By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
Melatonin promotes sleep and decreases activity of the gonads. In addition, melatonin affects thyroid and adrenal cortex functions and (in some animals) skin pigmentation. Because melatonin production is affected by the amount of light to which a person is exposed, this is tied to circadian rhythm (having an activity cycle of about 24 hours), annual cycles, and biological clock functions. SAD or seasonal affective disorder (syndrome) is a disorder in which too much melatonin is produced, especially during the long nights of winter, causing profound depression, oversleeping, weight gain, tiredness, and sadness. Treatment consists of exposure to bright lights for several hours each day to inhibit melatonin production. It has also been found that melatonin levels drop 75% suddenly just before puberty, suggesting the involvement of melatonin in the regulation of the onset of puberty. Studies have been done on blind girls (with a form of blindness in which no impulses can travel down the optic nerve and reach the brain and pineal gland), which showed that these girls tended to have higher levels of melatonin for a longer time, resulting in a delay in the onset of puberty. While some older people, who don't make very much melatonin, thus don't sleep well, might benefit from a melatonin supplement, I'm skeptical of the recent melatonin craze in this country. When so many people apparently are suffering from SAD, I question the wisdom of purposly ingesting more melatonin, especially since the pineal gland is one of the least-studied, least-understood of the endocrine glands.