If there is indeed a Fountain of Youth, it’s probably located right between your ears: a tiny conical gland at the centre of your brain known as the pineal gland. As fountains go, the pineal gland isn’t very productive: It releases almost undetectable minute quantities of a substance known as melatonin into the bloodstream. But as researchers have learned more about this mysterious and elusive hormone, they have discovered that it has far-reaching effects on some of our most basic bodily processes. In fact, drop for drop, melatonin may be one of the most powerful hormones in the body.

Connected by a direct nerve pathway to the eyes, the pineal gland produces melatonin when darkness falls, helping to regulate the basic daily rhythms of our bodies. The initial clinical studies of melatonin focused on problems related to sleep and daily cycles, for example those that affected travelers and shift workers. But as researchers began to look more closely at melatonin, they found that it also has long-term effects on the body. And they are now learning that it may be useful to treat a variety of diseases that, at first glance seem unrelated. Here’s why:

One of the most common sources of cellular damage comes from a chemical process called oxidation. In common everyday experience, oxidation causes iron to rust, paint to fade and oil to go rancid. At the cellular level, it causes damage by breaking down the complex and delicate chemical compounds that are necessary to life and health. These chemical attacks can cause a range of health problems, from wrinkled skin to heart disease. And by damaging the DNA of cells, this process can promote cancer by triggering the transformation of a healthy cell into a cancerous one.

It turns out that melatonin may be useful for preventing and treating such diseases because it is one of the most powerful antioxidants ever discovered. When it’s present in cells, it prevents the chemical damage of oxidation from occurring. By blocking oxidation, melatonin may help prevent the changes in blood vessels that lead to hypertension and heart attacks, and may reduce the likelihood of certain kinds of cancer. (In fact, clinical trials are already under way in the United States to study its effectiveness in preventing and treating breast cancer.)

What’s more, the discovery of melatonin’s antioxidant properties has led to a new way of thinking about aging. Scientists have recognized for years that these kinds of health problems are intimately connected with the aging process, but until now they didn’t know why. As researchers learn more about melatonin’s role in preventing cellular damage throughout the body, many of them are moving toward a radically new view: They believe that many, if not most, such age-related health problems are caused by declining levels of melatonin. Natural levels of melatonin decrease as we get older, and it appears this decline may leave our bodies less able to prevent and repair damage caused by oxidation.

So beyond all of these specific health benefits of melatonin lies the biggest promise of all: It appears that melatonin and the pineal gland control the aging clock itself, and that we can use melatonin to slow down the process.

That is more than blue sky speculation. Animal studies have already shown a powerful link between levels of melatonin in the blood and clinical signs of old age. In fact, these studies have revealed that it is possible to influence the aging process – and even extend the normal lifespan of lab animals – by manipulating the animals’ production of melatonin. Already these researchers have used pineal gland transplants to extend the animals’ lifespan by as much as 25 per cent. (In humans, that means you could expect to be healthy and active until your hundredth birthday – or even beyond.)


Among antioxidant, melatonin is unique for a couple of reasons. First it is the most efficient one ever discovered, and it’s especially effective against the so-called “-OH” radicals – those by-products of oxidation that contain an oxygen and hydrogen compound that makes them especially active.

Second, melatonin is by all evidence completely harmless to the body. No matter how high the levels, it apparently causes no side effects other than drowsiness. And unlike other antioxidants, which can become chemically unstable once they combine with free radicals, melatonin remains stable. As other antioxidants break down and release the radicals back into the environment, this process can actually accelerate cellular damage under some conditions.

Within the cell, melatonin gives special protection to the nucleus – the central structure that contains the DNA. By protecting DNA, melatonin protects the integrity of the cell’s “blueprint”. A cell with structural damage but intact DNA can usually repair itself easily, but a cell with damaged DNA often cannot fix even minor damage. This affinity for the nucleus suggests a particular ability to protect against chromosomal damage that can result in cancer.


As a master hormone, , melatonin helps keep the immune system in tune. However it works on the immune system in a roundabout way. When the body’s defenses aren’t under attack, the hormone has no apparent effect on the immune system. Rather, melatonin kicks in when the immune system is stressed (whether by infection, cancer or daily living) and helps restore equilibrium and keep it functioning at optimal levels. In short, melatonin affects the immune system only when the system is “on alert”.

There’s ample evidence, from the field and the lab, of the close relationship between melatonin and immunity. For example, most immune functions follow 24-hour rhythms. They can be thrown off by jet lag and shift work, leaving us more prone to infection. Also, according to one study, we tend to produce more infection-fighting white blood cells when day lengths are longer (suggesting one reason why we might be more prone to flu and colds in the winter months when the days are short). Like other rhythms in the body, these immune rhythms can be re-set by melatonin. People who are depressed have been found to have lowered immunity – and depression is linked to disturbances of melatonin rhythms.

In further studies, melatonin has been shown to have dramatic effects on the thymus, one of the fundamental organs of the immune system. It is here that T-cells – one of the key elements in the body’s defenses against invasion – are manufactured.

Not only does melatonin appear to fight several types of cancer, but we may be able to use it to control the aging clock itself.

It appears that the thymus undergoes a curious transformation as we age: It grows steadily larger as we approach puberty, and then begins to shrivel in upon itself until, in old age, it has virtually disappeared. As the thymus gradually declines, so does our infection-fighting ability. Melatonin seems to protect the thymus and improve its functioning as we grow older.

Additional experiments have shown that melatonin can counteract the effects of stress on the immune system. Many of the diseases of old age are caused by an immune system that isn’t working well. The gradual decline of the immune system explains why we become more susceptible to cancer and infection in old age. But it also explains some other diseases of aging. For example, we now know that at least some types of diabetes and arthritis are caused by irregularities in the immune system: the body fails to recognize its own cells and attacks them as it would a foreign invader.

Thus, melatonin’s influence over the immune system is a function of its broader role in controlling the aging process. In fact, medical researchers are beginning to view aging and immunity as two sides of the same coin, with significant implications of future research directions in both fields. For example, it may one day be possible to treat many diseases of aging by manipulating the immune system.

In all of this, the role of the pineal gland – and by extension, the role of light – has taken on new importance in our understanding of how we prevent and fight off disease. The day may not be far off when a prescription from the doctor may read: “Take ten hours of sunlight, and two hours of darkness, before bedtime”.


Researchers believe that melatonin protects against cancer in at least three ways:

• As an antioxidant, melatonin works directly to neutralize the by-product of oxidation which can cause cells to become cancerous by damaging their DNA.
• By stimulating the immune system, melatonin may also help the body kill off cancer cells in the very earliest stage, before they can reproduce and spread.
• As a master hormone, melatonin regulates the production of estrogen, testosterone and possibly other hormones that promote the growth of some kinds of cancerous tumours.

In other words, melatonin appears to work on one level to prevent the formation and spread of cancer cells, and on a more specific level against certain kinds of tumours – especially tumours related to the reproductive system. Most research into melatonin as an anti-cancer agent now focuses on these kinds of tumours.

As medical researchers begin to understand the role of these sex hormones in the promotion of cancer growth, they have developed new types of treatments. One of the most significant breakthroughs in the treatment of breast cancer, for example, is tamoxifen and related drugs. These drugs act as “anti-estrogens,” blocking the effects of estrogen and so helping slow the rate at which estrogen-promoted tumours grow. Studies are now under way to determine whether such drugs can also prevent these cancers from forming in the first place.

The discovery of estrogen’s role in promoting these tumours suggests that melatonin may be a useful part of the treatment regimen. As part of its role as the body’s time-keeper, melatonin affects the reproductive cycle. In seasonally breeding animals, in fact, changing melatonin levels control reproductive rhythms and determine when the animals go into heat. It has similar, though more subtle, effects on human reproductive cycles as well; in fact, humans are more fertile in certain seasons.

The melatonin connection may help explain a long-standing mystery about breast cancer: its seasonality. Melatonin levels are generally higher in the winter time (at least in the northern latitudes) as a consequence of day length. More cases of breast cancer are detected in the months before winter, when melatonin levels are lower.

Melatonin’s influence over the reproductive hormones has sparked considerable interest in its potential therapeutic uses. For example, it’s now being evaluated as an aid to contraception. Similarly, its ability to influence reproductive systems may make it an effective treatment for hormone-dependent cancers, and several clinical studies are under way to explore its ability to enhance other anti-cancer drugs. Some of them have already shown that when melatonin is combined with tamoxifen, it enhances its effectiveness against cancer cells cultured in the laboratory.

It has been seen how such a combination worked in human patients. In the Netherlands, a large study of melatonin’s potential to prevent breast cancer was launched in 1991, and took a decade to complete. And the findings suggest that melatonin is a part of the standard arsenal used to treat and prevent some forms of breast cancer, and that it also enhance the properties of other anti-cancer agents, making it possible to use less toxic doses.

Cancer of the endometrium – the lining of the uterus – is another hormone-dependent cancer, and it too may be linked to abnormalities of melatonin production.

The evidence is circumstantial but significant: Endometrial hyperplasia, a change in this tissue that many believe is a precursor to cancer, is diagnosed more frequently in the winter time. In addition, anovulation, the lack of ovulation, which is also a risk factor for endometrial cancer, is more common in winter months. Further, the risk of endometrial cancer rises during and after menopause, when melatonin production drops off dramatically. And finally, obesity and diabetes, additional risk factors for endometrial cancer, are also associated with impaired melatonin rhythms.

In men, certain kinds of prostate cancer are similarly stimulated by testosterone. Here, too, melatonin has the potential to protect against these cancers by regulating testosterone production.

Melatonin deficiencies have been linked to other cancers as well, including Ehrlich’s tumours, sarcomas and fibrosarcomas, and melanoma. Melatonin has reportedly improved symptoms and extended survival times for patients with lung cancer, stomach cancer, bone cancer and cervical cancer.


There’s been a lot of publicity in recent years about electromagnetic fields (EMFs). These invisible fields of charged particles are a by-product of our modern electric lifestyle. Dubbed “currents of death” in one best-selling book, they may be responsible for untold cases of cancer, depression and other diseases, according to some critics.

Others, however, argue that such alleged effects are pseudo-scientific hogwash, the studies are poorly designed and the results inconsistent. Unlike other alleged carcinogens. EMFs don’t seem to be associated with only one or a few kinds of cancer; rather, they seem to be vaguely related to a diverse range of cancers. Besides, EMFs are far less powerful than the body’s own electrical signals; how, then, could they affect body cells and trigger cancerous changes?

Our new understanding of the pineal gland may be the missing part of this puzzle, because it has become clear that EMFs do have dramatic effects on the pineal gland and melatonin production. And as we learn more about melatonin’s role in the body, we are finding that many of the ill-effects claimed for EMFs are the same ones that occur from low melatonin levels. Like sunlight, EMFs don’t act directly on most human cells, but indirectly by way of the eyes and the pineal gland. The evidence is growing that the health effects of EMFs are real, and intimately related to the fact that EMFs impair the pineal’s production of melatonin.

And low melatonin levels can cause immune deficiencies. Even subtle impairments of the immune system can generally increase the risk of cancer, and (just as the EMF research shows) you wouldn’t necessarily see any clear pattern of a single type of cancer. At the same time, reduced melatonin would inhibit the ability of cells to repair damage caused by other factors, again increasing the risk of cancer. Here, too, the development of cancer would be inconsistent, since it would require another risk factor besides EMFs.

In other words, it may be that EMFs don’t cause cancer directly, but, by reducing melatonin production, leave us more susceptible to cancers caused by other factors. That would explain why the relationship between EMFs and cancer has been so hard to pin down. It also would explain how EMFs could promote cancer without causing direct damage to the body’s cells.

The effects of EMFs on the pineal gland have been documented in animals and humans. In a series of studies that stretched over several years, for example, rats were exposed for 20 hours a day to 60 hertz electric fields – the same frequency produced by ordinary household appliances. After 30 days’ exposure to the fields, the rats’ melatonin production was virtually shut down. After the animals were no longer exposed to the fields, melatonin production shot back up to normal – typically within three days.

Another experiment showed similar results: After three weeks of EMF exposure, night-time melatonin production was only about half of normal levels; after four weeks it was only a third of normal levels. When rats were removed from the electric fields, their melatonin levels also returned to normal.

Epidemiological studies, which examine patterns to disease incidence, also support the link between EMFs and diminished melatonin production by demonstrating a relationship between EMFs exposure and the kind of health problems that occur from low melatonin levels.

Most researchers feel that EMFs probably affect the pineal by way of the eyes. The retinas, of course, are extremely sensitive to light, which is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Thus, it’s not unreasonable that they would also be sensitive to electromagnetic fields – EMFs – even if we can’t consciously perceive these forces at ordinary levels of exposure. (In fact, strong magnetic fields can produce flickering or shimmering visual effects.)

Faced with the difficulty of determining a safe EMF level, what’s the best approach to managing your EMF exposure? Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University recommend an approach called “prudent exposure”; they suggest that we look first at making simple changes that will reduce our total EMF exposure. For example, eliminating any dimmer switches in your home or repositioning your computer monitor may do more to reduce your EMF exposure than selling your house because you live near power lines.


A lifestyle that follows predictable routines will make it easier for your body to maintain in rhythm of melatonin production. Periods of light and darkness set the primary rhythm, but other environmental cues exert powerful influences as well. For example:

Avoid stimulants: Stimulants such as coffee or tea can affect your melatonin levels by interfering with sleep. Eliminate or reduce their use, especially in the evening. Not all sources of dietary stimulants are obvious: Chocolate, for example, is a mild stimulant; so are soda and cold remedies containing caffeine and some medications, including the asthma drugs, aminophylline and theophylline.

Eat regular meals: Melatonin rhythms are strengthened by regular daily rhythms. So when you eat is just as important as what you eat. Regular meal-times are important behavioural cues that keep you in sync.

Eat light at night: One of the effects of high melatonin levels at night is to slow your digestive process. If you eat a big meal just before you go to bed, your body won’t process it as efficiently. In fact, you may find that your sluggish digestion leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling of fullness, making it hard to get a good night’s rest. And your body is less likely to burn off the calories instead of converting them to fat.

Keep eating habits coordinated with activity levels: Eat your largest meals at times when you’re most active.

A final suggestion: In addition to what you eat and when you eat, also give some thought to where you eat. The most melatonin-enhancing meal may well be a leisurely breakfast on the balcony or terrace garden. Have it in the sunlight and you’ll also be giving a boost to your body’s natural rhythms.

Fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and fresh air – that’s a diet just about anyone can stick to.

Author's Bio: 

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