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A natural hormone produced by the pineal gland in the center of the brain, melatonin helps to induce sleep. Blood levels of this powerful sedative are up to ten times higher at night than in the daytime, acting as the ultimate lullaby.

For those who don’t produce enough of this vital hormone, supplemental melatonin is used to induce sleep. But not all of melatonin’s effects are beneficial; some are downright frightening.

Jet lag — when you feel like you left your heart in San Francisco and your brain in New York City — can lead to sleep deprivation, loss of concentration and irritability. The primary cause is interruption of the body’s natural wake/sleep cycle, also known as circadian rhythm. The pineal gland is activated by changes in light. Darkness is the cue to boost production of sleep-inducing melatonin, while daylight slows production.

Zooming between different time zones disrupts the circadian rhythm, which may take days or weeks to re-establish. Rotating shifts at work, especially between first and third, can also disrupt this delicate balance.

Researchers in England suggest that "melatonin is remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jet lag, and occasional short term use appears to be safe. It should be recommended to adult travelers flying across five or more time zones, particularly in an easterly direction, and especially if they have experienced jet lag on previous journeys." (Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2002:CD001520)

Although this report indicates occasional melatonin supplementation for jet lag is probably safe, it is always best to try behavioral changes first. For instance, if you are travelling west, don’t nap during daylight hours and wait until dark before going to bed, regardless of the time back home. If you are heading east, avoid bright light in the morning and choose outdoor activities in the afternoon.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is another option. The theory is that physical relaxation leads to mental relaxation. PMR involves alternately tightening (five to eight seconds) and relaxing (15 to 30 seconds) individual muscle groups one-at-a-time. This can be done in a seated or prone position. The most common sequence starts in the lower extremities and progressively works upward, ending with the abdomen, chest and face.

Extensive research shows this method is "effective for improving sleep in persons with insomnia; however, PMR requires that patients consciously attend to relaxing specific muscle groups and practice these techniques…" (Crit Care Nurs Clin North Am 2003;15: 329-40)

To add to the list of possible benefits, there is peer reviewed research to suggest that melatonin is also beneficial in protecting the heart before or during an obstruction, suppressing the growth of cancerous tumors, helping to regulate body weight, boosting immunity and detoxifying a variety of free radicals that contribute to a wide range of diseases, such as diabetes.

Lack of melatonin can keep you up at night. But too much melatonin, beyond its therapeutic range, can wreak havoc on your body around the clock. Several studies show that women experiencing a lack of menstruation (amenorrhea) have abnormally high melatonin levels, which suggests supplemental melatonin may cause menstrual irregularities. Women with anorexia nervosa also have higher concentrations in their blood than those not suffering from the eating disorder, indicating an association between the hormone and eating disorders (J Neirosci Nurs 2002;34:74).

A study just released in the September issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reveals that melatonin can have serious consequences for asthmatics. Researchers found patients with nighttime asthma had significantly higher melatonin levels than healthy subjects. The study also found that higher melatonin concentrations are associated with more severe nocturnal worsening of asthma.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, "Nearly 75 percent of patients with asthma experience increased symptoms at night. Since melatonin enhances inflammation and higher levels are associated with more severe nocturnal asthma symptoms, it is suggested that people with asthma should avoid taking over-the-counter medications until further research explains the clinical effect."

It is imperative not to self-treat and never take supplemental melatonin during the day. Instead, rely on the advice of your healthcare professional to determine if supplements are warranted or not.

Karen and Clark Voss have a family wellness chiropractic clinic in Savannah at 5704 Skidaway Rd. Call 356-5886.