Melatonin, this unknown
Melatonin, melatonin everywhere: from over-the-counter drugs to food supplements. It is presented as a product that helps us to sleep well, to encourage falling asleep, to solve insomnia problems.
But what is behind melatonin? Is it all a marketing operation or does it really help those with sleep problems? Let’s see a little more detail ..
Melatonin is also called “the hormone of darkness” or “the vampire hormone”. Definitely names of great impact for our memory, which suggest something sinister and mysterious. In fact, this designation is related to its production during the night by a particular area of the brain, called the hypothalamus suprachiasmatic nucleus. This very small brain area, located in the deepest parts of our brain, represents a part of our nervous system that communicates directly with our brain by sending signals about when it is day and when it is night. Normally, these signals follow the trend of sunlight, and it is precisely this that melatonin is connected to.
So, during twilight, our brain begins to produce melatonin to send a clear signal to our body: “it has become dark, so it’s time to get ready for bed.” In this way, it is as if “a button is pressed” which activates a whole series of actions to prepare our body for sleep.
During sleep, the concentration of melatonin slowly decreases during the night. With sunrise, and with the brain’s perception of sunlight (even if our eyes are closed), our brain stops producing melatonin. The absence of melatonin in our bloodstream makes the brain aware that it “is no longer dark” and the body prepares for awakening. In this sense, we can say that we human beings are “solar powered” (Walker, 2017), that is, powered by sunlight.
Very often, therefore, the effects of melatonin are mainly linked to the placebo effect, which must not be underestimated in any case: it is, after all, the most reliable effect of all pharmacology. However, it is important to note that melatonin is not registered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is the government body that deals with the regulation of food and pharmaceutical products. Research that has studied melatonin concentrations in some over-the-counter drugs found that the melatonin content varies from -83% to + 478% of the content declared on the label. In addition, the batch-to-batch variable within a given product varied up to 465%. (Erland & Saxena, 2017).
Melatonin therefore helps us to regulate sleep time, communicating to our body the moment it starts to get dark. Precisely for this reason, therefore, it has a small influence in the direct generation of sleep per se, at least if we consider individuals healthy and without the jet-lag syndrome (so at first melatonin can help to re-establish the own sleep rhythms).