Melatonin is a lot like the tulip. In the mid-17th century, the beautiful bulbs inspired the world’s first speculative bubble, much as the hormone reached star status in the mid-1990s as a substance that could do everything from mitigate jet lag (it can) to reverseaging (it can’t). “Melatonin Madness,” neuroscientists dubbed it, because the hormone’s biologic role was still a mystery. Now, as a result of growing research, they know that the substance not only induces sleep but keeps the brain in order as well.
Melatonin is released by the pineal gland, a small structure in the brain, when darkness falls—signaling to the body that it’s time to rest. Levels remain high throughout the night and decline during the daylight hours. The daily rise and fall of the hormone helps regulate our internal clocks, and its nocturnal activation has earned it the moniker “the Dracula hormone.”
Highly responsive to environmental conditions, the circadian rhythms incited by melatonin influence many bodily functions, from alertness to body temperature to hormone production. Thrown out of whack by travel between time zones or night shift work, the body’s internal timer can undermine performance or create feelings of malaise.