Three American researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their discovery of the molecular mechanisms that control our 24-hour rhythm and the ticking of the cellular clocks. Lack of sleep can lead to overweight, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer, which is why it is vital to get to bed at a proper time. If you have difficulty with falling asleep or cannot sleep through the night, supplements of melatonin serves as a natural sleeping pill that comes in handy.
Science has known for long that all living organisms have an inner biological clock that follows the astronomical day, so that they can adjust more easily to a regular rhythm. Although this 24-hour clock (circadian rhythm) is mainly controlled by light and dark, the rotation of the earth also plays a role. In the 1800s, the Frenchman Jean Jaques d’Ortous de Mairan demonstrated that mimosa plants unfold their leaves during the day and close them at night, even when you place them in a dark room devoid of sunlight.
Every single cell in the body knows the time
Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbach, and Michael W. Young, three American researchers, managed to isolate from fruit fly cells the genes that control the biological rhythm. These genes are called clock genes. In the meantime, the scientists have developed a method by which they can observe the biomolecules in high resolution, and they have even found the genetic code for a specific gene that accumulates in the cell at night, after which it is broken down again in the course of the day. This procedure works pretty much like an hourglass that is turned upside down every day at sunset.
Science use to believe that the biological clock was only present in the brain. However, as it turns out, every single cell in the body knows what time it is.
Melatonin plays a major role in the cellular clock
The hormone melatonin is found in all living organisms. In humans, the small pineal gland produces most of our melatonin. This gland is placed at the center of the brain, and melatonin plays a major role in controlling the 24-hour rhythm of cells and an array of physiological processes.
There is a direct nerve connection from the eye to the pineal gland. Since the beginning of time, exposure to light has controlled our release of serotonin while we are awake. Serotonin is a hormone with a number of different physiological functions. At nightfall, serotonin is converted to melatonin. Light exposure, in other words, affects our serotonin production, and darkness affects our melatonin synthesis that evokes drowsiness and a natural sleep with dream activity. Because of this, it is best for us humans to sleep in pitch darkness.
The body needs a regular 24-hour rhythm and sufficient sleep
During our sleep, we digest our food and recover, physically and mentally. Sleep detoxifies our brain by removing toxic compounds, and during the so-called REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), our ability to learn, recollect, and sort impressions improves.
Under normal circumstances, we humans sleep around eight hours every night. What is important is that we sleep through the night and wake up feeling rested and revitalized – both physically and mentally.
Sleep experts assume that 10-15 percent of the population suffers from severe and persistent sleep disturbances. There is even a large grey zone of individuals who simply sleep too little or are unable to get quality sleep. Lack of sleep and disturbances to the cellular clockwork can affect our mood and even increase the risk of various diseases.
It is commonly known that jetlag is unpleasant. Night work and shift work can also upset the entire balance. Our cells need a regular rhythm, one that should ideally follow the astronomical day.
Sleep disturbances and lack of sleep increase the risk of
Melatonin levels in the blood normally increase right after nightfall, and the levels peak between two and four AM. As we age, our pineal gland shrinks, and its melatonin production decreases. Around the age of 60 years, the melatonin production will have decreased to about half the amount produced by a 20-year old person. Studies suggest that this impairs our quality of sleep. Even other factors can impair the natural melatonin synthesis.
Factors that reduce our melatonin production
Melatonin supplements are natural sleeping pills
Melatonin is a natural shortcut to proper sleep. Taking a melatonin supplement compensates for the lack of melatonin in the body, regardless if the deficiency is caused by excess light, night work, shift work, jetlag, or any of the other factors that interfere with the pineal gland’s melatonin release.
Melatonin supplements also compensate for the age-related drop in our melatonin synthesis and the melatonin decrease associated with menopause. That way, melatonin can help us fall asleep at all times of the day and provide us with the necessary sleep that is so important for our health, for our ability to perform, and for our mood.
Melatonin versus sleeping medication
Sleeping pills such as benzodiazepines have a dulling and anesthetic effect on the body, which destroys the essential dream sleep. This type of medicine is also habit-forming and there is a risk of serious side effects, so the drugs should only be used for brief periods.
Melatonin supplements, on the other hand, correct the body’s 24-hour rhythm and restore the natural sleep pattern without side effects.
Melatonin is available in several EU countries
In Denmark, you can only buy melatonin with a prescription. Nonetheless, it is legal to buy and import (for your own consumption) melatonin from other EU countries. It is, however, not legal to import melatonin from countries outside of the EU. In fact, buying melatonin from a non-EU country increases the risk of ending up with a product that does not have a sufficiently high quality.
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