The Nocturnal Nutrient: Are you getting enough darkness?

Melatonin

In Paradise Lost, John Milton writes, “What hath night to do with sleep?” The answer – everything!

In last month’s blog, we highlighted the vital importance and life-saving benefits that derive from getting the “right kind” of deep sleep. This month, we would like to delve even deeper into the power of sleep, because as Dr. Russel Reiter, a professor in the Department of Cellular and Structural Biology at the University of Texas San Antonio highlights,  “Light is killing you.”

Repercussions For Ignoring A Natural Bedfellow?

As western societies continue to focus on healthier eating habits, trends undoubtedly arise: “eat more kale” is one that immediately comes to mind. But one trend that has still not caught on – to borrow from Benjamin Franklin – is, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Well, maybe not the wealthy part, but if you’re not going to bed early and sleeping during the right hours, then you are not producing the life-saving nocturnal, super-antioxidant, melatonin. And there’s no substitute or food ingredient that can naturally raise melatonin levels – only sleeping at night (darkness).

What’s the evidence?

Decades of reproducible scientific studies have unequivocally demonstrated that men and women who work night shifts are more prone to prostate cancer 1 and breast cancer respectively, while both are genders are increasingly prone to colorectal cancer – something not observed in daytime workers. In 2013 the World Health Organization chimed in, stating that, “Long-term night-shift work in a diverse mix of occupations is associated with increased breast cancer risk.” If a lack of melatonin production can lead to a depleted immune system and sickness and disease, what can a body, refueled nightly with melatonin expect?

Here are my CliffsNotes: Melatonin is a ridiculously powerful antioxidant that can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and cell membrane, it can neutralize up to 10 reactive oxygen or nitrogen species (an attribute that other antioxidants cannot boast), “one melatonin molecule has the potential to scavenge up to 4 or more reactive species.” 2 Melatonin combats inflammation, slows the ageing of your brain, causes cancer cells to commit suicide (known as apoptosis), helps the body identify and attack mutated cells that can lead to cancer, and it can inhibit the proliferation of existing tumors. Perhaps most importantly, “melatonin also promotes the activity of the antioxidative enzyme glutathione peroxidase (the single most powerful antioxidant), thereby further reducing oxidative damage.” 3

Of course, it would take a book to document all the benefits of melatonin, but these benefits give you an idea of melatonin’s power.

Maximizing Your Melatonin Output

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Optimum health is completely dependent on a fine balance of light and sleeping in pure darkness, at night. And depending on the season, if you are not getting a healthy dose of darkness – eight to fourteen hours per day – then you’re not getting all the benefits of melatonin.

This is because of two key factors:

1] Melatonin is the chemical expression of darkness:

When darkness dominates the sky our biological clock interprets this light change, catalyzing the pineal glad to begin production of melatonin.  But, if you are not surrounded by darkness, adequate amounts of melatonin won’t be synthesized.

Expanding on his earlier quote, Dr. Russel Reiter shares these thought provoking words, “Light in particular is inhibitory to it [melatonin]. And by virtue of the fact that melatonin is a strong anti-cancer agent, light is killing you.”

Western countries, he warns, are becoming 24-hour a day societies. Light, encroaching on night’s darkness, is everywhere: buildings, streetlights, traffic lights, car lights, home lights, TVs, computers, mobile phones and tablets, etc. Dr. Reiter adds that only “nighttime levels of melatonin are known to inhibit cancer. So when you are exposed to light at night – you are putting yourself in jeopardy.”

Say you wake up in the middle of the night to relieve yourself or to get a glass of purified water, if you turn on a light – even for a second – your brain will immediately interpret this as day, and immediately the body will begin to suppress melatonin production.  This is why sleeping in complete and utter darkness is so vital to one’s health.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Using a rock salt lamp, say, with a red, yellow, or orange bulb, with a maximum of five watts will preserve your melatonin secretion.

2] Melatonin is time sensitive:

Getting eight or nine hours of sleep per day does not guarantee you’ll receive the nutritional benefits of melatonin.  As mentioned before, sleep alone does not generate melatonin. There is a very specific window of time, between 10 pm and 4 am, which you must be sleeping.

Your main internal organs – the digestive system, gallbladder, and pancreas – all function in synch with nature’s biological clock; this is also known as the circadian rhythm.

Understanding the body’s natural cycle can go a long way in helping you maintain or build up your immune system, fight disease, and stay healthy.

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Scientists and nutritionists are in agreement: melatonin as a life-sustaining, life-saving, healing antioxidant. There is a large caveat however: the melatonin must be natural. Try to avoid purchasing melatonin for these two very important reasons: 1] All supplements are synthetic. 2] If you take too much for too long your brain will become dependent and stop producing melatonin naturally. This could be catastrophic to your health. The best way to harness melatonin is the natural way. Get to bed by 9:30 pm at the latest and be sleeping by 10:00 pm – when melatonin secretion sharply increases.

I know what you’re thinking, “going to bed that early will kill my social life.” Maybe, but not going to bed at the right time may just be slowly killing you too.

Citations: 

1. American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 19-January-2014 “Melatonin May Lower Prostate Cancer Risk”
http://www.aacr.org/home/public—media/aacr-in-the-news.aspx?d=3260

2. Curr Top Med Chem. 2002 Feb;2(2):181-97. Chemical and physical properties and potential mechanisms: melatonin as a broad spectrum antioxidant and free radical scavenger.

3. Exp Gerontol. 1995 May-Aug;30(3-4):199-212.
The pineal gland and melatonin in relation to aging: a summary of the theories and of the data.

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