What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our body that affects sleep-wake cycle. Its levels rise in the evening (making you feel sleepy) and fall in the morning (helping you to become more alert). Our bodies typically produce enough melatonin to help regulate this sleep-wake cycle effectively, but for times when sleep is hard to come by melatonin supplements can help.

For decades, researchers have examined how melatonin production helps the brain regulate sleep patterns. This early research has led to melatonin supplements geared towards encouraging sleep, which is especially helpful for people suffering from Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) and from jet lag. Similarly, those who suffer from insomnia may also benefit from taking a melatonin supplement, as supplementing with melatonin increases the level of this hormone in the brain.

Recently, a wealth of melatonin benefits was discovered through various studies, suggesting this hormone does much more than simply help us sleep. The surprising discoveries have revealed that melatonin influences disease and boosts the strength of our immune system in some very unique ways.

How Melatonin can affect your immune system

The relationship between melatonin and the immune system has been known for more than a decade. Our white blood cells, which are the main player in human immune function, have melatonin receptors. This suggests that melatonin affects their function in some way. In particular, melatonin appears to stimulate the release of cytokines and other proteins that help attack an invading virus, bacteria or pathogen.

At the same time, melatonin acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory, helping to prevent or reverse some of the damage that occurs when the immune system attacks our own tissues. Scientists are not currently sure how melatonin can stimulate the immune system when it is needed while suppressing it when it is not needed, but it appears to have exactly this action.

Melatonin benefits the immune system, in elderly too

The age-related dip in immune function begins around 60 years of age. A recent study of aged mice found that they began producing more cytokines and other immune molecules in response to being given melatonin at night. In addition, their immune function could be predicted by the amount of melatonin in their bloodstreams just before bedtime, suggesting that this hormone has a variety of positive effects on immunity in elderly people.

Researchers believe that melatonin may function as a link between the circadian rhythm and the immune system, allowing these two seemingly separate systems to interact with each other. In elderly people, who have both impaired melatonin production and impaired immunity, a melatonin supplement could be extremely important for whole-body health. Indeed, melatonin has been shown to play a variety of roles in the human body — and there are likely more that we don’t know of yet.

Ultimately, getting enough sleep and taking other measures to keep a regulated circadian rhythm are both important ways to support good health. Melatonin does not just help you sleep, but also helps a variety of systems to work as they were intended. This is especially true in elderly people, who appear to be at the highest risk of low melatonin. Taking a melatonin supplement at night may not be the fountain of youth, but it appears to be extremely important in supporting a healthy lifestyle.