The WebMD headline popped up on my home page this morning: “Melatonin-like drug Tasimelteon may cut jet lag”. Of course, I was intrigued. The subjects of the study slept longer and reported better sleep when they received the experimental drug. The question begs to be asked however; why are we finding new “melatonin-like drugs” when we could simply use melatonin, or improve the body’s natural supply?
Melatonin is a hormone made in the pineal gland in the brain. It regulates our circadian rhythm (day/night cycles) and is strongly affected by the amount of light in a room. Darkness promotes melatonin production while light inhibits it, which is one of the reasons why sleep experts suggest cutting all light, even clocks with glowing numbers, out for people with insomnia. This is also one of the reasons why we all feel a little sleepy during the dark months of winter. As children we make tons of this hormone and we “sleep like a baby”, but as we get older this starts to decline.
There is also a link between melatonin levels and female reproductive hormones. Melatonin helps to determine the length and frequency of the monthly cycle as well as when menopause will begin. It affects hormones in the brain too. When melatonin is secreted in the evening it causes body temperature to drop by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This drop isn’t much – we don’t even notice it consciously. But this allows the pituitary gland to produce human-growth hormone (hGH), also called the ‘fountain of youth’. HGH is a cellular rejuvenator, keeping you looking and feeling young and energized. By the time we hit fifty; most people have 40% less hGH in their body than they did at 25!
Some studies have shown that people suffering from anxiety or depression often have low melatonin levels. This is interesting because the amino acid tryptophan is used to create both serotonin and melatonin. Maybe we need to ensure that the body has the ingredients that it needs to make both hormones, rather then simply filling in the gaps with drugs.
Eating low-glycemic complex carbohydrates allows the body to make serotonin during the day and melatonin at night. Turkey is really high in tryptophan, which is probably one of the reasons why it is a favourite for family get-togethers; there’s less fighting when everyone feels happy and sleepy! The supplement 5-HTP is a precursor to tryptophan, so it can help raise the levels of these hormones as well.
Melatonin has been available in tablet form for years through health food stores. It is fairly inexpensive, easy to take and effective for many. I was sold on the benefits of this when we moved from the prairies and my jet-lagged 2 ½ year-old kept waking up at 4:30am! As so many have experienced, this allows the body to reset its clock fairly quickly. So why isn’t this enough? Why do we need a new drug that will mimic what we already have if it seems to be working? Maybe the answer will become clear if we sleep on it…