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The antioxidant supplement, Melatonin, is not an herb or vitamin, although melatonin supplements are rivaling vitamin C in popularity. Melatonin is a neurohormone produced in the brain by the pineal gland from the amino acid tryptophan. It regulates your sleep-wake cycle and is thought to have powerful antioxidant properties; melatonin has been used successfully to treat sleep disorders, and is being studied for its effectiveness as a treatment for a variety of diseases, including AIDS, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Melatonin production in the body is stimulated by darkness and suppressed by light, and seems to help the body maintain it’s circadian rhythm (know when it is time to sleep and time to wake up). Melatonin supplements have been used to help the blind, who lack light stimulus, maintain a normal sleep pattern. They may also help establish new sleep patterns, and many people find them effective in preventing jet lag or adjusting to night shifts. Several studies have shown that taking 3 milligrams of melatonin before bedtime on the first day of travel and for several days afterward improves alertness and reduces daytime fatigue. Keep in mind that melatonin can really make you very sleepy, and should not be taken during the day or before driving.

Melatonin may help treat a variety of sleep disorders, including Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS), a condition in which people have trouble falling asleep; insomnia in the elderly; and sleep disturbances that result from neurophychiatric disorders such as dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), autism, and epilepsy. Studies have shown that anywhere from 2.5 to 10 milligrams of melatonin taken about an hour before bedtime may be an effective treatment for those suffering from sleep disorders.

Because melatonin acts as an antioxidant, it is being studied as a possible treatment for cancer. It is thought that melatonin may have immune-enhancing, anti-inflammatory, and even cancerous-cell-killing effects in the body. The antioxidant effects of melatonin may enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs and reduce their side effects, but studies in this area are preliminary, and far from conclusive.

However, early results in studies are promising, and seem to indicate that melatonin supplements may lessen the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy, including nerve injury, mouth sores, wasting, and platelet count drops.

Melatonin may prove to be the miracle drug of the future; it is currently being studied as a treatment for high blood pressure, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), smoking cessation, UV skin damage, and Tardive Dyskinesia (TD), a side effect of antipsychotic medications that causes involuntary twitching.

There is no Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for melatonin—it’s manufactured in the body, and isn’t directly available from food. However, foods that are high in the amino acid tryptophan, like turkey, help the body make more melatonin. Synthetic melatonin supplements are also safe and available, and will probably be helpful to those who need to change their sleep patterns or even occasional help falling asleep. Steer clear of “natural” supplements, which are made from cow pineal glands and could contain viruses or impurities. Slow-release melatonin supplements are also available, but may not be as effective as standard quick release formulations in fighting sleep disorders.

A few individuals have reported adverse reactions to melatonin supplements, such as excessive fatigue and nightmares. People taking blood thinners, antiseizure drugs, blood pressure medications, diabetes medications, or hormone replacement therapy should avoid melatonin supplements, as they may interfere with the effectiveness of these medications.

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