Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pineal gland that plays a role in the regulation of the sleep-wake cycle. The pineal is embedded in the brain and receives signals via the optic nerve. Melatonin is secreted by the gland after the body senses darkness at the end of each day to keep our bodies synchronized with the rhythms of day and night. Melatonin is often used as a home remedy for jet lag. Dietary tryptophan is converted to 5-HTP, which in turn can convert to serotonin and then to melatonin. People with diets low in tryptophan or who lack darkness at night may have a functional deficit of serotonin and melatonin, making melatonin supplementation useful. Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant that supports immune system function and is an antagonist to cortisol, the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is partly responsible for many of the classic symptoms of chronic stress, including lack of sleep. As we age, melatonin levels decline, so supplementation is sometimes necessary to provide optimal levels of this important hormone. Scientists believe this melatonin deficit is one reason why older adults have more trouble sleeping than younger people.
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