Welcome to Sleep Cycle’s 2nd blog in our 4-part series about melatonin and sleep. In our 1st blog, Sleep Cycle’s Head of Sleep Science, Prof Mike Gradisar, answered 20 common questions about melatonin – with particular focus on the numbers. For example, how much melatonin to use? When to take it? From what age can one take it? How long does it take effect? And so on – check it out to get the full picture.

In this 2nd blog, Mike will demonstrate how melatonin can be used for an array of different issues – that are not sleep related. Over to you Mike!

What else can melatonin be used for besides sleep?

As you’ll learn in this blog, there is research supporting evidence for melatonin providing a range of benefits that go beyond sleep. For example, when the human body undergoes significant stress, there is a build up of toxins in the body. 

Besides assisting with sleep and circadian timing, melatonin possesses a host of different ‘anti’ properties – which means if the body is in strife, melatonin can sometimes be something of an anti-dote, returning the body back to a healthier state.

Let’s start with one example that we alluded to in our previous blog:

Melatonin can help premature babies

Being born into this world takes its toll on the human body, especially if that little human is not yet ready.

When babies are born prematurely (i.e., less than 37 weeks), they may experience what’s called oxidative stress. In simplistic terms, there are higher levels of toxins in their body, and the premature infant can lack the strong antioxidant defense system that other infants possess. Unfortunately, oxidative stress can lead to a range of serious conditions for the infant, including brain injury, lung and gastrointestinal diseases, sepsis, and in some cases premature death.

Melatonin is a well known antioxidant. Because the damage resulting from biological toxins from premature birth occurs quickly, medical researchers have administered melatonin within the first 24 hours of life.

Whilst we described that the maximum dose of 3mg of melatonin is required for sleep in our first blog in this series, the dosage differs when preventing serious diseases afflicting premature infants. Doses of up to 80 mg within the first 24 hours of life have been reported. Medical researchers are determining not only the right – or ‘therapeutic dose’ – to prevent conditions (like brain injury), but also the most effective ways to administer melatonin to premature babies (eg, skin patch).

But the take-home point is that research has shown that high doses of melatonin provide life-saving properties for the most vulnerable human beings, at the most vulnerable time of their lives. 

Finally, melatonin is naturally supplied to infants in the womb by their mother from 24 weeks, and levels rise in the third trimester. But once the infant is born, they are on their own as they do not produce their own melatonin for many months.

Researchers believe it is possible that melatonin may help the infant to deal with complications that may arise with their upcoming birth. We are still trying to learn and research more on whether the use of melatonin in pregnant women may further protect children during birth.

Add melatonin to your treatment of cancer

Let’s now look at another condition that melatonin can help us humans fight – Cancer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that cancer is our 2nd largest lethal disease, sadly taking approximately 10 million of us each year. As I write this blog, my skin specialists this week have been closely monitoring some skin cells on my lip. They have labeled these skin cells as being pre-cancerous. Another one of those things that can kill you in Australia (ie, the sun).

There has been significant recent interest in ‘gut health’, so you may be interested to know that the gut contains about 400 times the amount of melatonin than the pineal gland (i.e., the gland that secretes melatonin from our brain during the night). So not only is melatonin prepared to protect the gut, but researchers have proposed that additional melatonin that we can swallow – eventually entering the gut – can help in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancer.

There are a number of steps that change a healthy cell in our body to a cancerous one. For example, inflammation of our gut can lead to cancer.

Melatonin is known as an anti-inflammatory. Cancerous toxins (known as carcinogens) can damage the DNA in the cells of our body, and interfere with our DNA’s ability to repair itself. Melatonin can come to the aid of our DNA by reducing the damage – and assisting in its repair.

The point is that melatonin can disrupt the process of cancer taking over the cells in our body. And it’s not just gastrointestinal cancers that can be helped by melatonin. It’s also colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, oral cancer, pancreatic cancer, and liver cancer.

And yes – melatonin can help in the fight against skin cancer. For example, skin cancers can evolve due to a process known as apoptosis – a form of cell death.

Melatonin is known as an anti-apoptotic. Due to melatonin possessing anti-apoptotic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties, this has led experts to label melatonin as an anti-cancer agent.

But to be clear, this is not to say that melatonin should replace conventional treatments for cancer. Instead, researchers have identified melatonin as a worthy complementary medicine. A formula to add to other science-backed treatments for cancer.

And before we move on to the next section – yes – melatonin can help to treat gastrointestinal disorders.

Headache? Consider reaching for melatonin

As mentioned earlier, melatonin can help to reduce the chance of brain injury in infants born prematurely. So it follows that melatonin may be helpful for one of the most common conditions experienced by us humans – Headaches and migraines.

Researchers have found that overnight melatonin levels are substantially lower in people who experience migraines. And you guessed it – compared to those magical placebo pills you can buy from infomercials, melatonin actually helps to treat migraines. Worth noting is that melatonin hasn’t shown to be better than prescribed medications for migraines. But the advantage melatonin holds over-prescribed medications is its safety profile.

So whether it’s a cluster headache or migraine, you may wish to ensure you have some melatonin in your medicine cabinet.  It’s worth noting, however, that for reasons unknown, melatonin helps headaches and migraines in adults – but not children.

Melatonin’s role in diabetes

It is estimated that half a billion people will have diabetes by 2035. Diabetes is a condition when your blood sugar levels are too high. This is because your body does not produce enough insulin to keep your blood glucose balanced.

So besides melatonin being an anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic and all the other antis – melatonin also helps the balance of one’s blood sugar levels.

How does this work? Well, the pancreas produces insulin, but when someone has diabetes the cells of the pancreas may be damaged. Research on animals has shown that melatonin helps to preserve key cells in the pancreas, steering them away from destruction and more towards being productive producers of insulin.

Studies on humans are in their infancy. Researchers are working hard to ascertain the correct dose and the timing of when to administer melatonin, so they can learn the right formula to bring balance to blood sugar levels. So stay tuned for this line of exciting scientific inquiry!

Melatonin vs COVID-19

One of the most recent discoveries is the potential for melatonin to minimize the negative effects of COVID-19.

In fact, prior to the development of current COVID-19 vaccines, a group of researchers proposed that melatonin could be used in the fight against COVID-19. Specifically:

  • As a preventative to contracting COVID.
  • As a singular means to treat COVID-infected patients.
  • As a treatment in combination with other drugs or vaccines to treat COVID-infected patients.

Let’s begin by examining melatonin’s potential for preventing COVID-19 infection.

Can melatonin prevent me from getting COVID-19?

The question of whether you categorically ‘get’ COVID-19 is best explained by whether you contract the COVID-19 virus – and then – whether your immune system is able to fight it to the point that your immune system wins. For example, there is some evidence to show that people who previously contracted a cold virus (ie, a virus with similar characteristics to the COVID-19 virus) were able to prevent COVID-19 infection.

Melatonin has been shown to be effective against certain viruses, which is why it is known amongst some researchers as possessing anti-viral properties. However, this does not mean that melatonin kills these viruses. Instead, melatonin has been successful in reducing the consequences of virus infections.

This ultimately means, if the COVID-19 virus ‘wins’ the initial battle against your immune system, how severe will your symptoms be – and can melatonin help ease these symptoms? So before we explore this, our short answer to our lengthier explanation above on whether melatonin can prevent COVID-19 infection appears to be ‘No’.

Can melatonin reduce the sickness severity from COVID-19?

The short answer to this is: Yes, melatonin can reduce the severity of sickness resulting from COVID-19 infection.

But!  It’s best to keep reading to get the full picture. When humans are infected by a virus, their immune system is alerted to this newcomer and their immune system begins to produce various white blood cells to attack it.

Aside from these white blood cells that come to the rescue, there are also other cells that are like the messengers – they message to other parts of the immune system to rally against the virus.

These messengers are known as cytokines. You want cytokines to help spread the word to your immune system, and this is what happens in moderate cases of COVID-19. But in severe cases of COVID-19, there are abnormally high levels of cytokines. So much so that the overcompensation of these cells in the body is known as the ‘Cytokine Storm’.

The Cytokine Storm can lead to inflammation and damage to healthy cells of our body. This destruction may lead to further inflammation, leading to more than just damage to healthy cells. It can cause the death of healthy cells.

In other words, well, in the words of Reiter and colleagues:

 “The cytokine storm leads to acute cardiac injury, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and infection, leading to generalized sepsis and multisystem failure, which may lead to death”.

So as you can see, there are numerous steps involved in severe illness resulting from COVID-19 infection. Let’s walk through the different steps:

  • COVID-19 creates inflammation of the cells of our body. And melatonin is a known anti-inflammatory.
  • COVID-19 creates oxidative stress – an imbalance between too few antioxidants to combat too many chemicals in the body that are created by oxygen. Melatonin is an antioxidant.
  • Severe cases of COVID-19 result in an imbalance of our immune system’s response to the virus. Melatonin is a known regulator of our immune system.
  • Severe cases of COVID-19 can result in sepsis (the immune system attacking itself). Melatonin has been shown to treat sepsis, and thus has been labeled as an antiseptic.
  • Severe COVID-19 infection can result in a form of cell death known as apoptosis. Melatonin is a known anti-apoptotic.

How much melatonin do I need to take once infected by COVID-19?

Initially, researchers have recommended taking melatonin orally, between 100 to 400 mg, once per day, once symptoms are experienced – or – once you have made contact with a person infected with the virus. These doses are considerably higher than the amount recommended for sleep.

But in a recent review of clinical trials using melatonin at levels closer to those recommended for sleep (eg, 3, 6 or 9 mg per day), patients taking melatonin showed better recovery, a lower chance of being admitted to the ICU, and reduce risk of death associated with COVID-19.

Before you rush out to your local pharmacy and sweep all the melatonin off the shelves, there are a few things to consider:

  • The improved outcomes from taking melatonin were slight improvements. Nevertheless, with severe illness, any improvement, however slight, is most likely welcomed with open arms.  
  • These trials had some strengths, but they were generally small studies that followed people for a short period of time. We’re hoping for stronger trials to be published in the near future.
  • Melatonin was used in conjunction with other treatments for COVID-19. Thus, melatonin can be viewed as an ‘adjunct’ or ‘complementary therapy’.

It’s of utmost importance to stress that if you wish to use melatonin as an additional way to deal with COVID-19, or other health conditions described in this blog, that you do so under the guidance of your medical practitioner. And because this science is so new for melatonin and COVID-19, it may help to take the up-to-date reference list below to them as well.

In our next blog, we’ll explore the use of melatonin for times when our body clock is out of sync.