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Melatonin: Is This Natural Hormone One of the Keys To Slowing Brain Aging?

August 11, 2011 | 76,178 views
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melatonin slowing brain agingMelatonin is best known as a sleep hormone because of its action controlling the circadian cycle. But melatonin also has antioxidant properties, and may have an important anti-aging role.

A recent study looked at artificially aged mice to determine the effects of melatonin on aging.  Such mice are used as a model to study the fundamental mechanisms of aging because they develop markers also found in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

According to the study, as reported by Green Med Info:

“... [T]reatment with melatonin ... was able to reduce oxidative stress and the neurodegenerative calpain/Cdk5 pathway ... and ... markers of cerebral aging and neurodegeneration ... indicating the neuroprotective and anti-aging effect of melatonin.”

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Dr. Mercola's Comments:

It's well known that lack of sleep interferes with metabolism and hormone production in a way that is similar to the effects of aging. One way that this may occur could be related to the action of melatonin, the "sleep" hormone secreted by your brain.

Normally, your brain produces melatonin in a daily rhythm that peaks at night, around 9 or 10 p.m. This makes you sleepy, and it is these regularly occurring secretions that help regulate your sleep cycle. If you're not getting enough sleep, there's a good chance your melatonin production is not up to par either, and this could have far-reaching impacts on your health, even accelerating the aging process of your brain.

The Powerful Antioxidant Effects of Melatonin

In a new study, artificially aged mice treated with melatonin had reduced oxidative stress and markers of cerebral aging and neurodegeneration, indicating the melatonin offered both neuroprotective and anti-aging effects. Melatonin actually has antioxidant properties that may help explain its important anti-aging role, as it helps to suppress harmful free radicals in your body and even slows the production of estrogen, which can activate cancer.

Melatonin's immediate precursor is the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is a major player in uplifting your mood. And, like serotonin, melatonin plays important roles in your physical and mental health. Studies have shown that insufficient melatonin production can set you up for:

Decreased immune function Accelerated cancer cell proliferation and tumor growth (including leukemia)
Blood pressure instability Decreased free radical scavenging
Increased plaques in the brain, like those seen with Alzheimer's disease Increased risk of osteoporosis
Diabetic microangiopathy (capillary damage) Depression and/or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Beware This Common Mistake Can Destroy Your Melatonin Production

The consequences of sleep deprivation are so intense because your circadian rhythm has evolved over hundreds of generations to align your physiology with your environment, and your body clock assumes that, like your ancestors, you sleep at night and stay awake during daylight hours.

If you confuse the situation by depriving yourself of enough hours of sleep or not sleeping when it's dark outside, you send conflicting signals to your body. One of these consequences can be a lack of melatonin production, which can be detrimental to your health.

So, what can you do to protect this fragile system?

One of the most important tips to remember is to sleep in complete darkness, as this is what allows your body to produce melatonin.

Inside your hypothalamus is a group of cells called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), which controls your biological clock by responding to light. Light reaches your SCN via your eye's optic nerve, where it tells your biological clock it's time to wake up. Light also causes your SCN to initiate other processes associated with being awake, such as raising your body temperature and producing hormones, like cortisol.

On the flip side, the lack of light reaching your SCN triggers melatonin production, which helps you sleep -- and this is why sleeping in total darkness is so important. If there is even the tiniest bit of light in your room it can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your pineal gland's production of both melatonin and serotonin.

This is the "hidden" secret that most people tend to ignore, but which can dramatically improve the quality of your sleep and your health. Personally, I sleep in a room that is so dark you can't see your hands in front of your face . It is wise to liberally use blackout shades and drapes to achieve this.

Remember that any light is problematic, even that from televisions and other gadgets. Computer screens and most light bulbs emit blue light, to which your eyes are particularly sensitive simply because it's the type of light most common outdoors during daytime hours. As a result, these items can easily disrupt your melatonin production.

Electromagnetic Fields Can Also Disrupt Your Sleep

Additionally, I recommend checking your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) as these too can disrupt your pineal gland's production of melatonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house.

At a bare minimum, move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your head. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet. Also avoid keeping cell phones and portable phone bases on your night stand. Cell phone chargers should be kept at least four feet away from your bed, while portable phone bases and wireless routers should be kept as far away from your bedroom as possible. Avoid running electrical cords underneath your bed.

Unfortunately, none but a few communities in the US require that wiring in the walls be placed in metal-clad conduit. This is primarily done for fire prevention, but it also essentially eliminates the electric fields. Therefore, more than likely, you are exposed to electric fields that radiate from the wires in the wall at the head of your bed when you are sleeping. The solutions are to move your bed three feet away from the wall, or turn off the power circuit to your bedroom. 

To check for the presence of electric fields in the walls, you can purchase an inexpensive low voltage e-field detector. They are commonly available at most local electrical, electronic and hardware stores. A widely used e-field tester is the Non-contact Adjustable Voltage Detector, AC 5-1000V, available from All-Spec Industries and ToolUp.com, as well as other online sources. This device will also allow you to check for the presence of electric field exposure throughout your home and workplace.

Last but not least, beware of what's on the other side of your bedroom wall, and under the floor. Avoid sleeping with your head against a wall that has electric meters, circuit breaker panels, televisions or stereos, for example, on the other side. All of these are source of magnetic fields that you should sleep at least four feet away from to limit dangerous exposure.

Optimizing Melatonin Production and Regulating Your Body Clock

Melatonin production is stimulated by darkness and suppressed by light, which is why your levels should be highest just prior to bedtime. This perfectly orchestrated system allows you to fall asleep when the sun sets and awaken refreshed with the sunrise, while also providing potential anti-aging and disease-fighting benefits.

Therefore, if you are having trouble sleeping, a signal that your melatonin production is off, I suggest you make sure you're sleeping in total darkness and also turning lights down prior to bedtime.

As mentioned earlier, TVs and computers emit significant blue light, which will tend to decrease your melatonin if you work past dark, so ideally you'd want to turn these items off once the sun goes down. For use in the evening, you can purchase "low blue lights," which emit an amber light instead of the blue that suppresses melatonin production. Therefore, these bulbs are ideal for areas such as your bedroom, bathroom, or living room in the evening.

Additionally, the quality of light you're exposed to during the day also matters when it comes to maintaining a healthy rhythm. While most of us are over-exposed to light in the evenings, most of us are also under-exposed to light during the day!

Most incandescent- and fluorescent lights emit very poor-quality light. What your body needs for optimal functioning is the full-spectrum light you get outdoors, but most of us do not spend much time outside to take advantage of this healthy light. Using full-spectrum light bulbs in your home and office can help ameliorate this lack of high-quality sunlight during the day.

Remember, when your circadian rhythms are disrupted, your body produces less melatonin, which means it has less ability to fight cancer, and less protection against free radicals that may accelerate aging and disease. So if you're having even slight trouble sleeping, I suggest you review my 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep for even more helpful guidance on how to improve your sleep-wake cycle and get restful sleep.

If you've made the necessary changes to your sleep routine and find you're still having trouble sleeping, a high-quality melatonin supplement may be helpful. For instance, the amount of melatonin you create and release every night varies depending on your age. Children usually have much higher levels of melatonin than adults, and as you grow older your levels typically continue to decrease.

Researchers believe this may explain why many older adults occasionally experience disrupted sleep patterns. With less melatonin in their blood, the stimulus to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake feeling rested can potentially be compromised, which is why some older adults may benefit from extra melatonin -- likewise if you perform night shift work, travel often and experience jet lag, or otherwise suffer from occasional sleeplessness due to stress or unexplained reasons.

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