Set deep in our brains is a tiny gland called the pineal gland. This tiny gland is in charge of the endocrine system, the glandular system that controls most of our bodily functions. The pineal runs our body clocks¹, and it produces melatonin; the hormone that may prove to be the biggest medical discovery since penicillin, and the key to controlling the aging process. The pineal gland controls such functions as our sleeping cycle and the change of body temperature that we undergo with the changing seasons. It tells animals when to migrate north and south, and when to grow or shed heavy coats. By slowing down and speeding up their metabolisms, it tells them when to fatten up for hibernation, and when to wake up from hibernation in the spring.
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Melatonin is the hormone that controls not only when we feel sleepy, but the rate at which we age, when we go through puberty, and how well our immune systems fend off diseases. Being set in the middle of our brains, the pineal gland has no direct access to sunlight. Our eyes send it a message of how much sunlight they see, and when it¹s dark. The sunlight prohibits the gland from producing melatonin, so at night, when there¹s no sun, the sleep-inducing hormone is released into our bodies. Because of the pineal gland and melatonin, humans have known to sleep at night and wake during the day since long before the age of alarm clocks.
Humans don¹t produce melatonin right from birth; it is transferred in utero to babies through the placenta. For their first few days of life, babies still have to receive it from breast milk. Our levels of melatonin peak during childhood, and then decrease at the beginning of puberty, so that other hormones can take control of our bodies. As we get older, the amount of melatonin we produce continues to decrease until at age 60, we produce about half as much as we did at age 20. With the rapid decrease from about age 50 on, the effects of old age quickly become more visible and physically evident. With what scientists have recently discovered, we may very soon be able to harness melatonin to slow down aging, fend off disease, and keep us feeling generally healthy and energetic; not to mention the things melatonin can do for us right now like curing insomnia and regulating sleeping patterns, eliminating the effects of jet-lag, and relieving every day stress.
Melatonin is known as the ³regulator of regulators², because it sends out the messages that control the amounts of all the different hormones in our bodies. It is a balance among our different hormones that keeps us healthy, and as we age, our different hormone levels can become unbalanced, which results in aging.
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Everything our bodies do requires energy, from running a mile to sitting still and just breathing. Every cell in our bodies requires at least some energy to function. Within all of our cells are microscopic structures called mitochondria. Mitochondria are considered the powerhouses of the cells, because they convert energy into ATP; the substance which fuels most every cell in our body. In order to create ATP, we need to take in and Œburn¹ oxygen. As we age, our mitochondria age, and as our mitochondria age, their production of ATP slows, which results in the buildup of excess oxygen. This buildup results in the oxidization, (or rusting) of the cells and their different components. This is why when we¹re older, we don¹t have as much energy as when we¹re young. Here¹s where melatonin steps in. Melatonin metabolizes the thyroid hormone (which supplies energy to the mitochondria, among other cell organelles) so that it carries more energy. When the mitochondria receive more power from the thyroid hormone, they can produce more ATP, giving more energy to every cell in our bodies, and they use up all of the oxygen that we take in, so that our cells don¹t begin to oxidize.
There are mitochondria in the cells of the pineal gland, which give it the power to produce and secrete melatonin. Pineal function declines as its cells¹ mitochondria provide it with less ATP, and instead start to produce calcium salt, which calcifies the gland. Calcification is the hardening of the gland (with calcium deposits) which hinders its performance. Once the pineal gland begins to function less perfectly, the production of energy for the entire body is thrown off. Therefore, with age comes less energy, which leads to less melatonin, which leads to less energy and more leftover oxygen, which causes aging. To stop this vicious cycle from beginning, one must only take enough of a dose of melatonin to keep the levels of all the involved hormones where they are when we are young.
That only touches on the surface of what regulated melatonin levels can achieve. The calcification that adversely affects the pineal gland happens elsewhere in the body as the mitochondria in the various types of cells slow down. For example, calcium deposits in the blood vessels leads to hardening of the arteries, which can eventually lead to a stroke or heart attack. These same kinds of calcium deposits are also found in such organs as the heart and brain, and can lead to other complications. The reason that children aren¹t afflicted with these conditions is that levels of melatonin in the human body are at their peak during our childhood.
To sum up, when the pineal can no longer do its job, it results in the breakdown of mitochondria throughout the body, the powerhouses of the cells that regulate energy. When the mitochondria break down, this causes a chain reaction throughout the body that leads to the eventual collapse of all other organ systems. This collapse is what defines aging to us, and melatonin is the tool we can use to prevent it, or at least put it off a while longer.
It is also being said that melatonin is an effective weapon against disease, and can strengthen our immune systems. Part of this is simply logical reasoning when the effects of melatonin on aging are taken into consideration. It is a decline in the functions of our vital organs that leads to many of the diseases known to man. Therefore, when the aging of our individual organs is hindered, as described in the first part of this paper, the diseases that often accompany that aging will no longer be able to do so. Melatonin will also affect various afflictions in the same way as it would affect atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries); with melatonin levels increased, the excess calcium salt that can cause so many problems is no longer present to cause them.
The way in which melatonin effects our actual immune systems is slightly more complex. One main cell of the immune system is the white blood cell. One type of white blood cell is a lymphocyte, and one type of lymphocyte is known as a T cell. T cells are responsible not only for protecting cells against viruses and bacteria, but also for ferreting out possible trouble-making agents within our bloodstream. These cells have to be very finely tuned so that they don¹t attack any of the helpful cells or materials in our bodies. It would be disastrous if our immune system started to kill the cells that make up the tissue of our various organs, or if it attacked the nutrients we derive from the food we eat. This sometimes happens; disorders like this are known as autoimmune diseases.
The reason for autoimmune diseases, and for the greater frequency and severity of illnesses in older people, is the aging of the immune system. Certain T cells have memories, which is why many times after a person has had a particular infection, they are often immune when later exposed to the bacteria that caused the original infection. The main effect of aging on the immune system is that our T cells can no longer remember what cells are harmful to us, and can no longer distinguish our body¹s cells from harmful invading ones. We have suppressor cells, to stop attacks on our own bodies that our immune systems may mistakenly launch. However, when we age, our suppressor cells can fail to work well or at all.
As Melatonin is a hormone secreted by a tiny gland deep in the middle of our heads, but having supplemental doses can accomplish great things for us. We can look forward to such great things as extending the length of our lifetimes. We can live those extra years feeling healthy and young, and with much less threat of illness. We can accomplish such useful and even-more-immediate goals like curing jet-lag, improving the quality of the sleep we get, and cutting down on the stress in our lives by both chemical and emotional means. While the study of melatonin and its many miraculous uses has gone on for many years, it must still go on for many more, to determine with more exactness the effects of the hormone on a long-term basis. However, if it only provides a healthy good night¹s sleep, it¹s a great discovery; but if it will really do all that we think it can, it will be one the greatest medical discoveries of our time.
1. Your Body¹s Natural Wonder Drug: Melatonin, by Russel J. Reiter,Ph.D. and Jo Robinson. Copywrite 1995 Bantam Books, Ny, NY
2. The Melatonin Miracle,
3. Melatonin, by Geoffrey Cowley; Newsweek, Aug. 7, 1995
4. The World Book Encyclopedia, World Book, Inc., 1981, Chicago, Il