Augustana University College
A paper submitted to Dr. Jayne Gackenbach as part of the course requirements for Psy 473 (Sleep and Dreams), April, 1997
Produced by the pineal gland, this modified amino acid has been in the media repeatedly over the last few years. Its main function is its involvement in circadian rhythms, known as the sleep-wake cycle. The increased research and experiments on melatonin has offered insight into the benefits of taking this supplement (especially for the elderly and people with insomnia). Reported as a fountain of youth and sleep aid, melatonin has been offering numerous benefits to people suffering from many ailments. In this paper, melatonin and its impact on sleep and dreams will be discussed as well as reasons for using this versatile life-giving hormone (or not).
Referred to as "the hormone of darkness", this remarkable substance is described as making our every cell in our bodies aware of the darkness outside. Its sedative effect is mild and with its ability of slightly lowering the body temperature, melatonin helps initiate sleep. Among melatonin’s abilities, potential jet lag remedy and natural sleep aid are two of its most highlighted roles by the media. In 1993, its effectiveness as a sleep aid became public knowledge following a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this study, melatonin enhanced the sleep of young men in a dose of 0.1 milligrams (an amount equivalent to a few grains of salt).
About the same time, melatonin’s ability regarding jet lag (the groggy feeling after flying across time zones) relief was also being made public. It helps to reset our clocks in a sense, and by doing this, one can adjust to the time change which may be out of synch with our circadian rhythm (defined as a "physiological cycle of about 24 hours, present in all eukaryotic organisms, that persists even in the absence of external cues)." Otherwise, it is rather difficult to adjust to the change in the time that you are expected to sleep, wake, and be active. There are some measures to prevent jet lag (as outlined by Caldwell, 1995), such as gradually changing your sleeping and eating schedule, get outside in natural light at the new destination, and, as Caldwell mentions, a "promising possibility... [to alter the] internal clock." When faced with the symptoms of jet lag (insomnia, disorientation, fatigue, irritability, upset stomach, headache, and lack of concentration), many people do not want to risk being in this condition (for up to three days) as business may be at risk. One can ensure your being "in synch" the next day by taking 5 milligrams the day you arrive at the destination an hour before the local time you would go to bed.
Research has shown such results from melatonin as these live-giving effects: boosts the immune system, protects against environmental hazards, maintains a healthy heart, may help prevent cancer, a powerful weapon against AIDS, and adding years to your life and life to your years; all with the bonus of having little or no toxicity.
Melatonin has demonstrated a significant ability to impact the quality of sleep and quantity (it is compared to that of the sleeping drug temazepam, known asRestoril); it is just as effective
and results in a more normal sleep architecture. Melatonin does not appear to have any negative side effects, doesn’t interfere with memory, concentration, or motor control (even at high doses), and does not lose its effectiveness over time like benzodiazepines. With an increased sleep, and a natural architecture, of course, dreaming would also be increased.
I have heard that people may experience too vivid of dreams. They may have insomnia, nightmares, or feel as they are not sleeping. Reiter (1995), explains this as an "atypical reaction" and depends on the individual, for example, some formulations of melatonin contain vitamin B-6 which can cause unrest.
One interesting observation is that melatonin can help people who fall asleep too late at night. This problem is quite common in teens and young adults and results from the pineal gland producing melatonin relatively late at night (called a "phase delayed" rhythm, whereas, older people tend to be "phase-advanced"). This is one area where I feel I could benefit from taking melatonin. I am up early for classes and usually tired in the day, but come night time, I seem to get a second wind and when I want to sleep I just don’t feel sleepy. If it works, melatonin would bring a lot of relief (I haven’t tried it yet). I know that I wouldn’t need it every night, as I do sleep well, but it would help on those nights where I have a test the next morning and can’t sleep. I would like to try it some time and examine for myself all of its capabilities.
There are natural ways to increase your melatonin production (or decrease the interference of its production). Reiter recommends several things, including these lifestyle changes: increase your daytime sunlight exposure (especially in the morning), sleep long enough at night, reduce your exposure to electromagnetic fields, do not smoke, drink in moderation, watch out for melatonin-lowering drugs, eating helpful diet; high in antioxidants (melatonin is one), calcium, magnesium, vitamin B-6, and niacinamide (or take supplements), another helpful tip is to eat snacks high in tryptophan (another sleep inducing amino acid) and melatonin. Even if you can be careful and follow these tips, age may still prevent a youthful production of melatonin. Other factors may contribute to the limitation of melatonin (such as stress).
There are reasons not to take this remarkable supplement and caution should be present when most supplements are taken, including melatonin. The most prevalent reason is that one is already producing sufficient natural melatonin (such as about age 20), versus the decline around middle age. Among people who shouldn’t take melatonin are pregnant women (it hasn’t been tested), women wanting to conceive (doses larger than 10mg may prevent some women from ovulating), and immune system reactions (such as allergies, due to stimulation of the immune system and exaggerated symptoms).
As research continues, more of the positive results from melatonin will be publicized and a natural way to help the human condition will be available. People can only control so much of their environment and lifestyle; beyond that, alternatives like melatonin are nice to know about. Although it is hard to get in Canada (not sold over the counter), it can be ordered from the US and even bought in some health food stores (under the counter). Where the world we live in is very artificial (light, radiation, pollution, and stress), anything with a natural and helpful response is greatly needed and appreciated. Melatonin appears to be just that disease preventative supplement which is indeed very promising to the conditions we face as humans more and more.
Caldwell, Paul A. MD. Sleep. Key Porter Books. Toronto, 1995.
Campbell, Neil A. Biology third edition. Benjamin/Cummings. California, 1993.
Reiter, Russel J. Ph.D, and Jo Robinson. Melatonin. Bantam. NY, 1995.