M elatonin: myth
o r magic bullet?
I T MAY EASE INSOMNIA, combat jet lag, protect cells from free-radical
d amage, boost the immune system, prevent cancer and extend life. According
t o some, it can even reverse aging and improve your sex life.
Melatonin: Is it a magic bullet or myth? An established sleep aid, mela-
t onin has attracted attention for other uses. The majority of these claims have
y et to be proven, but there are elements of substantiated truth.
At the center of the issue is a pea-size gland in the brain known as the
p ineal gland, which sets your body’s biological clock and initiates sleep. Dark-
n ess stimulates the pineal gland so that it secretes the hormone melatonin
d uring the night, keeping you in sync with the rhythms of the days and
seasons. Daylight stops your body’s production of melatonin.
Over time, the pineal gland’s ability to produce melatonin diminishes. As
melatonin production slows, the body stops receiving the messages that help
regulate hormonal systems and begins to fall out of rhythm.
It would make sense, then, that taking melatonin supplements would
bring your body back into rhythm.
“Even the harshest critics will admit that melatonin is an effective sleep
hypnotic,” says Dr. Ray Sahelian, a Los Angeles physician who has been treating
insomnia sufferers for years. He says that people who take melatonin often
experience sounder sleep, more energy the next day and better moods, and
sometimes need fewer hours of sleep: “It’s useful to prevent jet lag, helps people
readjust their sleep patterns and has aided those with poor sleep patterns.”
“It certainly has proven beneficial in those areas related to sleep,” agrees
Russel Reiter, professor of neuroendocrinology at the University of Texas
Health Science Center, who has been researching melatonin since 1964.
Does melatonin do more than that? Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant
that penetrates water- and fat-soluble areas of every cell, protecting cells
from damage. Some believe that it is an age-reversing, disease-fighting and
Reiter discounts the claims. “We’ve seen no evidence in terms of a direct
effect on sexuality,” says Reiter. “And nothing can reverse aging.”
Ultimately, all researchers urge caution before anyone begins blithely
consuming melatonin as a cure-all. It’s always prudent to check with your physician and research any major change you make in your diet.—T. Foster Jones
TIPS TO AGE WELL
✔ Healthy diet (USDA guidelines)
• Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains,
fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
• Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans,
eggs and nuts
• Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol,
salt (sodium) and added sugars
✔ Regular exercise
✔ Stress-management techniques
✔ No smoking
✔ Protecting skin from sun exposure
✔ Positive thinking
✔ Supplement program