Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland (the size of a pea), located between the two hemispheres of the brain. Melatonin helps regulate natural sleep patterns and biorhythms, but is also distributed throughout the body. The pineal gland doesn't just produce melatonin, but is the richest area of serotonin production in the brain.
Serotonin converts to melatonin and works to regulate the function of all organs of the Endocrine System including the Pituitary Gland, the Thyroid and Parathyroid glands, the Thymus, Pancreas and the Ovaries and Testes. Every endocrine organ and gland secrete their hormones to the blood, where the pituitary gland stimulates the secretion of these hormones, then the pineal gland regulates the amount of melatonin to counteract the level of hormones that are too high. If melatonin drops too low, the pineal gland will convert available serotonin to melatonin to assist with REM sleep.
Melatonin works in balance with Cortisol, a hormone excreted by the adrenal gland that is involved in proper glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure, insulin release, the inflammatory and immune response, and is the body's 'fight or flight'
response to stress. Both Cortisol and Melatonin are involved in our circadian rhythms and regulate the sleep and waking states. In the morning, Cortisol levels are highest while Melatonin is low, and as darkness falls, the highpoint of Melatonin
production occurs while Cortisol levels are at their lowest levels.
However, as we age, the production of Melatonin decreases and shifts to later hours while the production of Cortisol increases and peaks earlier. This can cause shorter sleep durations.
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How Some Medications can Alter Melatonin
Many medications alter melatonin production. SSRIs, sleeping pills, benzodiazepines, alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, anti-inflammatory medications, many cardiovascular medications, steroids, aspirin and ibuprofen all suppress or deplete melatonin secretion. This disruption in the Melatonin/Cortisol balance often results in interrupted sleep patterns.
Melatonin also controls the timing and release of the female reproductive hormones, and helps determine when menstruation cycles start and when menopause begins. Melatonin also stimulates cells called osteoblasts that promote bone growth. Depleted levels of Melatonin may contribute to the development of osteoporosis, increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy and heart disease.
SSRIs, Benzodiazepines and Sleeping pills initially increase melatonin production, but the rebound effect is actually reduced levels and less production. Additionally, SSRIs allow too much serotonin to accumulate in the pineal gland thereby forcing it to over-produce melatonin from the excess serotonin during the day. This excess production also increases the levels of melatonin in the eyes, and could correlate to visual/eye problems. This may help to explain the light sensitivity, spots and blurred vision that many antidepressant and benzodiazepine users report. SSRIs then deplete and interfere with the normal absorption of melatonin throughout the body, which can also lead to hormonal issues.
Continued use of Benzodiazepines and Sleeping Pills interfere with the natural Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep stages where dreaming occurs. But SSRIs can also interrupt the normal REM stages and can cause vivid and troubling dreams that carry into the conscious state. During the night, we shift from the predominant non-rapid eye movement (NREM) dreamless sleep to short segments of REM where dreams occur. Both NREM and REM sleep cycles are necessary to have restorative effects. But sleep medications and benzodiazepines dramatically reduce the length of time we spend in the dream stage and instead keep us in a light dreamless sleep.
Natural sleep doesn't just support physical health, but has a profound effect on our brain as it organizes and archives memories, and is essential to the creative process.
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