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Could boosting natural hormone melatonin prevent type 2 diabetes?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Low secretion of melatonin linked to type 2 diabetes.

Researchers have found a link between decreased levels of melatonin, a natural hormone made in the body, and type 2 diabetes. Findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), suggest boosting levels of the natural chemical for people who are deficient might help with diabetes prevention.

Why melatonin could be important for thwarting diabetes

The hormone calms the body and is important for sleep. Some people take supplements to aid sleep, as a calmative, to help with smoking cessation and for cluster headaches.

Melatonin supplements are known to interfere with diabetes medications and blood thinners as well as birth control drugs.

The naturally occurring form of the hormone in our bodies is important for the sleep-wake cycles. Without enough melatonin that is produced by the pineal gland in the center of the brain, our biological clocks can get out of sync. Disruption of Circadian rhythm that leads to poor sleep has been linked to weight gain and , insulin resistance in the past. .

Production of the hormone normally declines as we get older, which is one of the reasons sleep can become disturbed with aging. Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant and may play a role in immune function.

Melatonin receptors are found throughout the body, including in the pancreas where insulin is secreted. For that reason, the hormone also plays a role in controlling insulin resistance and weight.

Researchers for the current study found people with lower melatonin levels at night are more likely to have insulin resistance that is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Until now, there was no known link between diabetes and levels of the hormone.

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The study

Ciaran J. McMullan, M.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, and colleagues conducted the study to find out if there is a link between melatonin secretion and type 2 diabetes; taken from an analysis of participants who within the Nurses' Health Study cohort.

After adjusting for a variety of factors, the researchers found people with lower melatonin secretion were 2.2 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, compared to those with higher levels.

Women whose melatonin secretion was lowest were more than twice as likely to develop diabetes compared to participants in the highest category.

One way to naturally boost melatonin is exposure to dark. A recommendation to facilitate better sleep is to turn the lights down in the home beginning at dusk to start the process. Get outside for some bright light during the day. Open the blinds and windows when you are indoors. For shift workers who try to sleep during the day, melatonin supplements and room darkening may be important.

The study authors note the finding does not prove decreased melatonin secretion leads to type 2 diabetes. More studies are needed to see if supplementing with the hormone or increasing exposure to darkness for those at risk would increase insulin sensitivity and prevent diabetes. For now, diet and lifestyle are still the best known approaches for preventing diabetes.

JAMA. 2013;309(13):1388-1396
April 2, 2013

Image credit: Morguefile