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You Have an Autoimmune Disorder. Can You Take Melatonin?

0 2 years ago

by Amy Marturana Winderl

GOOD SLEEP IS such an integral part of our well-being—think about how crummy you feel after even a single night of tossing and turning. Yet the reality is that slumber doesn’t come easily to us all. Whether it’s from the stresses of life, overstimulation from electronic devices, or the physical effects of a health condition, there’s so much that can interfere with quality Zzzs.

Maybe that’s why so many people are increasingly turning to melatonin, often referred to as the “sleep hormone,” to help combat insomnia. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), its use increased more than fivefold in the U.S. between 1999 and 2018—so it’s safe to say you’re not the only one thinking about trying this supplement (or maybe you’re already a longtime fan).

Still, if you have an autoimmune disease—when your body’s immune cells go on a friendly-fire attack against your own healthy tissue, resulting in damaging inflammation—you might have heard that melatonin isn’t safe for you. You might even point to major health organizations, like the Mayo Clinic, that outright advise you not take this hormone if your immune system is already working on overdrive.

To make matters more confusing, a simple Google search on the subject unearths research that says pretty much the opposite: that small doses of melatonin taken over short periods of time may be beneficial or merely harmless, even in folks who have been diagnosed with conditions like diabetes, lupus, or Crohn’s disease.

So, what gives? Does melatonin help or hurt? Does dosage or frequency make a difference if you have an autoimmune disorder? We asked experts to break down what melatonin does, how it interacts with the immune system, and how cautious you really need to be.

Melatonin and the Immune System

“Melatonin is a hormone that’s created in the GI tract and pineal gland,” says Zachary Mulvihill, M.D., integrative medicine expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian in New York City. Its main role is to regulate the circadian rhythm, the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. “Melatonin levels start to rise in the early evening and actually peak later on in the night, and then they come down when the sun comes up,” Dr. Mulvihill explains. The hormone sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to get sleepy; when the levels go down, it says it’s time to wake up.

Except, melatonin is more than just a sleep hormone. “A newer and emerging idea that’s really exciting is that melatonin is believed to enhance immune function,” Dr. Mulvihill says. In fact, research suggests that melatonin reduces free radicals—toxic molecules that our cells produce as part of everyday living and breathing, which contribute to cellular damage and inflammation—if the immune system can’t eliminate them quickly enough.

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