Melatonin Mania



Melatonin Mania

Can this natural wonder drug live up to its reputation

By Brenda Owen

Daily Journal

Health fads come and go but melatonin mania may be here to stay, say some Northeast Mississippi health food store owners.

Melatonin is not a vitamin or even just an ordinary food supplement, but a hormone that our bodies manufacture. Although the product has been around in some form since the early 1950s, according to Mark Welch, co-owner of Sunshine Health Foods in Tupelo, it really hit the mass market in 1993. And in the last year, sales have skyrocketed, according to Source Naturals, a major distributor in a recent article.

Industry figures project sales of between 5 and 10 million bottles this year. In health food stores, these go for $5 to $10 for about 60 pills. The rise in sales follows publication of a handful of books touting the hormone and promoting it as a sex-enhancing, cancer-fighting, age-reversing miracle. Most people, though, buy it for a more simple reason, Welch said.

“Most of our customers take it to help them sleep,” Welch said. “We sell a lot to older people who are having trouble sleeping and to people who work swing shifts and need help regulating their sleep.”

Pontotoc Health Food Store owner Betty Murphree said that not only does she sell the product but she takes it herself.

“You’ve never had such a good night’s sleep as you get with melatonin,” Murphree said. “It’s a natural, restful sleep, not the drugged kind of sleep you get with sleeping pills.”

Melatonin levels in the body naturally rise at night and fall in the morning. For some, taking melatonin pills before bed can relieve insomnia; for others, it can foil the effects of jet lag.

Both Welch and Murphree cautioned, though, that no product, including melatonin, should be taken without carefully following directions.

Checking out claims

Despite melatonin’s rising popularity and convinced converts, its promised benefits are highly disputed in the scientific community, according to a recent Associated Press article.

Here, according to the article, is what scientists do agree on:

– The body makes melatonin in the pineal gland, a pea-sized structure in the brain. Melatonin plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle.

– Melatonin is produced copiously in children and drops precipitously with the onset of sexual maturity. The production continues to drop as people age.

– Studies in humans show that it helps some people fall asleep, and that it can help people with jet lag by resetting their biological clock.

– Melatonin is classified as a food supplement and therefore does not have to pass the extensive safety and efficacy tests that apply to drugs, under the Food and Drug Administration. Because it is so widely available, drug companies have little interest in doing the expensive studies needed to conclusively prove melatonin’s worth.

According to most information available on melatonin, it is not known whether melatonin has any impact on health beyond the sleep effects. Experts have reached no consensus on appropriate dosage, and there is no information about the consequences of long term use.

In a recent article, physician Ray Sahelian, author of Melatonin, Nature’s Sleeping Pill,” said he believes that people should have the option of experimenting on themselves.

I think the public can be effectively self-medicating,” said Sahelian, a family practice physician who trained at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University and now practices in California. Melatonin’s safer than aspirin and other things the public is allowed to buy.”

But in his book, Sahelian includes anecdotes from people who’ve had bad experiences, as well as good.

Several people reported vivid dreams and nightmares. A 37-year-old man said that it gave him a mild depression, and another man said it made him wake up at 5:30 a.m. while many others said it opened the long-closed door to easy and sound sleep.

Those who have studied melatonin say that unpleasant experiences may be caused by doses that are too high. Most manufacturers sell melatonin in 3-milligram tablets, capsules, or lozenges a mega dose, according to the experts.

Some of the authors and sleep researchers take melatonin themselves, but they tend to take only a third to a quarter of a milligram when they are having trouble sleeping. That means breaking up the 3-milligram tablets or lozenges into 10 or 12 crumbs.

Fountain of youth?

The idea that melatonin could fight the inevitable process of aging was promoted by William Regelson, a professor of medicine and expert on aging at Virginia Commonwealth University, along with Walter Pierpaoli, an Italian specialist on aging, according to an Associated Press article. The two doctors wrote the recent book The Melatonin Miracle Nature’s Age-Reversing, Disease-Fighting, Sex-Enhancing Hormone.”

They base their contentions mainly on experiments in mice, some conducted by Pierpaoli. In one study, mice given melatonin lived about 25 percent longer than control mice. According to their book, aging mice became decrepit and cataract-ridden, while mice of the same age fed melatonin remained bright-eyed and vigorous. These geriatric mice even remained virile and able to attract the opposite sex.

Other studies in mice show that melatonin boosts the ability of the immune system to fight disease, and may have some anti-cancer properties.

Portions of this article were contributed by Faye Flam with Knight-Ridder News.

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