill. I have taken it in the air, if that is when bedtime at my destination happens to occur.

Researchers in the Netherlands have made a connection between Melatonin, circadian rhythm, and controlling high blood pressure, with preliminary research showing very positive results for the use of melatonin as a blood pressure control agent.

“This is the first double-blind crossover study to investigate the effect of repeated melatonin intake on 24-hour blood pressure rhythm in untreated hypertensive patients,” the authors write, while recommending future studies in larger patient groups to define subgroups of patients who would benefit most from melatonin intake. “The present study suggests that support of circadian pacemaker function may provide a new strategy in the treatment of essential hypertension.”

(Hypertension. 2004;43:1-6)

A word about meditation here:  meditation has often been proposed as helpful for high blood pressure.  Recent research has shown that meditation increases melatonin levels, which may explain the effect.  In fact, it may explain a whole slew of health benefits that accrue from meditation.

There is a good deal of research into the amount of help shift workers can get from Melatonin, but rather than give you a synopsis here, I have put two links in RESOURCES which pretty well cover the issue.

Another area of interest is people who suffer severely from SAD (Seasonally Affective Disorder). These are people who pretty much shut down for the winter, when the sun shines for shorter periods.  There is so much research on this subject and melatonin that I have simply put a link in the RESOURCES for you to follow, if this is your concern.

One of the most interesting things about Melatonin is that it seems to be effective in many of the other areas governed by the pineal gland, such as aging, immune function, and even mental acuity. Studies are ongoing now in the area of cancer research, and interestingly, the relatively recent disorder called fibromyalgia.  Not only that, low Melatonin levels appear to be involved in periodontal disease.

I have even theorized to myself that some of these recent developments in human ailments and suffering, may be related to the fact that we no longer go to sleep when the sun goes down, but turn on the lights and carry on ’til midnight!

 It is interesting to note here that a recent study showed that airline stewardesses tend to develop breast cancer at a far higher rate than women of the same age group in other professions. I also have an interesting study for you on the connection between Insomnia and the Immune system. See RESOURCES  for both studies. 

Corollary to this, and perhaps related to the immuno-modulatory effects the above would suggest, there has been an instance of auto-immune hepatitis reported in a melatonin user:  Be careful, therefore, if you have liver problems or are taking any of the many drugs which can impact the liver.  See RESOURCES, and my article on the Liver for a list of suspect drugs.

 Does it really work to resolve insomnia? In my experience, yes. I went through a lengthy bout of sleep problems, which I could not resolve with any of the natural therapies at my disposal, but with a combination of Melatonin and 5-HTP, (called SEROTAIN ) I slept through for the first time in almost three years. It does not help everyone, however, and I would not recommend that anyone under the age of 40 try it without the guidance of a health professional.  I have, however, suggested a homeopathic form of melatonin for some young people, who have benefited from its use.  

In 2001, Israeli researchers reported that controlled-release melatonin (CRM) improved sleep quality in type 2 diabetics with insomnia and also facilitated discontinuation of benzodiazepines (see RESOURCES) in an elderly population.

“Melatonin is secreted in response to darkness,” said Dr. Doron Garfinkel, who is from the department of Aging Research and Internal Medicine at E. Wolfson Medical Center, in Holon. “It induces sleep through its synchronizing effect on the internal biologic clock.”

I used, and recommend, a 3mg formulation: and I found that after a week or two, I needed only half that amount. I also found that after using it for a while, my sleep cycle adjusted itself, and I was able to discontinue its use for a month or so.  Some people who try it and do not immediately get results, have tended to try again using more.  Don’t!  Usually, if you do not get results at first, you need less, not more.  Try halving the dose. Then halving it again!  Use the sustained release formula if you have a tendency to awaken frequently during the night.

There are a few dietary sources of melatonin: I recommend walnuts, because of their other health benefits, and tart red cherries, which also have anti-inflammatory benefits. Recent research in Spain has shown a connection between low melatonin levels in the elderly, and inflammatory response, by regulating nitric oxide and cytokines. (“Chronic melatonin treatment reduces the age-dependent inflammatory process in senescence-accelerated mice,” Rodriguez MI, Escames G, et al, Journal of Pineal Research, 2007; 42(3): 272-279. (Address: Dar�o Acu�a-Castroviejo, Departamento de Fisiolog�a, Facultad de Medicina, Avda. de Madrid 11, E-18012 Granada, Spain. E-mail: ).

Is it safe? Research has shown that( you cannot give enough of it to test animals to cause harm. Long term, questions have been raised about possible thyroid involvement. I would definitely not recommend its use for young people with pineal gland function intact, but for older people whose natural production has slowed down, it is certainly helpful for sleep, and possibly also for depressed immune function. Like other natural hormones, however, I strongly advise using the saliva test to check and monitor your levels if you are using it long term.  See RESOURCES.

In light of the fact that it has no recorded side effects, and bearing in mind the addictive nature of most prescription sleep medications and the unpleasant side effects of some of the OTC remedies, Melatonin is certainly worth trying.

Find the recommended supplements here

Insomnia – a commonsense synopsis –

Melatonin side-effects and interactions –

Melatonin, D3 and breast cancer –

Melatonin and Apoptosis (Cell Death) –

Insomnia and the Immune System –

Information about Benzodiazepines –

References for SAD and melatonin –

A personalized plan to beat Jet Lag –

Melatonin, Meditation and Health –

Non-denominational Meditation instruction –

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