Sleep like a baby.
Improve your mood.
Have more energy.
See vivid dreams.
Prevent jet lag.
And possibly live longer.
What on earth can do all this?
"I've heard of it," said a friend of mine when I told her that I was writing a book on melatonin. "That's skin pigment, isn't it?"
She was thinking of melanin, the dark color in skin and hair. Since that conversation I've encountered many people who confuse the two words. Melatonin is a natural hormone made by the pineal gland, which is located in the brain (see figure). All words in italics are defined in the glossary.
Melatonin helps to set and control the internal clock that governs the natural rhythms of the body. Each night the pineal gland produces melatonin which helps us fall asleep. Research about this hormone has been going on since it was discovered in 1958. But it is only in the last few years that much attention has been paid to melatonin. Close to a thousand articles a year about melatonin are now published worldwide. One reason for this growing interest is that we are realizing that deep sleep is not the only byproduct of melatonin. We are learning that it has a significant influence on our hormonal, immune, and nervous systems. Research is showing melatonin's role as a powerful antioxidant, its anti-aging benefits, and its immune-enhancing properties. It is an effective tool to prevent or cure jet lag, an ideal supplement to reset the biological clock in shift workers, and a great medicine for those who have insomnia. Melatonin also may have a future role to play in the treatment of cancer and heart disease, in lowering cholesterol levels, in influencing reproduction, and more. A delightful bonus is that melatonin can promote vivid dreams.
With all these potential influences on our hormonal and immune systems, no wonder melatonin has been clouded by controversy.
A Controversy That's Bound to Grow
Melatonin supplements became available in health food stores in 1993. Heavy media attention, including CBS, CNN, and major newspaper coverage, was focused on melatonin when a study by MIT researchers, published in March of 1994, showed that it was an effective sleep inducer. Melatonin sales skyrocketed. However, the chief researcher who had directed the study, Dr. Richard Wurtman, sent a letter to the press and appeared on CNN to caution consumers, "I hope that melatonin will become an approved drug quickly. Meanwhile no one should buy it and self-medicate." He argued that there are no agreed-upon dosages, no controls over its purity, and no formal data demonstrating that melatonin is safe. Melatonin sales slumped. The media coverage slowed.
Shortly after this warning, the National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA), on April 11, 1994, issued an Action Alert to its members: "The leading suppliers and distributors of melatonin products in our industry will be discontinuing distribution of melatonin to health food stores. NNFA agrees with them that melatonin may be inappropriate as a product to be sold in health food stores and urges retailers to seriously consider the propriety of its continued sale." Nervous health food store managers took melatonin off the shelves (Whole Foods, June 1994). It became more difficult for consumers to purchase melatonin. Many relied on mail order distributors for their supply.
The Wall Street Journal, in an article published in August 31, 1994, and titled Drug Companies and Health Food Stores Fight to Peddle Melatonin to Insomniacs, pointed out, "Dr. Wurtman's letter didn't mention his financial interest in melatonin. Last year he applied for a patent with MIT on the use of melatonin to treat sleep disorders. In March a small Lexington, Mass., company called Interneuron Pharmaceuticals Inc., obtained rights to the patent application. Dr. Wurtman co-founded Interneuron in 1988 and owns nearly one million shares, currently worth about six million dollars. Today, Interneuron is aggressively pursuing a plan to market melatonin as a prescription sleeping pill. The company still faces four or five years of clinical trials, but it thinks it has a long shot at a blockbuster drug." Health food stores would be Interneuron's major competition.