Melatonin the body’s innate trigger for sleep is one sleeping solution that has caught the wave of popularity in recent times. When DR. Richard Wurtman introduced synthetic melatonin as the next-gen medication for sleep disorder twenty years ago it was no less than a breakthrough; today, melatonin is still considered a medical breakthrough, the caveat, however, is that it has the potential to cause ‘breakage’ to a number of critical body mechanisms.
Melatonin is a natural body hormone secreted in response to a drop in ambient light levels – as is when night time approaches. The hormone signals to the body via the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the brain that it is time to get into sleep mode. As a treatment for sleep disorders, it is sourced from animal tissue or via synthetic production processes and marketed as a nutritional supplement. Off the shelf classification of melatonin as a ‘nutritional supplement’ portends one reality
Its recommended dosage is not regulated nor is it standardized by the FDA; hence pretty much any manufacturer can slam whatever dose on its product as it deems fit.
True to that, the shelves of most stores retailing melatonin is stocked with different melatonin products carrying different dosages. Some even come packed as 10mg pills; that’s ten times the recommended dosage of the hormone. At a low dose, melatonin is tolerable. At a high dose, however, it induces a plethora of not so pleasant side effects.
Unlike conventional drugs which for the most part inflict damage to single body systems, by virtue of its hormonal nature, the consequence of taking excess melatonin is far-reaching. Melatonin induces next day drowsiness, headaches, hypothermia, nausea, nightmares and a bevy of other side effects. Excess melatonin is also known to stimulate excess secretion of another hormone – prolactin which could, in turn, potentiate the development of kidney and liver diseases in men. In children, melatonin might delay the onset of puberty and distort monthly menstrual cycles – as a matter of fact the hormone is a prescription contraceptive in many European countries – the US is the only country that markets melatonin off the shelf as a medication for sleep disorders.
Disrupting the Natural order of things
Melatonin’s retail success is for the most part tied to its ‘all natural’ description. Indeed commercially available melatonin is as natural as it gets. However, it is important to note that ingesting melatonin pills is anything but a natural process. As is with most drugs swallowing melatonin pills delivers the payload to the body in a burst-like manner – with blood levels of the hormone peaking immediately after dosage and falling almost immediately as It is degraded. In contrast, The body produces endogenous melatonin in a stepwise gradual process, starting immediately ambient light levels begin to drop, slowly building up as day turns to night and peaking in the middle of the night during sleep. This difference in mechanics means the body reacts differently to exogenous melatonin. Rapid yet short brain stimulation consequent of melatonin supplements predisposes the body to develop a melatonin tolerance, over time the brain becomes desensitized and even endogenous melatonin will fail to trigger sleep. Ironically setting the precedents for Insomnia which it was supposed to treat.
Melatonin no doubt has its benefit – its cheap price point, non-addictive nature, widespread availability is what many people wish for in a sleeping medication. That said, it is not exactly the ‘angelic’ sleeping medication that many people have described it to be; just like other sleeping medications it has its own shortcomings