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Melatonin and Aging

Can Melatonin Supplements Improve Aging?

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Updated May 30, 2014

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the body that some have claimed to have anti aging properties. It helps regulate your sleep cycle. When you are exposed to light in the morning, melatonin levels decrease. At night, when it is dark, these levels increase, making you sleepy and drowsy. Some people are claiming that melatonin is an anti-aging hormone.

Melatonin and Aging

There are claims that melatonin levels decrease as we age. These claims are based on the observation that older people need less sleep. That observation is a common sleep myth. In fact, older people need just as much sleep as younger adults. Melatonin levels, in healthy individuals, do not decrease with age.

Should I Use It to Fall Asleep

Before even thinking about using a supplement to fall asleep, spend about a week re-training your body’s sleep habits. Bad habits like reading in bed, drinking too much caffeine and not getting enough light exposure can result in sleep difficulty. Re-learn how to fall asleep. If those tips don’t work, then you may have a medical condition or may be taking a medication that interferes with sleep. You may also have a sleep disorder. Talk to your doctor about the possibility of changing your medication or treating your sleep problem.

Dosage Warning and Side Effects

Small amounts of melatonin (0.1 to 0.5 milligrams) have been shown to improve sleep in some individuals. Melatonin that is sold over the counter may have doses as high as 3 milligrams. Those doses cause melatonin levels to spike in the body. There is no research on the long-term effects of high levels of melatonin.

Side effects of melatonin can include nightmares, disruption of normal sleep cycles (if taken at the wrong times), headache, daytime drowsiness, gynecomastia (breast enlargement in men), and depression. People who have a history of depression, in particular, should discuss the use of melatonin with their doctors before taking it.

What Can Melatonin Be Used For?

  • Jet Lag: Studies have shown the melatonin can help reset your body’s clock after jet lag. About 50 percent of people in studies were able to reset their body’s internal clock faster using low-dose melatonin supplements for a few days.
  • Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome: This is a condition in which a person sleeps a normal amount, but their sleep is delayed into late in the night (not because of TV or other reason). Research shows melatonin is promising for treating this syndrome.
  • Insomnia in the Elderly: Research is also promising (but not proven) that melatonin supplementation can help treat insomnia in older adults. Studies show trends that look good, but the studies were not well-designed and left many questions unanswered. Most studies only looked at short-term effects (a few days).
  • Sleep Problems in Children with Neuro-Psychiatric Disorders: There is also some promising research that melatonin could help children with conditions such as autism, psychiatric disorders or epilepsy improve their sleep. This use of melatonin is currently being investigated.
  • Sleep Improvement for Healthy People: There is also good evidence that melatonin helps improve sleep in healthy people. The studies shown that melatonin, taken by mouth about 30 to 60 minutes before sleep, will shorten the time it takes to fall asleep. More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of melatonin supplementation.
  • Other Uses (unclear evidence):
    • improve sleep in people with Alzheimer’s disease
    • used as an antioxidant
    • used to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and ADHD-related sleep problems
    • help to taper (stop using) benzodiapepines
    • for bipolar disorder-related sleep problems
    • in treating cancer (not enough research to know about interference with other treatments and overall effect)
    • treatment of chemotherapy side effects
    • regulate circadian rhythms in blind persons
    • for depression-related sleep disturbances
    • to treat glaucoma
    • to prevent headaches
    • and many, many other conditions.

Bottom Line

There is an increasing interest in using melatonin in many conditions. However, little is known about how high melatonin levels might interact with other therapies. For now, caution should be used. Be sure to talk with your doctor before using melatonin (or any supplement), especially if you have an existing health condition.

Sources:

National Institute on Aging. National Institutes of Health. Pills, Patches and Shots: Can Hormones Prevent Aging? Medline Plus. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Melatonin

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