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9+ Benefits of Melatonin for Anxiety, Depression, Gut & More

Written by Nattha Wannissorn, PhD | Last updated:
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Nattha Wannissorn, PhD | Last updated:

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The sleep hormone melatonin is essential for regulating the circadian rhythm and making sure you fall asleep, but it may also have a variety of functions in mental health, digestion, blood pressure, and more. Read about the latest research and its variety of potential benefits here.

What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is derived from the amino acid tryptophan and the neurotransmitter serotonin [1].

Melatonin has many important functions in the body, including:

  • Influences the circadian rhythm
  • Aids the immune system
  • Helps eye function
  • Reduces oxidative stress
  • Promotes sleep
  • Controls many cellular events, including synthesis of important molecules
  • Protects against radiation

The pineal gland, which is nestled in the brain, makes melatonin. The quantity of melatonin in the blood depends on the time of the day. At night there is 10 to 15 times more melatonin in the blood there is in the day, which helps people sleep [2].

Melatonin is also made by many other organs in the body, especially in the stomach [3].

If sleep is interrupted by blue light exposure at night, melatonin levels decrease drastically. In addition, melatonin levels also decrease with age [4]. However, darkness does not stimulate melatonin production. It simply permits melatonin production [5].

Potential Benefits of Melatonin

Melatonin supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Supplements generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.

Possibly Effective For

1) Endometriosis

Surprisingly, melatonin has shown promise for reducing pain in endometriosis. In a study of 40 women of reproductive age, 10 mg of melatonin per day reduced pain scores and dysmenorrhea by almost 40% each. Women who took melatonin also used fewer painkillers [6].

2) Blood Pressure

Melatonin plays an important role in the regulation of blood pressure. Activation of its receptors, MT1 and MT2, widens blood vessels, which decreases blood pressure [7].

Like sleep, blood pressure has circadian rhythmicity. It increases in the morning and decreases at night. Melatonin rises at night and decreases in the morning. This indicates that there may be a connection between melatonin and blood pressure [7].

Certain types of hypertension (high blood pressure) are characterized by low melatonin [7].

In patients with type 2 diabetes, 5 mg of melatonin decreased blood pressure levels. However, there is not enough information about how melatonin reduces blood pressure to determine whether it is effective at lowering blood pressure. It may be used as a supporting therapy in hypertensive patients [8].

One of melatonin’s functions is in the regulation of blood pressure throughout the circadian rhythm. Some people with high blood pressure may benefit from melatonin supplementation; research is ongoing.

3) Sunburn

Topical gels or creams containing melatonin may prevent sunburn in people with highly sensitive skin. In multiple studies (a total of 83 volunteers), melatonin gels or creams significantly reduced skin reddening after UV exposure [9, 10, 11, 12].

The best formulation and concentration of melatonin gel or cream is unknown.

4) Thrombocytopenia

Thrombocytopenia, a blood disorder characterized by low platelet count, can result from cancer, cancer treatments, and other underlying conditions. In multiple studies, melatonin restored platelet count in patients with these conditions or undergoing chemotherapy [13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18].

Despite this apparent wealth of promising results, melatonin is generally not used for this purpose because better-studied and more effective alternatives are readily available.

Insufficient Evidence For

The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of melatonin for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before taking melatonin supplements, and never use them in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes.

5) Tinnitus

Tinnitus is the unexplained noise in the ears that affects many people: the elderly, those with a hearing disability, or those affected as a result of certain drugs [19, 20].

Melatonin was 150 times more effective compared with other drugs that treat tinnitus at decreasing tinnitus symptoms [20].

In elderly patients with tinnitus, melatonin levels are very low. This may indicate that its levels are connected with normal ear activity [19].

6) Gut Health

Melatonin concentration in stomach tissues is 10 to 100 times higher than in the blood. Its concentrations are 400 times higher in the gut than in the brain [21].

Stomach melatonin is controlled differently from brain melatonin. Its concentration is the highest at midday, not at night [22].

In the stomach, it reacts mostly to incoming food [23].

Stomach melatonin also controls the behavior of gut bacteria [24].

Melatonin and its precursor L-tryptophan can help heal stomach ulcers in humans. They protected against lesions caused by aspirin and H. pylori infections. Administration of melatonin also accelerates healing of the ulcers [25].

Melatonin strengthens the intestinal barrier by reducing oxidative stress by up to 88% [26]. It dose-dependently prevented stress-induced stomach damage and increased the efficiency of drugs that treat stomach ulcer, ranitidine and omeprazole. Melatonin reduced free radicals by 88% in rats.

Its antioxidant properties can help stop inflammation in the stomach. These effects can help protect against disorders like colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and even various cancers [25].

Melatonin also helps prevent the death of stomach lining cells due to poisoning [27].

In one study, starved rats experienced stomach stress. Melatonin treatment for one week improved stomach lining condition [28].

Also, it significantly reduced stomach pain in IBS patients [29].

Melatonin is secreted by stomach tissues and appears to play a role in digestion and gut inflammation. Research is ongoing into whether supplementation might be beneficial in gut disorders like IBS.

7) Acid Reflux (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is also known as acid reflux. It is a condition that develops when stomach acid and its contents come back up the esophagus (food pipe). Some symptoms include heartburn, nausea, chest pain, and regurgitation [30].

In a study of 36 GERD patients, melatonin supplementation was able to decrease GERD symptoms. Melatonin reduced esophageal pressure and prevented injury when used alone or in conjunction with omeprazole [30].

However, omeprazole, a drug that treats GERD, showed better results when administered alone than in combination with melatonin. So although melatonin may be able to treat GERD symptoms, it is not the best option to treat acid reflux [30].

Clinical research is ongoing into whether melatonin could help control acid reflux; conventional alternatives like omeprazole have shown much better results.

8) Aging

In humans, melatonin levels decline with age [31].

Oxidative stress and damage contribute to the aging process. Melatonin’s antioxidant effects can help stop oxidative damage [32].

Melatonin protects against UV-induced skin aging in humans. Topical application helps the skin through melatonin’s antioxidant activity. The oral administration does not benefit the skin as much [32].

In old rats, dietary melatonin helped stop age-related bone loss. Supplementation increased bone volume and stiffness, which improved bone health [33].

Melatonin increased the lifespan of various animals, including water fleas, fruit flies, and male rodents [34].

However, even though melatonin is an anti-aging hormone, it does not delay aging [31].

Melatonin levels decline with age, and some research has suggested that supplementing with melatonin may benefit older people more than younger people, but it does not delay aging.

Macular Degeneration

A part of the eye called the macula tends to degenerate with age. In a study of 100 patients with macular degeneration, 3 mg of melatonin per day for 6 months maintained vision and tissue status roughly the same as at the beginning of the study. While there was no measurable improvement in this study, the time frame was long enough that the researchers expected further degeneration [35].

Unfortunately, the study did not include a placebo group, and additional research is required to determine whether melatonin has any real benefit.

Hair Loss

Androgenic alopecia is a genetic hair loss condition. Topical application of melatonin helped prevent hair loss in men and women with alopecia [36].

Melatonin application improved hair condition and texture. In multiple studies, melatonin solution helped partially reduce hair loss. It also led to new hair growth in some cases. Although its mechanisms are unknown, melatonin could potentially delay hair loss [36].

9) Fertility

In one study, oral administration of melatonin in humans reduced oxidative damage to oocytes and increased fertilization rates. However, since the study was very small and did not have a control group, this is not sufficient evidence for melatonin’s benefits [37].

Melatonin may improve overall movement of sperm cells upon direct exposure. It may also inhibit cell death in the sperm and improve overall sperm quality, therefore increasing the probability of successful fertilization [37].

Aging can lead to a decline in fertility. Melatonin treatment in female mice delayed age-associated infertility [38].

Melatonin administration (10 mg/kg over 6 and 12 months) in mice also increased the quantity and quality of oocytes (egg cells). This may be due to the suppression of oxidative stress by melatonin [38].

However, higher doses of melatonin can harm the oocyte and embryo cell cultures [37].

Reactive oxygen species and oxidative damage can negatively impact the success of infertility treatments. Melatonin’s antioxidant activity may help with in vitro fertilization results [37].

Melatonin administration can maintain female reproductive capacity in aging mice. However, there are not enough studies on humans to support these results. More trials are needed to confirm melatonin’s benefits on the postponement of childbearing [38].

Melatonin may play a role in the normal maintenance and cycling of the reproductive system, but not enough clinical research has been conducted to know whether melatonin supplements could help with human fertility.

Animal Research (Lacking Evidence)

No clinical evidence supports the use of melatonin for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.

10) Neuroplasticity

In experimental animals, melatonin activated the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein responsible for nerve cells’ well-being and regeneration [39].

11) Blood-Brain Barrier

Melatonin is being investigated for its potential to strengthen the barrier between the brain and the blood [40].

A leaky blood-brain barrier can cause cognitive dysfunction (brain fog), Alzheimer’s, and may also contribute to psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. Read this post to learn more about the blood-brain barrier.

12) Recovery from Stroke

In mouse models of stroke, melatonin blocked the release of cytochrome C (a substance that would cause cell death if leaked from the mitochondria) from mitochondria, which effectively prevented cell death as a result of the injury [41].

In another rat model of a stroke, melatonin blocks the activity of inflammatory cytokines IL-1β and TNF-α, and cell death proteins BAD and BAX [42]. These proteins initiate inflammation and nerve cell death after the artery leading to the brain gets blocked [43].

13) Traumatic Brain Injury

Melatonin is being researched in the context of brain trauma [44].

Treatment of rats with melatonin after brain injury helps reduce the subsequent swelling of various brain regions [39].

14) Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

In amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the nerve cells responsible for movement die. In mouse models, melatonin relieved symptoms of ALS by preventing the death of those cells and slowing the disease progression [45].

15) Vision & Eye Health

The cells of the eye, especially the retina, make melatonin [46].

Light influences melatonin production, while the cells that react to light produce melatonin. The more light there is, the less melatonin the cells in the eye produces [46].

Disruption of MT receptors leads to the death of cone cells, the cells in the eye that help the eye to discern color [47].

Melatonin is also important for normal eye development. Mice that lacked one of the melatonin receptors – MT1 – had a decrease in specific nerve cells crucial for vision [48].

Melanin also protected human cells that make eye pigment from cell death [49].

Glaucoma

Additionally, it decreases elevated pressure in the eye in humans. Moreover, removal of MT1 in mice results in an increase in the pressure inside the eye and death of nerve cells [50].

The disturbances in melatonin function may be one of the causes of glaucoma [51].

Melatonin and 5-MCA-NAT (a molecule similar to melatonin) are promising agents for treating glaucoma, which is an eye condition caused by elevated pressure [52].

Nerve Cells in the Eyes

Melatonin also prevents the death of nerve cells in an experimental model of optic neuritis in rats. Optic neuritis is a disease that causes the death of optic nerve cells responsible for vision [53].

Also, it is beneficial in refractory central serous chorioretinopathy, a condition that affects the eyes of diabetic patients [54].

Animal and cell studies have established a potential role for melatonin in vision and eye health, but the clinical application of such research is unknown.

16) Diabetes

In patients with type 2 diabetes, the concentrations of melatonin both during the day and night are lower compared to healthy subjects. However, the effect of melatonin supplements on type 2 diabetes is unclear [55].

Melatonin is part of the internal clock that changes insulin levels according to the time of the day [56]. It is very important for insulin balance, as a disruption of this system may cause an inability of the cells to react to insulin and glucose [57].

Even one sleepless night may cause insulin resistance). It can also disrupt metabolism. The disruption of melatonin balance has the ability to cause all of these problems [58, 59, 60].

In rats with diabetes, chronic treatment with melatonin improves diabetes outcomes in muscle, liver, and fat tissues [61].

In a cell-based study, melatonin protected muscle cells from a poison that causes insulin resistance and improved glucose transport into the cell [62].

Melatonin also helped improve the condition of the liver and its activity in diabetic overweight rats [63].

Additionally, it protects insulin-producing cells in the pancreas from cell death. It also restores their function [64].

Drugs that correct melatonin levels (namely Epifamin and Melaxen) can improve diabetes in rats [65].

Agomelatine, an antidepressant that targets the melatonin receptors, improves chronic pain associated with diabetes. Agomelatine also counteracts depression in patients with diabetes, as well as help to control blood sugar levels [66, 67].

People with type 2 diabetes tend to have lower melatonin levels both during the day and at night compared to healthy people, and even a single night without sleep can reduce sensitivity to insulin. As a result, drugs that increase melatonin are being investigated for potential diabetes benefits in early preclinical research.

17) Heart Health

Melatonin also showed protective effects in the heart in animal and cell models. Its antioxidant activity protected against strokes and heart attacks in mice, but very little is known about melatonin and the human cardiovascular system [31].

18) Organ Transplant Complications

Melatonin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects may be useful during organ transplantation. It could help reduce graft failure during heart, bone, liver, and other organ transplants. However, not enough human studies have been done to support these claims [68].

Cancer Research

Melatonin supplementation improved some markers of health in prostate and colorectal cancer patients. It reduced the spread of tumors and increased cancer cell death [31].

Researchers are currently looking into the potential role of melatonin in the prevention and treatment of various cancers. Breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer patients have been observed to have reduced melatonin levels compared to healthy patients [31].

In cell studies, melatonin has mainly been investigated for its activity against breast cancer: in artificial spheres made from breast cells and cancer cells, adding melatonin blocked cancer-like growth. This was caused when melatonin blocked an estrogen receptor that caused cancer to grow [69].

Melatonin may also stimulate the immune system, in particular Th2 cells and natural killer cells [70, 71].

Also, in mice with stomach cancer, melatonin treatment suppresses the activity of regulatory T cells [72].

The main function of regulatory T cells is to block the activity of other types of immune cells. Tumors support T regulatory cells as they protect the cancer cells from being killed by the immune system. Melatonin blocks T cells, which can lead to cancer cell death [72].

In cell cultures, melatonin interferes with cancer cells’ energy processes. Through this effect, it blocks cancer cell growth and limits their ability to invade [73].

However, melatonin injections could stimulate tumor growth if given at the wrong time of day. Much more research is required to understand the potential role of melatonin in cancer therapies; talk to your doctor before adding this supplement to your regimen [31].

There is currently nowhere near enough evidence to recommend the use of melatonin in either the prevention or treatment of cancer, and melatonin injections might even stimulate tumor growth if badly timed. However, research is ongoing.

Melatonin in Mental Illness: Ongoing Research

Depression and other mood disorders are often coupled with sleep disturbances, requiring agents that have both a sedating and calming effect. Drugs that activate and bind MT2 receptors are potential therapeutic agents for such conditions [74].

Abnormal day-and-night concentrations of melatonin are markers of severe depression [75].

In rats, melatonin alleviates depression induced by chronic stress and significantly changes the brain dynamics of these animals [76].

Melatonin synthesis is also disrupted in patients with bipolar disorder. Melatonin and drug that target melatonin receptors, like ramelteon and tasimelteon, can be a beneficial therapy for bipolar disorder as well [77].

As bipolar disorder is also associated with sleep and mood deregulation, melatonin improves the condition in patients with this problem [77].

However, no studies have yet discovered an effective use for melatonin against any particular mental illness. In clinical trials, melatonin supplements have not improved symptoms of bipolar disorder or depression, though sleep quality was somewhat improved [78, 79].

The most promising results have come in studies on seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression. In two studies, melatonin supplements improved both sleep quality and measures of vitality in patients with SAD. A third study found no such benefit, but it was conducted on a short timeline of only six days [80, 81, 82].

Additional human studies will be required to determine the role of melatonin in mental health.

The role of melatonin in mental health is currently under investigation; researchers have found the most promise for resolving sleep disturbances associated with mental illness.

Melatonin in Alzheimer’s & Dementia

Melatonin helps alleviate symptoms similar to Alzheimer′s and Parkinson′s disease in mice and rats [83]. The use of synthetic melatonin analogs or melatonin-related molecules to block nitric oxide synthase are being evaluated for the treatment of neural diseases ranging from stroke to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease [83].

Positive Results

The treatment of elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) with bright light in the morning and melatonin at night improved their sleep and overall rest [84].

A similar study carried out for several years in the Netherlands showed that combined treatment of an AD patient with bright light and melatonin was beneficial both for rest and mental problems [85].

In humans, both MT1 and MT2 levels are low in elderly patients with Alzheimer’s [86].

In mouse nerve cells, melatonin prevents cell death caused by amyloid beta 25-35, a substance that causes a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease [87].

The decrease in melatonin activity and synthesis may explain in part the disruption of sleep and problems with processing information observed in Alzheimer’s patients [88].

Melatonin’s antioxidant effects were more efficient than Vitamin C in treating the animal model of Alzheimer’s disease. It reduced oxidative stress better than Vitamin E as well [31].

Negative Results

Multiple studies have found no benefit to cognition in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients given melatonin supplements [89, 90].

Melatonin supplementation has also been linked with worsening mood, according to the ratings given by the patients’ caretakers [91].

The potential role of melatonin in managing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is currently under investigation.

Takeaway

Melatonin, a hormone derived from tryptophan, regulates the circadian rhythm of sleep and waking. Clinical research has found potential benefits of melatonin for endometriosis, blood pressure, sunburn, and thrombocytopenia. Additional research is investigating whether melatonin could play a role in tinnitus, gut health, acid reflux, aging, and even fertility.

Animal and cell research has uncovered even more potential functions and applications of melatonin, but additional research is required to understand how these results may apply to humans.

Further Reading

About the Author

Nattha Wannissorn

Nattha Wannissorn

PhD
Nattha received her Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and her undergraduate degree in Molecular and Computational Biology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Aside from having spent 15 years in biomedical research and health sciences, Nattha is also a registered holistic nutritionist, a certified personal trainer, has a precision nutrition level 1 certification, and is a certified functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner. As a holistic practitioner with a strong science background, Nattha is an advocate of science literacy in health topics and self-experimentation.

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