10 November 1999

The Sandman

by Kate Melville

Melatonin was seen by older people, travellers and some insomniacs as the wonder supplement of the 90's. One of the loudest spiels was to older people and basically played on a fear that as people age their melatonin levels drop leading to less sleep and associated health problems.

Unfortunately those older citizens who have headed the salesman's cry may have been mislead according to a new study from the US National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. This research project which ran over five years studied thirty four healthy older men and women aged sixty five to eighty one and found that their melatonin levels at night didn't vary significantly from those of ninety eight younger men (aged from eighteen to thirty).

All the participants had to be not on any medication, not have insomnia or other sleep complaints and had to forego alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine and keep a sleep journal.

"In our analysis, we did not find any statistically significant difference in night time melatonin concentrations between the young and older subjects, although our study does not address whether melatonin levels change after the eighth decade. This means that in most healthy people, concentrations of melatonin in plasma probably do not decline with aging." said Dr. Czeisler the projects lead researcher.

Melatonin is a hormone that is produced in the pineal gland located deep within the brain. Scientists think that it naturally induces sleep as it's produced at high levels during sleep and is low during the day.

In a direct refutation of most of the advertising for melatonin Dr Jamie Zeitzer says quite caegorically, "The idea that a pineal aging clock winds down as you get older is simply not true. Being older does not cause a person to have low melatonin levels".

So for all of those of you who take melatonin (including most of the Science A Go Go staff when travelling) then remember this:

Commercially available melatonin (ie the stuff we consumers buy) is generally not standardised, regulated or tested. Finally its long-term safety is unknown particularly amongst older people with a variety of health problems.

So our advice to older people is leave melatonin to those jet setting 'road warriors' who will probably die young in a plane crash anyway!