(Naturalhealth365) Researchers have long known that melatonin, a neurotransmitter released by the pineal gland, is vital to a good night’s sleep. Known as the “sleep hormone,” it is becoming increasingly apparent is this substance is first and foremost a “brain hormone.”
Recent studies reveal the link between melatonin and brain health – showcasing the potential of melatonin to delay and even reverse neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, while cutting risk of stroke.
Avoiding Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia with melatonin
Melatonin is found in high levels in the brain and spinal fluid, and is plentiful in the young. But levels decline sharply with age – so that adults over 80 typically have only half the melatonin levels in their spinal fluid as young people.
Scientists have found that patients with Alzheimer’s disease often display the classic symptoms of those who are low in melatonin, such as insomnia, restlessness, poor sleep quality, changes in mood, delirium and “sundowning” – agitation and restlessness that increases as nightfall approaches.
The discovery that melatonin deficiency is an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease helps to provide an important piece of the research puzzle surrounding this debilitating condition.
And, the good news is that supplementing with melatonin helps to fight Alzheimer’s disease by protecting against oxidative stress, reversing inflammatory changes and reducing the damage caused by amyloid beta proteins and tau proteins. (Melatonin also helps lower levels of yet another protein, alpha-synuclein, elevated levels of which are implicated in Parkinson’s disease.)
Bonus: melatonin helps to protect against the damaging effects of aluminum, a neurotoxin associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Landmark studies have yielded exciting results
In a study published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, mice scientifically engineered to get Alzheimer’s disease were divided into two groups, one of which was given melatonin.
By the time they were in late middle age, the mice that had not been given melatonin began to develop the behavioral changes and cognitive deficits seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Intriguingly, their brains began to display the increased oxidation seen in humans with Alzheimer’s disease – before symptoms even emerged.
In contrast, the mice that had been given melatonin not only scored normally on a battery of cognitive and behavioral tests – but showed no physical changes in their brain.
Additional studies showed that melatonin supplementation reduced learning and memory deficits in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease.
Human studies show major benefits as well.
One review of studies published in Current Neuropharmacology showed that Alzheimer’s patients that were given melatonin experienced improved sleep patterns, reduced “sundowning” and delayed the development of cognitive impairment.
Melatonin prevents and alleviates stroke
Melatonin has powerful antioxidant effects that neutralize harmful free radicals and reduce the oxidative damage that can trigger stroke. (Unsurprisingly, low melatonin levels are associated with higher stroke risk.)
But antioxidant power isn’t melatonin’s only weapon against stroke. Melatonin also reduces harmful LDL cholesterol – in one study, by up to 42 percent – and even helps bring elevated blood pressure back to normal.
In addition, melatonin can limit the damage – if a stroke does occur.
In one study, rats with their melatonin-producing pineal glands surgically removed had greater brain damage after strokes and seizures than rats with adequate melatonin levels.
Other animal studies have shown that supplementing with melatonin causes a decrease in the amount of brain tissue affected by stroke, thereby leading to improved outcomes — and more rapid recovery.
And, melatonin has yet another trick up its sleeve when it comes to promoting recovery after stroke.
Studies have shown that it increases neuron plasticity – the ability of brain nerve cells to take over some of the activities of brain cells destroyed or damaged by stroke. In addition, melatonin helps to inhibit the activity of harmful “protein-melting” enzymes, which can cause brain swelling and inflammation.
The takeaway: melatonin not only helps to prevent strokes, but works on a cellular level to limit damage from strokes and traumatic brain injuries.
How can I boost melatonin levels for neuroprotection and improved sleep?
You can boost dietary levels of melatonin by eating healthy amounts of organic tart cherries, grapes, Non-GMO corn and tomatoes.
Here’s a healthy tip: Purslane, a common edible weed also known as Portulaca oleracea, contains 10 to 20 times more melatonin than any other fruit or vegetable on the planet.
Purslane’s crispy leaves and mild, lemony taste make it a refreshing addition to salads and sandwiches. Sometimes sold as a salad green, purslane may also be found growing wild in meadows and lawns.
Of course, as we always suggest, check first with an experienced healthcare provider – for good advice.
As melatonin is synthesized in the body from the amino acid tryptophan, you can also boost your levels by eating tryptophan-rich foods such as pasture-raised poultry, organic (or raw) milk and eggs.
However, supplementation may be needed to maintain optimal melatonin levels – especially if you are of mature years.
For maximum neuroprotective benefit, supplementation should be implemented before brain cells have been damaged, and before symptoms appear.
To promote restful sleep, melatonin should be taken 30 minutes before bedtime.
Researchers have found that certain pharmaceutical drugs – particularly benzodiazepine drugs like Valium and Xanax – deplete melatonin, and drastically raise the odds of developing dementia and premature death!
Keep in mind: melatonin supplementation may help reduce the use of dementia-promoting sleep medications – a powerful benefit. Of course, don’t try to use melatonin to treat any condition without first discussing it with your integrative healthcare provider.
The takeaway is clear – melatonin is much more than a natural sleep aid. From neuroprotective effects to antioxidant capabilities, the “sleep hormone” provides a range of valuable benefits.