Understanding Melatonin: Insights from Dr. Russell Reiter

Written by: Mécène Market

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Time to read 15 min

Medical Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is based on a YouTube interview and is intended for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.

Melatonin, often called the "sleep hormone," is a natural substance that helps control sleep and other important functions in the body. It plays a key role in our daily rhythms, affecting when we feel sleepy, our mood, and even some seasonal behaviors.


Dr. Russell Reiter is a well-known expert in melatonin research. He has spent many years studying this important hormone and has made many important discoveries. Dr. Reiter's work provides deep insights into how melatonin helps keep us healthy.


This article is based on an interview with Dr. Reiter on the YouTube channel "Chris Beat Cancer," titled "Dr. Russell Reiter on the Miraculous Benefits of Melatonin." Everything in this article comes from that interview. 


We will cover what melatonin is, its health benefits, how much to take, and its role in treating various conditions. Whether you want to know how melatonin works, its benefits, or its role in health, this article will help you understand melatonin through Dr. Reiter's expert views.

"Melatonin is a very interesting and multifunctional molecule. It is very old, existing in every species currently living or ever existed."

What is Melatonin and Its Importance?

Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland in the brain. Often called the "sleep hormone," it helps control when you fall asleep and wake up. Dr. Aaron Lerner discovered melatonin in 1958, and it has been studied extensively since then.

Role of Melatonin in the Human Body


Melatonin does many important things in the body:


  1. Sleep Regulation: Melatonin levels increase in the evening, signaling your body that it's time to sleep. This helps you fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
  2. Antioxidant Properties: Melatonin protects cells from damage by fighting harmful molecules called free radicals. This helps keep you healthy and may prevent diseases like cancer.
  3. Immune System Support: Melatonin helps the immune system work better, protecting you from infections and illnesses. It also has antiviral properties, making it helpful in fighting viruses.
  4. Reproductive Health: Melatonin helps regulate menstrual cycles and overall reproductive health in women. It also helps the developing baby during pregnancy.
Woman in bed drinking melatonin to induce sleep

Circadian Rhythms and Seasonal Reproduction

Your body has natural processes called circadian rhythms, which follow a 24-hour cycle and are influenced by light and darkness. Melatonin is crucial in regulating these rhythms.


  • Circadian Rhythms: Melatonin production increases when it gets dark, helping you feel sleepy. This helps maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle, which is essential for good health.
  • Seasonal Reproduction: In many animals, melatonin helps control reproduction based on the season. The amount of melatonin produced changes with the length of the night, which varies throughout the year. While this is less important in humans, it shows how melatonin helps animals adapt to seasonal changes.

Dr. Russell Reiter's Journey into Melatonin Research

Dr. Russell Reiter is a highly respected professor of cell biology, known for his extensive research on melatonin. He holds four honorary MD degrees and one honorary Doctor of Science degree. 


Over his long career, Dr. Reiter's work has been widely cited in medical and scientific literature, making him one of the leading experts in the field of melatonin research

How Dr. Reiter Got Into Melatonin Research

Dr. Reiter's interest in melatonin began somewhat unexpectedly. Melatonin was discovered in 1958 by Dr. Aaron Lerner, and initially, Dr. Reiter did not see it as an interesting topic. However, his perspective changed during his time in the military. 


In the early 1960s, there was a focus on long-distance space travel, and researchers were exploring ways to help astronauts hibernate during long missions. 


Dr. Reiter was part of a team tasked with isolating a substance that could induce hibernation. This research led him to melatonin, which was found to play a role in regulating hibernation, although it is not the hibernating factor itself. This experience sparked his lifelong interest in studying melatonin.

Key Milestones in His Career

  1. Early Research: After his initial exposure to melatonin research in the military, Dr. Reiter continued to explore its functions and effects. He discovered that melatonin is produced by the pineal gland at night and plays a key role in regulating circadian rhythms in all vertebrate species.
  2. Melatonin and Sleep: Dr. Reiter's research highlighted melatonin's importance in regulating sleep. He found that melatonin levels rise in the evening, helping signal the body that it is time to sleep. This work helped establish melatonin as a critical component of healthy sleep patterns.
  3. Antioxidant Properties: Dr. Reiter discovered that melatonin is a powerful antioxidant, protecting cells from damage caused by free radicals. This finding expanded the understanding of melatonin's benefits beyond sleep regulation, showing its potential in preventing various diseases.
  4. Cancer Research: Dr. Reiter's studies demonstrated that melatonin has anti-cancer properties, inhibiting tumor growth and supporting the immune system. His work has been pivotal in exploring melatonin as a potential treatment for cancer.
  5. Publications and Citations: Throughout his career, Dr. Reiter has published numerous papers on melatonin, which have been cited over 173,000 times. He has co-edited major journals on melatonin research, including the "Journal of Pineal Research" and "Melatonin Research."
  6. Ongoing Research: Even in his 80s, Dr. Reiter continues to contribute to melatonin research, exploring its potential benefits in treating diseases like COVID-19, reducing ischemia-reperfusion injury, and supporting reproductive health.

Initial Discoveries About Melatonin

Early Findings About Melatonin's Production in the Pineal Gland

Melatonin was first discovered in 1958 by Dr. Aaron Lerner, a dermatologist who identified it while researching the pineal gland. Early research revealed that melatonin is produced in the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland located in the brain.


The production of melatonin is directly influenced by the presence of light; it is produced in larger quantities during the night and reduced during the day.


Dr. Russell Reiter's research further elucidated that melatonin production is part of a daily cycle, aligning with the natural light-dark cycle of the environment. This cyclic production helps regulate various bodily functions, particularly those related to sleep.

Melatonin's Role as a Circadian and Seasonal Signal

Melatonin plays a crucial role in regulating circadian rhythms—the natural, internal processes that follow a 24-hour cycle.


These rhythms are essential for maintaining consistent sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature, and other vital functions.


  • Circadian Rhythms: Melatonin levels rise in the evening as it gets dark, signaling to the body that it is time to prepare for sleep. This helps establish a regular sleep-wake cycle, which is essential for overall health. During the day, light exposure suppresses melatonin production, helping to keep you awake and alert.
  • Seasonal Signal: In many animals, melatonin also acts as a seasonal signal. The duration of melatonin production changes with the length of the night, which varies with the seasons. Longer nights in winter lead to prolonged melatonin production, while shorter nights in summer reduce melatonin levels. This seasonal variation helps regulate reproductive cycles and other seasonal behaviors in animals.

Although humans are less influenced by seasonal changes compared to other animals, the seasonal role of melatonin underscores its importance in adapting to environmental changes.

Melatonin Research History


The discovery of melatonin in 1958 marked the beginning of a new era in understanding the pineal gland and its functions. Initial studies focused on its production and role in regulating sleep.


Over time, researchers like Dr. Russell Reiter expanded the scope of melatonin research, uncovering its antioxidant properties and potential health benefits.


  • 1960s: Early studies identified melatonin's production in the pineal gland and its regulation by light exposure. Researchers began exploring its effects on sleep and circadian rhythms.
  • 1970s and 1980s: Studies expanded to investigate melatonin's role in seasonal reproduction in animals and its potential effects on human health. Dr. Reiter's work during this period highlighted melatonin's antioxidant properties and its potential to protect cells from damage.
  • 1990s and 2000s: Research focused on melatonin's potential therapeutic uses, including its anti-cancer properties and benefits for the immune system. Dr. Reiter and other scientists published numerous studies exploring these aspects.
  • Recent Years: Ongoing research continues to explore melatonin's potential benefits in treating various diseases, including COVID-19, and its role in maintaining overall health and delaying age-related conditions.
Melatonin

Melatonin and Sleep: How Does It Work?

Mechanism of Melatonin in Regulating Sleep

Melatonin plays a vital role in regulating sleep by controlling the body's circadian rhythms. These rhythms are essentially the body's internal clock, which governs the sleep-wake cycle over a 24-hour period. The production of melatonin increases as darkness falls, signaling to the body that it is time to prepare for sleep.


  • Light and Darkness: When the sun sets and it gets dark, the pineal gland starts producing melatonin. This hormone then enters the bloodstream and binds to receptors in the brain to reduce alertness and make sleep more inviting. Conversely, exposure to light in the morning suppresses melatonin production, helping you wake up and stay alert during the day.
  • Sleep Regulation: By increasing melatonin levels in the evening and decreasing them in the morning, melatonin helps regulate the timing of sleep and maintains a regular sleep-wake cycle. This cycle is crucial for good health as it influences various bodily functions, including hormone release, digestion, and body temperature.

What is a Sleep Gate?

Dr. Reiter explains the concept of the "sleep gate," which is a window of time during the evening when the body is most ready to fall asleep. Melatonin helps to open this sleep gate, making it easier to transition from wakefulness to sleep. Here's how it works:


  • Timing: The sleep gate typically opens a few hours before your usual bedtime. During this period, melatonin levels are high, and your body's physiological functions start to slow down, preparing you for sleep.
  • Optimal Conditions: Melatonin is most effective in opening the sleep gate when taken at the right time, usually 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed. This timing helps align your internal clock with your desired sleep schedule.

Understanding and utilizing the sleep gate can help improve sleep quality and ensure that you fall asleep more easily.

Why Melatonin Works Differently for Everyone?


While melatonin is widely used to help with sleep, its effectiveness can vary significantly from person to person. Several factors contribute to this variability:


  • Timing of Intake: Melatonin must be taken at the correct circadian time to be effective. Taking it too early or too late can reduce its effectiveness in promoting sleep.
  • Individual Differences: Genetics, age, lifestyle, and overall health can affect how well melatonin works for different individuals. For instance, older adults may have lower natural melatonin levels and might benefit more from supplementation.
  • Sleep Disorders: People with certain sleep disorders, such as insomnia or delayed sleep phase syndrome, may experience different levels of effectiveness when using melatonin. Some may find it very helpful, while others may need additional treatments or adjustments to their sleep hygiene.
A brain with a clock ticking with a background halved between day and night

How Artificial Light Affects Melatonin Production

Artificial light, particularly blue light from screens and LED lights, can significantly disrupt melatonin production. Here's how:


  • Suppression of Melatonin: Exposure to artificial light in the evening and at night suppresses the production of melatonin, tricking the brain into thinking it's still daytime. This can delay the onset of sleep and reduce sleep quality.
  • Circadian Rhythm Disruption: Constant exposure to artificial light can disrupt the body's natural circadian rhythms, leading to irregular sleep patterns, difficulty falling asleep, and unrefreshed waking up.

Importance of Natural Light Patterns

Natural light patterns play a crucial role in regulating melatonin production and maintaining healthy circadian rhythms:


  • Morning Light: Exposure to natural light in the morning helps signal to your body that it's time to wake up, suppressing melatonin production and boosting alertness.
  • Evening Light: As the day progresses and natural light diminishes, melatonin production begins, preparing the body for sleep. Maintaining this natural light-dark cycle is essential for good sleep hygiene.

How To Enhance Melatonin Production

To enhance melatonin production and improve sleep quality, consider these practical tips:


  1. Limit Evening Light Exposure: Reduce exposure to artificial light in the evening, especially blue light from screens. Use dim, warm lighting instead.
  2. Use Blue Light Filters: Install blue light filters on your devices or use glasses that block blue light to minimize its impact on melatonin production.
  3. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to support your body's natural circadian rhythm.
  4. Get Morning Sunlight: Spend time outside in the morning to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
  5. Create a Dark Sleep Environment: Make your bedroom as dark as possible using blackout curtains or a sleep mask to promote melatonin production.

Health Benefits of Melatonin

Antioxidant Properties of Melatonin


Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. These molecules can harm cells and contribute to aging and diseases like cancer. By neutralizing free radicals, melatonin helps maintain cellular health and prevent oxidative stress.


Anti-Cancer Effects and Tumor Growth Inhibition


Research shows that melatonin has significant anti-cancer properties:


  • Inhibits Tumor Growth: Melatonin can slow down the growth of tumors and may even shrink them. It interferes with cancer cell metabolism and promotes cancer cell death.
  • Supports Conventional Treatments: Melatonin may enhance the effectiveness of conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation by making cancer cells more sensitive to these therapies.

Benefits for the Immune System and Overall Health

Melatonin also plays a critical role in supporting the immune system:


  • Boosts Immune Function: It helps regulate immune responses, making the body more efficient at fighting off infections and diseases.
  • Antiviral Properties: Melatonin has been found to have antiviral effects, which can help protect against viruses like COVID-19.
  • General Health: Melatonin contributes to overall health and well-being by supporting sleep, reducing oxidative stress, and boosting immune function.

Melatonin and the Aging Process


Decrease in Melatonin Levels with Age


As people age, their natural production of melatonin decreases. This decline can lead to disruptions in sleep patterns, reduced sleep quality, and increased susceptibility to various health issues.


Potential to Delay Age-Related Diseases


Melatonin supplementation may help delay the onset of age-related diseases:


  • Neurodegenerative Diseases: Melatonin's antioxidant properties can protect brain cells, potentially reducing the risk of diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
  • Cardiovascular Health: By reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, melatonin can support heart health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
An elderly woman drinking melatonin capsules

Personal Insights from Dr. Reiter's Long-Term Melatonin Use

Dr. Russell Reiter has been taking melatonin for 28 years and believes it has significantly contributed to his overall health and longevity. 


He suggests that melatonin supplementation can help maintain good health as people age, supporting sleep and immune function and protecting against age-related diseases. 


Dr. Reiter's personal experience underscores the potential benefits of long-term melatonin use for aging individuals.

Recommended Dosage of Melatonin

Typical Doses for Sleep and Other Health Conditions


For adults, typical melatonin doses range from 1 to 5 mg, taken about 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime to help with sleep. For other health conditions, higher doses may be recommended based on individual needs and under medical supervision.


Dr. Reiter's Personal Dosage Regimen


Dr. Reiter has been taking melatonin for many years, and his current regimen is higher than typical doses due to his focus on its antiviral and general health benefits. He currently takes about 100 mg nightly, especially to support his immune system against COVID-19.


As melatonin levels naturally decline with age, older adults might benefit from higher doses to maintain good sleep and overall health. It's important to adjust the dosage based on individual health status and consult with a healthcare provider.

Melatonin's Role in Treating Diseases

Current Research on Melatonin for COVID-19 and Other Diseases


Recent studies have explored melatonin's potential in treating COVID-19 due to its antiviral properties and ability to support the immune system. Research indicates that melatonin might reduce the severity of infections, shorten hospital stays, and decrease mortality rates.


Melatonin's Benefits in Severe Illnesses and Immune Support


Melatonin can help manage severe illnesses by boosting immune responses, reducing inflammation, and protecting cells from oxidative stress. This makes it beneficial for conditions like sepsis, heart attacks, and strokes.


Potential for Reducing Ischemia-Reperfusion Injury


Ischemia-reperfusion injury occurs when blood supply returns to tissue after a period of ischemia or lack of oxygen, causing significant damage. Melatonin's antioxidant properties can help mitigate this damage, improving outcomes in heart attacks and strokes.

Blue Blocker Glasses and Melatonin Production

Effectiveness of Blue Blocker Glasses


Blue blocker glasses can help reduce the impact of artificial blue light on melatonin production. They are particularly useful in the evening to minimize melatonin suppression and support better sleep.


Advice on Avoiding Blue Light


To enhance melatonin production:

  • Use blue blocker glasses in the evening.
  • Reduce screen time before bed.
  • Install blue light filters on devices.
  • Maintain a dark sleep environment.

Dr. Reiter's Views on Blue Blocker Glasses


Dr. Reiter supports the use of blue blocker glasses but notes that they should be wraparound style for maximum effectiveness. He also emphasizes the importance of overall good sleep hygiene and reducing light exposure at night.

Woman sleeping beside her blue blocker glasses

Infrared Light and Melatonin Production

Emerging Research on Infrared Light and Melatonin


Recent studies suggest that infrared light can stimulate melatonin production in cells. This emerging field of research highlights the potential benefits of infrared light for enhancing melatonin levels.


Infrared saunas and other devices may help increase melatonin production, offering benefits for sleep, antioxidant protection, and overall health.


Infrared light penetrates deep into the body, stimulating melatonin production directly within cells. This can enhance melatonin's protective effects throughout the body.

Exciting Melatonin Research and Facts

Melatonin's Role in Reducing Ischemia-Reperfusion Injury


Research shows that melatonin can reduce damage from ischemia-reperfusion injury, which occurs during heart attacks and strokes, by neutralizing harmful free radicals.


Melatonin can support reproductive health in aging women by protecting eggs from oxidative damage and potentially delaying menopause-related changes.


Continued research on melatonin aims to uncover more of its benefits, including its potential in treating various diseases, supporting mental health, and enhancing overall well-being.

Potential Side Effects and Contraindications

Melatonin is generally safe with minimal side effects, such as mild dizziness or sleepiness. Most people tolerate it well.


There are rare reports of adverse effects, such as severe diarrhea or gynecomastia (breast development in men). However, these instances are extremely uncommon.


Compared to medications like aspirin, which can cause serious side effects, melatonin is much safer. Aspirin toxicity can lead to gastric ulcers and even death, while melatonin has no known lethal dose.

Optimal Melatonin Dose for Cancer Patients

The optimal dose of melatonin for cancer patients can vary based on the type of cancer, patient age, and overall health. Doses as high as 120-150 mg per day have been suggested in some studies.


While research is ongoing, current evidence supports the use of higher doses of melatonin for cancer patients under medical supervision to potentially inhibit tumor growth and enhance the effectiveness of other treatments.


Melatonin's antioxidant and immune-boosting properties make it a valuable adjunct in cancer treatment and prevention, potentially reducing the risk of metastasis and improving patient outcomes.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

Summary of Key Points


  • Melatonin regulates sleep, acts as an antioxidant, and supports the immune system.
  • It is crucial during pregnancy and early development for setting circadian rhythms. 
  • Melatonin's benefits extend to aging, disease treatment, and overall health.


Final Thoughts from Dr. Reiter on Melatonin's Potential


Dr. Reiter emphasizes melatonin's wide-ranging benefits and its potential to improve health and prevent diseases. He advocates for its broader use and further research to fully understand its capabilities.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Dr. James Pendleton

Dr. James Pendleton is a primary care physician specializing in a naturopathic approach to family medicine. He has nurtured a family practice in Seattle, directed a VIP medical center in Abu Dhabi, published several books and scientific articles, and designed innovative nutritional supplements for manufacturers worldwide.

REFERENCES

Chrisbeatcancer. (2023b, January 7). Dr. Russel Reiter on the Miraculous Benefits of Melatonin [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YU9QUbsqrcQ