Melatonin has been regarded by night owls, travelers, and shift workers as the magical solution to their irregular sleeping patterns. However, the dramatic advances in neuroscience have given way to the discovery that such function is just the tip of the iceberg for this crucial hormone. This article discusses the effects of melatonin on human brain functions and the various studies that support such claims.
Melatonin’s Crucial Benefits on Brain Functions
What was once thought as a mere sleep aid has recently been discovered to demonstrate many other uses. Melatonin has fascinated doctors and researchers alike with its effects on the brain, exceeding far beyond its usual function. Recent studies have revealed that melatonin is impressive in its ability to inhibit oxidative damage in vital body functions can remarkably reduce brain injury-induced trauma, provide protection against neurogenerative diseases, and boost cognitive functioning, among others.
Protection Against Irreversible Brain Damage
Brain injury resulting from stroke or trauma can potentially damage one’s neurological functions. Serious brain injuries, which include traumatic brain and spinal cord injury and reperfusion due to atherosclerosis, give way to harmful oxidant stress and inflammation. Melatonin has shown indispensable therapeutic benefits for such serious conditions with its potent free radical-scavenging and anti-inflammatory properties.
Albeit overt head injury is most prevalent in children and young adults, older adults are also susceptible to similar forms of damage brought about by chronic decrease in blood flow to the brain due to atherosclerosis, and unexpected disruptions in blood flow during a stroke. Most of the damage is seen when blood flows back to the certain areas that have been fleetingly deprived. The resulting ischemia injury consequently lets off waves of oxygen and other free radicals that destroy cell membranes and weaken function. Melatonin has displayed remarkable efficiency as far as preventing the effects of oxidant release is concerned.
An experiment conducted on mice by Swiss neurologists revealed that a 30-day melatonin treatment conducted 24 hours after a test-induced stroke had displayed enhanced survival in the mice’s brain cells and better recovery in their injured cells. These changes are seen to be related to the long-term progress of motor and coordination deficiencies, which are both common post-stroke occurrences in humans. Additionally, extensive animal studies have revealed that restoring melatonin levels after a head injury restrains both detectable tissue injuries and the learning disabilities they may cause.
Moreover, laboratory studies worldwide have shown that on top of its free radical-scavenging faculty, melatonin also suppresses the production of chemicals during brain cell oxidation, boosts levels of natural antioxidants like ascorbic acid, and impedes the inflammatory processes in brain cells. These effects are now ascribed with the reduction of the size of brain contusions after a head trauma.
Prevention of Neuro-degenerative Diseases
Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have uncovered a host of melatonin’s other vital benefits. It has also been seen to inhibit many cognitive deficits related to aging, which is especially attributed to its ability to pass the blood-brain barriers and be readily absorbed after oral dosing. A recently-conducted human study evaluated the benefit of melatonin in 50 people suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is a collective term for conditions preceding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. After administering 3 to 9 mg of melatonin at bedtime every day for about 9 to 18 months to half of the subjects, researchers deduced that the supplemental subjects had displayed significantly better performance on several neuropsychological studies and attested to improvements in sleep quality and wakefulness.
Further, scientists have explored the favorable effects of the hormone on the amyloid-beta proteins that cause inflammation and brain dysfunction as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. They were able to draw an interesting conclusion after administering melatonin in very low doses for a period of 10 days: it substantially improves animal cognition and reduces levels of inflammatory proteins. Melatonin has also been seen to optimize brain functions in the course of natural aging. A recent study, for instance, discovered that administering melatonin with drinking water at night remarkably improved memory in aging animals that were being tested on a maze, but had no visible effect on learning in young adult specimens. Early studies on humans also imply that melatonin is beneficial in the prevention of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative disorder wherein motor function deteriorates.
Warning on Melatonin Supplement Intake in Adults
One thing you might not have learned about melatonin is that the synthetically-manufactured form doesn’t work the same way as the naturally-produced form (produced by the body). The synthetic form is only taken as advised by a doctor or a knowledgeable health worker for proper administration, and may be exclusive for people who are prone to suffer the conditions mentioned above.
Researchers from Japan and University of California in Berkeley warn people about frequently taking melatonin pills to either stave off their jetlag or drowsiness, or help them get a good night’s sleep. According to George Bentley, an integrative biology assistant professor at the UC Berkeley, melatonin can be as potent as any steroid, and that although people who may take it wouldn’t take steroids so glibly, it could still yield a multitude of underlying effects on their physiology, especially since little is known about how it interacts with the other hormone systems.
Melatonin in Children with ADHD, Autism, and Epilepsy
There has been an evidence that suggests that melatonin can also promote sleep in autistic children or those who are diagnosed with ADHD, although it cannot infer whether the hormone improves the behavorial symptoms associated with ADHD or autism.
Additionally, there are studies that support the efficacy of melatonin in reducing the frequency and seizure duration in epileptic children; however, there are also those that state that melatonin may actually increase the frequency of seizures. Thus, it would be prudent for parents to talk to their doctor or health care provider before giving melatonin to their children.
With various studies pointing to the promising effects of melatonin on brain functions, the hormone is turning out to be the “dark horse” of biomedicine in the recent years. From inhibiting the possibly irreversible effects of severe head trauma, to restoring brain function in Alzheimer’s and stroke patients, melatonin is irrefutably instrumental in wide-ranging applications for medical care. Since its potency cannot be taken lightly, it cannot, therefore, be used as an immediate fix for sleep deficits or other conditions that warrant a doctor’s attention.
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