Melatonin is critical for optimal regulation of sleep and circadian rhythm, but researchers are finding that it’s much more than just a sleep aid. It plays a complex role in the maintenance and regulation of the endocrine system, and thus offers a number of underappreciated benefits, including antioxidant activity, inflammation control, immune system support, and disease resistance.
For example, studies show that melatonin exhibits an extraordinary brain antioxidant capacity—one study even acknowledged how undervalued it is by stating that melatonin “under promises but over delivers” with regard to oxidative stress protection.
Another study found that melatonin outperforms amitriptyline, the leading pharmaceutical drug for preventing the onset of migraine headaches—and that it does so without any side effects.
Due to the wide-ranging therapeutic potential of melatonin, scientists are examining what aid it may offer for one of the leading health issues of our time: the prevention and treatment of cancer.
Melatonin, hormone health, and the development of cancer
Melatonin is an endogenous hormone predominantly produced by the pineal gland, which acts as a sort of “master control system” for the body’s endocrine processes. It influences nearly every cell in the human body, and has even been shown to safeguard mitochondrial function (mitonchrondria are the “powerhouses” of your cells that regulate energy metabolism and healthy cell growth).
We’ve written before about the myriad health consequences of endocrine dysfunction, most notably in the context of chemical-induced endocrine disruption. Imbalances in melatonin levels can lead to similarly disastrous consequences (we’ll discuss some of the most common causes of melatonin deficiency later in this article).
The mechanisms behind endocrine function, cellular health, and cancer development are enormously complex, but we do know that insufficient levels of melatonin are linked with a higher incidence of cancer.
And the anti-cancer benefits of melatonin aren’t just indirect; this miracle molecule is also classified as a directly cytotoxic hormone and anti-cancer agent. Studies have referred to melatonin as a “full-service anti-cancer agent” due to its ability to inhibit the initiation of cell mutation and cancer growth, and to halt the progression and metastasis of cancer cell colonies.
Researchers attribute these incredible benefits to the fundamental mechanisms mentioned above: protection against oxidative stress, optimization of cell detoxification, regulation of mitochondrial function, and endocrine system maintenance.
How to optimize melatonin levels
Melatonin may have benefits that extend far beyond sleep, but its regulation of circadian rhythm is still central to its therapeutic potential.
It’s important to note that “disruption of normal circadian rhythm” and melatonin deficiency are inextricably tied to one another. Researchers believe that sleep issues undermine health because they lead to melatonin deficiencies—and yet melatonin deficiencies can make it even more difficult to correct sleep patterns (thus maintaining a vicious cycle that increases the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases).
The obvious first step to optimizing melatonin levels, then, is to ensure that you’re getting proper sleep. You can check out our past article for more details on optimal sleep hygiene, but here’s the basics.
- Any less than seven hours per night is technically considered sleep deprivation by leading sleep researchers.
- While everyone’s circadian rhythm will vary slightly, it’s generally best to be in bed by 11:00pm. If you’re still awake much later, the endocrine system initiates a cascade of “alert” hormones, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
- Consistency is key; the less radical variation in your day-to-day sleep schedule, the easier time your body will have falling into an optimized melatonin production schedule.
Another critically important (and often overlooked) element of sleep hygiene is proper interfacing with devices that produce blue light and electromagnetic fields (EMFs), both of which can disrupt the production and release of melatonin.
If at all possible, avoid contact with any such devices a minimum of an hour before bed. Try to ditch the electronics a maximum of two hours after the sun sets, and you’ll find yourself getting sleepy much earlier. Last but not least, remove all sources of blue light and EMFs from your bedroom, and sleep with an eye mask.
If you already struggle with insomnia (despite all attempts to integrate the above sleep hygiene practices into your everyday life), it’s often possible to break the cycle by supplementing with melatonin.
If you choose to take this route, though, remember that it’s very important not to take melatonin everyday for an extended period of time (doing so can cause a dependency on exogenous melatonin, which further decreases natural, endogenous melatonin production). Always take a break after a maximum five nights of taking melatonin supplements (taking a two-day break at least every three nights is ideal).
Use plant-derived (rather than synthetic) melatonin, which is more easily implemented by the body, less likely to cause dependency, and highly effective.
Remember that the goal should be to boost internal melatonin production, so that you can maintain an ideal sleep schedule without supplemental melatonin. Optimizing your body’s own melatonin production not only promotes deep, restorative sleep, but also protects the body against cancer and other serious chronic diseases.