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Medical Files

Melatonin, aging and cancer

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Most people must have heard of or might actually have taken melatonin as a natural sleep aid, especially when experiencing jet lag. It’s a hormone being secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, and it regulates one’s sleeping and waking cycle.

When it’s dark at night, the pineal gland’s secretion of the hormone is stimulated inducing one to become sleepy. Light suppresses its secretion, hence many people can’t sleep with the lights on.

Young people generally have ample supply of melatonin which makes sleeping disorders relatively uncommon in young individuals. As one grows older, the production of the hormone slows down and in the elderly, the level is so low they wake up before the cock crows. They think it’s a normal part of the aging process, but the fact is, their melatonin supply is deficient. Researchers now attribute the weakened resistance and accelerated degenerative problems in the elderly partly due to their deficient melatonin level.

This is also one health risk many call center and other night-shift workers are exposed to. Their normal waking-sleeping cycle is disrupted due to the deranged melatonin secretion. In the daytime when they sleep, their melatonin production can’t be that effective because the needed darkness to stimulate its secretion is absent. This is probably one reason night workers are quite prone to all sorts of illnesses. One study even implicates night work to an increased incidence of breast cancer in women. So the increase in pay for grave-shift workers may not be commensurate to the risk they’re exposing themselves to.

In the ’90s melatonin supplements became very popular in the United States and taking it not only to enhance sleep but to boost the immune system and prevent cancer became a worldwide fad. Manufacturers hyped it as a cure-all and that affected the credibility of the supplement because anything promoted as a panacea is too good to be true. The enthusiasm for melatonin subsequently died down.

Multiple health benefits

Fortunately, some researchers believing in the health benefits of this natural supplement pursued their researches and have shown the multiple health benefits one can derive from it. Scientists now call it as the “multitasking molecule.”

One health benefit of melatonin that is giving many cancer patients hope is its remarkable effect in cancer patients undergoing either chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

An extensive review of studies looking into the benefits of high-dose melatonin supplementation in cancer treatment was recently published in the Anticancer Research Journal.

According to the researchers, the pineal gland and melatonin are involved in the processes of both aging and age-related diseases. They said the decline in the production of melatonin with age may contribute to their predisposition to various illnesses and the potential development of cancers.

In their review of previously published studies on melatonin, it has been shown to inhibit growth of different tumors. Researchers also cited scientific evidences that giving melatonin supplements alone or in combination with other immune system boosters “together with chemoradiotherapy and/or supportive care in cancer patients with advanced solid tumors, has been associated with improved outcomes of tumor regression and survival.”  Patients with advanced cancers survived longer and they were able to tolerate their cancer therapy better with a lower rate of bothersome side effects.

The clinical studies supporting the benefits of melatonin in cancer therapy are no longer isolated or anecdotal evidences. It would probably be worth trying. After all, it has no serious side effects being a natural substance. Somehow, it also reminds us that nature has a remedy for most ailments afflicting men and combining it with the medical breakthroughs discovered by men would make for better medicine.


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