Over the past few years, many doctors and practitioners have heralded supplemented melatonin as a viable solution for insomnia. Is melatonin really really a cure-all for insomnia? Let’s review the facts.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere, many people suffer from sleeplessness, either occasionally or frequently. So natural aids for sleep are essential.
Doesn’t the body produce its own melatonin?
Yes, the body does produce its own (natural) melatonin (also referred to as endogenous). This does not mean that taking synthetic or animal-derived melatonin is necessarily natural, however. To add exogenous (produced outside of the body) melatonin is analogous to a pharmaceutical solution because it is attempting to artificially boost the body’s levels of this hormone. Natural sleep solutions, in comparison encourage the body to produce its own sleep biochemistry, not try to replace it.
Where does synthetic melatonin come from?
Most pill forms of melatonin are synthetic. Synthetic melatonin is either synthesized chemically or extracted from the pineal glands of cows. In the United States, synthetic melatonin is regulated under the Dietary Supplement Act. However, it is a controlled drug, and available by prescription only among most European countries. In other words, it is considered a pharmaceutical by most European countries. This is the rightful place for a synthetic or isolated hormone.
Is synthetic melatonin effective?
Furthermore, synthetic melatonin’s effectiveness as a sleep aid is questionable. In an extensive review by researchers from the University of Alberta prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 932 studies on melatonin since 1999 were analyzed. They found 132 qualified as offering clear results with good protocols. The study concluded that supplemental melatonin was:
• Not effective for treatment of most primary sleep disorders
• Not effective in treating most secondary sleep disorders
• Offered no evidence of effectiveness for jet lag and shift-worker disorders
The study noted that there was some evidence suggesting supplemental melatonin might be helpful for delayed sleep phase syndrome. This is, as mentioned earlier, when a person is falling asleep later each night. In other words, supplemental melatonin has not proved to be significantly helpful for insomnia and most other sleep disorders.
This research also revealed that the effects of endogenous melatonin (produced by our body) are significantly different from exogenous melatonin. There was clear evidence from a number of studies that naturally stimulating the body’s production melatonin resulted in better sleep quality, positive sleep cycle changes, and the reinforcement of core body temperatures aiding sound sleep. Naturally secreted melatonin levels, as we will detail later, can be stimulated through light therapy and circadian adjustment, for which safety is without question.
The review research of synthetic (chemically produced or bovine-extracted) melatonin also revealed dizziness and headaches as adverse side effects. The safety of long-term use of melatonin remains unclear. The primary concern for melatonin as reported by sleep researchers is its long-term effect upon other hormones and their respective cycles. Sleep researcher Dr. William Dement notes observing stunted growth and delayed puberty among children using synthetic melatonin.
Supplementing other hormones such as DHEA and cortisol has shown that the body can and often will reduce and even shut off its own production of that hormone. This can lead to a dependence upon the synthetic hormone over time. This indicates the possibility that over time with chronic melatonin supplementation, the body may halt or slow its own production of melatonin.
Should the melatonin supplementation stop, the body may not have the tools to immediately make up the shortfall, leaving the body in a state of low melatonin. Melatonin is a critical hormone for health and sleep, and reduced levels have been associated with cancer and other disorders. Monkeying around with this important hormone simply does not make sense.
What about foods with melatonin?
Natural melatonin is also available from some natural foods. Montmorency tart cherries appear to stimulate the highest levels of natural melatonin. Oats, sweet corn, rice, ginger, tomatoes, bananas, mangosteen and barley all can stimulate endogenous melatonin.
Furthermore, a number of tryptophan-containing foods such as milk, sunflower seeds, almonds and others will assist the body to make its own melatonin. These foods, along with other strategies we’ll cover in the next chapters, provide the means for boosting our body’s natural melatonin levels without creating imbalances among our natural hormone cycles.
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Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.