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Melatonin is commonly considered a natural substance, and therefore safe, so much so that it can also be used by children who have difficulty sleeping. But what is melatonin? A hormone, a supplement or a drug? Its widespread consumption is linked to the treatment of insomnia from which millions of people suffer today and which is dramatically increasing even in children. But is melatonin really safe? Does it cause any side effects?
Even today, science is collecting data for the correct use of this substance. In fact, in addition to sleep problems, it seems that its action is also effective in combating degenerative diseases and for the treatment of aging.
“Melatonin, originally discovered as a hormone of the pineal gland, is produced by bacteria, protozoa, plants, fungi, invertebrates, and various extrapineal sites of vertebrates, including gut, skin, Harderian gland, and leukocytes” (Hardeland et al., 2006)
What does this mean? Basically, melatonin is a substance naturally present in our body and produced by – among others – the epiphysis, a gland located in the brain. It is essential for the regularization of the sleep-wake cycle and for the natural relaxation of the synapses, which is essential for falling asleep.
It is also secreted by a small gland, the epiphysis, or pineal gland. In fact, light is “the signal” that controls this substance: when the light stimulus reaches the retina, a signal is transmitted to the epiphysis that inhibits its production. On the contrary, the dark stimulates the secretion of melatonin. In fact, it is secreted at night.
In addition, it is a real regulator of the sleep-wake cycle that follows the circadian rhythm based on the alternation of dark and light, thus generating a sedative effect.
Melatonin also helps the production of other molecules such as:
The characteristics of this substance, however, make it different from all the other hormones that our body produces.
It is true that melatonin is a hormone secreted mainly by the epiphysis, but not only by it. Hence, this means that other glands also contribute to its production, such as:
Furthermore, if the epiphysis were removed, melatonin would not disappear, as it happens when other endocrine glands that secrete hormones are removed. In fact, this substance continues to be produced based on the light-dark alternation.
This important substance is synthesized during the hours of night darkness. Production begins in the early evening hours, continues throughout the night with peaks in the central hours, and then decreases in the final moments with the arrival of daylight, and ends completely in the morning.
“The clinical implications and potential uses of melatonin in terms of influencing the biological clock (e.g. sleep and jet lag), immune function, and cancer initiation and growth are noted” (Reiter, 2003).
The production of melatonin also changes according to age. In the very first months of life it is very low, it increases during childhood, with the peak in adolescence, and then decreases with adulthood. In addition to advancing age, there may be other causes that lead to a drop in the body’s production of melatonin.
Infants have a very low level of melatonin, so much so that it is difficult to recognize day from night. In fact, this hormone begins to be produced continuously only when the maturation of the pineal gland is complete, i.e. around three years, a period in which children’s sleep is normalized.
But, in adulthood, an irreversible process of calcification of the epiphysis begins, with a consequent decrease in the hormone and also in the hours of sleep.
Many people are forced to work night shifts, thus shifting the normal sleep-wake rhythm. Even those who travel a lot, perhaps abruptly crossing different time zones, risk altering the phases of wakefulness and sleep, causing jet lag.
Often it is not enough to respect the normal day-night phases to fall asleep. The brain needs to achieve the right mental relaxation to relax the synapses, in addition to the action of melatonin. When you are in bed, avoid the use of electrical appliances such as smartphones and tablets. Better to read a book or drink a relaxing herbal tea with natural extracts that can help you sleep.
Compared to other remedies for insomnia, melatonin is an ingredient naturally present in our body, able to positively affect the quality of sleep without compromising our daytime activities. In fact, upon awakening, the body is able to naturally dispose of the residual melatonin, giving the body the energy it needs to face daily activities.
Just take 1 mg of melatonin in the evening before going to bed to stimulate falling asleep, conciliating a deep and continuous sleep, avoiding nighttime alarms that alter the normal phases of our sleep.
Melatonin is increasingly used as a sleep aid for children and for those with attention deficit or autism – especially in the form of gummies. But is taking melatonin safe for children? It is not easy to answer this question as there is still no scientific data on the long-term use of this substance.
Remember that melatonin gummies are not hypnotic and do not cause addiction, typical of traditional hypno-inductors. For this reason, over 30% of childhood neuropsychiatrists recommend them in the treatment of insomnia in children and adolescents.
But, before resorting to melatonin or other drugs, parents are always advised to treat what is known as “sleep hygiene”. In fact, children must follow very rhythmic and precise rituals to create favorable conditions for a peaceful rest.
Among the common side effects, we have:
Uncommon side effects include:
According to experts, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and people with chronic allergies or immune diseases should avoid melatonin supplements.