Melatonin is a supplement widely used to combat jet lag and alleviate short-term bouts of insomnia. There is also evidence that melatonin as a regular dietary supplement could have antioxidant effects and help slow down the aging process.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland of the body. Due to its light-transducing ability, the pineal gland is sometimes called the "third eye." Light absorbed through the retina is relayed to the brain and thusly the pineal gland. The onset of darkness triggers the pineal gland to release melatonin into the bloodstream, which helps to induce sleep in individuals.
Younger people, especially children, produce a large amount of melatonin, which is generally why babies can sleep so much. This ability to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply has benefits for the growing body, allowing cells to rejuvenate and the body to grow and heal. As individuals age, melatonin production decreases. This can be why many older adults have difficulty falling asleep or seem to need less sleep.
Study after study indicates that lack of sleep can lead to myriad health problems, including mental health deficits, added stress, heart disease, and others. Each of these conditions can contribute to the aging process. It makes sense, then, that getting frequent and restful sleep can help turn back the clock.
But that isn't the only benefit of melatonin, say experts. According to "The Aging Clock: The Pineal Gland and Other Pacemakers in the Progression of Aging and Carcinogenesis," by Dr. Walter Pierpaoli, melatonin is the "Master Hormone-Modulating Molecule." It is the regulator of almost all hormones in the body in addition to regulating the circadian cycles. Pierpaoli has found that "aging" is a degenerative condition of the body, not just the passing of years. Resetting the body's age clock can slow down the symptoms of aging.
When the pineal gland of an old animal is transplanted into a young animal, studies show that the young animal slows down and systems of the body function as if it were older. The reverse also applies. Pierpaoli surmises that melatonin sends a message of "youth" throughout the body, keeping the body healthy and strong.
With this reasoning, melatonin may also help stimulate the immune system, which can promote better overall health, including fending off certain diseases of old age. These include cancers and even dementias. Clinical trials have shown that melatonin can diminish the effects of hormones that trigger certain cancers, including breast cancer and prostate cancer.
According to "Melatonin and the aging brain," by Stephen Bondy and Edward Sharman, "Melatonin has potential utility both in slowing normal brain aging and in treatment of neurodegenerative conditions. This is reinforced by the low cost of melatonin and its very low toxic hazard."
Research is still ongoing into the many benefits of melatonin. While it is best not to start any supplement program without first asking a doctor (especially if a person is pregnant or has other medical conditions), those who want to take melatonin should look for the synthetic variety. These are made from plant material to mimic melatonin produced in the body. Animal-based melatonin can contain diseases and other pathogens.
A relatively small amount of melatonin is needed to produce large effects. Consult with a specialist on the right amount to take for desired results.