"Do you think melatonin is of any value?" a doctor recently asked me. And if a doctor is wondering about this natural remedy, many people must be 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 a 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 suffer from 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 to conclude that melatonin should be used to treat 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, as there are vivid dreams and vivid dreams. But if it causes 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 complementary 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 other supposed benefits, the evidence was inconclusive or conflicting.
Another report from the University of California and 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 suffer 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 enough sleep.
For flights, the dose varies from 0.5 to 10 mg. So check with your doctor about the best dose for you. But if you’re having just bothersome run-of-the-mill insomnia on terra firma and want a natural remedy, go to a health food store to see what low doses of melatonin are available.
There are several prescription drugs on the market for the treatment of insomnia. But I believe it makes more sense to try a natural remedy first. These have been tested by tincture of time and normally have fewer side-effects than prescription medication.
» Dr. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of The University of Toronto and The Harvard Medical School. He took post-graduate training in surgery at the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, McGill University in Montreal and Harvard. During his medical training he has been a family doctor, hotel doctor and ship's surgeon. His medical column is published by 70 Canadian newspapers, several in the U.S. and the Epoch Times which has editions in a number of European countries.