The body’s own melatonin production is essential to circadian rhythm regulation, and the maintenance of daily sleep-wake cycles, but research also shows that this hormone plays a role in preventing a number of preventable diseases.
Recent years have seen a flurry of studies showing the protective and therapeutic benefits of melatonin in the fight against the most significant chronic diseases of our time—heart disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes. It’s role as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, as an anti-tumor agent, and its importance in maintaining circadian clock timing are some of the critical ways melatonin appears to have a far-reaching impact on health and disease, especially as we age.
Melatonin protects cardiovascular health. Melatonin has powerful antioxidant capabilities. Antioxidants work to protect cells and genes from damage, which can lead to dysfunction and the onset of disease. Antioxidant action reduces harmful inflammation and limits cellular and DNA damage from a process known as “oxidative stress,” which occurs when volatile chemicals known as “free radicals” proliferate in the body. Substances that function as antioxidants can neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals to hurt the integrity and proper functioning of cells and genes.
Still, other recent research has shown melatonin may complicate risk for diabetes by interfering with insulin, a hormone that helps cells access glucose from the bloodstream, thereby regulating blood sugar levels. Elevating levels of melatonin may in some people may reduce the ability of specialized cells to release insulin, leading to higher blood sugar levels. These insulin-limiting effects of melatonin were shown to be particularly strong in people with a specific genetic variation that affects melatonin receptor cells. That same genetic variation has also been linked to higher risk for type 2 diabetes.