Outside the box-spring

For most people, melatonin is synonymous with sleep. And that’s about it. But there’s actually much more to melatonin than you might think.

Melatonin is a hormone that originates in your pineal gland. Its release is based on light exposure. During the day, your body generates little to no melatonin. And production peaks after dark, about three to five hours after you go to sleep.

This hormone plays a key role in regulating your body’s natural circadian rhythm–a fancy word for the sleep/wake cycle. So it’s no surprise that over the last couple of decades, melatonin has emerged as a popular over-the-counter sleep aid.

But I also use it to boost my patients’ immune systems. And now, I have a couple new “off-label” reasons to recommend this oldie-but-goodie supplement.

First up: melatonin as a natural form of migraine prevention. A new trial showed that a 3 mg dose of melatonin was as effective of a 25 mg dose of amitriptyline (a tricyclic antidepressant) when it comes to warding off this painful condition.

Even better, melatonin supplementation came with lower rates of daytime sleepiness. And it didn’t contribute to weight gain, either. (Both of these are common side effects of amitriptyline.)

In fact, subjects taking melatonin actually lost weight. So it looks like we can chalk up another win for our team. Or two, as the case may be…

This next bit of new research is another great piece of evidence from the Nurses’ Health Study. As it turns out, having high levels of melatonin secretion can cut your risk of type 2 diabetes in half.

Or put another way, low levels of melatonin secretion double your risk of diabetes. And researchers discovered this link even after adjusting for a whole host of other confounding factors.

This conclusion obviously raises a long string of questions.

Most notably, would supplementing with melatonin have a protective effect? Would prolonged dark exposure have similar benefits? And could either of these strategies actually increase insulin sensitivity?

It’s incredible that something this simple could potentially prevent type 2 diabetes. But if you connect the dots, it also makes a lot of sense.

Scientists have found melatonin receptors in pancreatic cells. And previous study has pointed to the fact that this hormone could somehow be involved in blood sugar metabolism. So the idea that melatonin could protect against diabetes isn’t exactly a stretch.

But there’s another strong association here that bears mentioning.

Research has also linked sleep disruption to type 2 diabetes. One study showed that men who get less than five hours of sleep per night are twice as likely to end up with diabetes as men who regularly clock at least seven hours.

Other studies have associated snoring with a doubling of diabetes risk–even after accounting for factors like body fat.

But this link doesn’t just apply to diabetes. Researchers have also connected circadian rhythm disruptions to cluster headache and migraines.

Poor melatonin production paves the way to disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, and delayed sleep phase syndrome. And all of these sleep disorders are linked to headaches–a fact that may at least partially explain the first set of study results I shared with you.

So it looks like the real moral of the story here may be a little simpler than it sounds: Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep–even if you have to take melatonin to do it.

The benefits to your health might reach further than you think.

“Melatonin secretion and the incidence of type 2 diabetes.” JAMA. 2013 Apr 3;309(13):1388-96.
American Academy of Neurology (AAN) 65th Annual Meeting. Abstract S40.005. Presented March 20, 2012.