Melatonin is usually only associated with sleep. It’s taken by those who struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep in an effort to get that high-quality rest for better health I talk about so often.
Many people find it’s helpful for regulating their sleep patterns, which includes those with insomnia and jet lag, shift workers, and even the blind. It doesn’t work for everyone, but there are most definitely those who swear by it.
To help you better understand how melatonin works, let me tell you a little bit more about it. It’s a hormone naturally produced by the pineal gland (and also the digestive mucosal cells), to help control circadian rhythm so we are in line with the natural light and dark cycles of the sun. Our production can get thrown off, though, by crazy schedules, staring at screens for long hours, and even diet. That’s why some folks choose to supplement with it.
Research continues to reveal, though, that melatonin plays a role in much more than just sleep.
Remember how I mentioned some melatonin is produced in the digestive tract? Well, it’s actually produced in even higher levels here than the pineal gland, and it plays an important role in gastrointestinal motility and even acts as a local anti-inflammatory and moderator of visceral sensation.
For this reason, some studies have indicated it could be useful for treating irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
This diagnosis is basically given for lack of a better one when someone is suffering from a wide range of digestive complaints like constipation, diarrhea, a combination of irregular bowel habits, abdominal pain, bloating and cramping, urgency, and more. Taking 3 mg of melatonin helped some study participants feel less abdominal pain and bloating and increased quality of life. There’s more research needed, but this is definitely a topic worth following for those dealing with IBS.
Other studies show that melatonin may have a place in treatment for gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Taking between 3 mg and 6 mg provided symptom control for participants, including relief of heartburn and epigastric pain.
Melatonin has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which could explain some of its benefits for the conditions mentioned above.
It can directly reduce reactive oxygen and reactive nitrogen species (two types of oxidative stressors) and also stimulates the antioxidant enzymes already present within the body. The high concentrations of melatonin in mitochondria (our cellular energy factories) provide some insight into why it may be helpful for age-related diseases related to cellular death. It’s also interesting to note that melatonin levels gradually decline as we age and sleep issues are a common complaint of getting older.
While it’s clear that melatonin serves an important role in the body and may help with a variety of health issues, you don’t have to get melatonin strictly through supplements if you’re looking for a boost. Many foods naturally contain melatonin, with some of the highest being pistachios, red and black rice, orange bell peppers, walnuts, cherries, lentils, and even coffee (though this is best to avoid in the evening).
You know I always say food is medicine; you'll get so many other valuable nutrients in addition to melatonin by eating the foods mentioned above. Supplementing with melatonin may not be right for everyone, though, so if you’re dealing with some of the more severe symptoms I talked about, talk to your practitioner to decide if taking melatonin aligns with your unique needs.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD