One complains about spring fatigue, the other about jet lag. Hardly anyone seems to get enough sleep anymore. As a gentle remedy melatonin is praised.
Long-haul flights, smartphones, stress on the job – the modern lifestyle is causing problems for Europeans. As early as 2005, one in four complained of sleep problems. If one follows a health report of the German health insurance company DAK, the number of sleep-disordered professionals in the past eight years has increased by 66 percent. “Our biology does not become as modern as humans,” says Thomas Penzel, scientific director of the Sleep Medicine Center of the Berlin Charité. Many of those affected use sleep aids. From apps to podcasts, the offer is wide-ranging. And every second helps to fall asleep with funds from the pharmacy or the drugstore. One of them is the hormone melatonin.
In the United States, it was already celebrated in the nineties as a miracle cure. Not only as a sleep aid, but also as a source of eternal youth. Melatonin should not only be carcinogenic, it also promised fuller hair and better sex. But then deficiencies in the animal studies of the studies were discovered, which should prove that. Melatonin was discredited. But only temporarily. More than three million Americans now take it regularly.
Melatonin, the sensitive dark hormone
Melatonin is formed in the brain in the pineal gland from the messenger serotonin and controls the human sleep-wake cycle. In the dark, it is released and induces sleep. At night, the concentration increases enormously. Even in winter, when it is dark outside, the level of melatonin in the blood increases. This can cause exhaustion. With age, the concentration of the hormone then decreases. Concrete guidelines such as blood sugar are not yet explored, which is why a deficiency or surplus is barely detectable.
In Europe, melatonin is marketed as a drug under the trade name Circadin in the dosage of two milligrams since 2008. Unlike on the other side of the Atlantic, this country is not an absolute bestseller. In 2017, just under three million packages of Circadin were prescribed in Germany. Of the established sleep medications, the so-called Z-drugs such as zolpidem and zopiclone, there were twenty-three times more. It is currently only approved for the treatment of patients over 55 years of age who suffer from sleep problems. It can also be prescribed against jet lag on long-distance trips.
In full swing at your sleep time
Does the drug keep what it promises? Research on this question was not lacking. “Melatonin is certainly one of the most studied substances,” says Dieter Kunz, chief physician of the Department of Sleep and Chrono-memedicine at the St. Hedwig Hospital in Berlin. Nevertheless, Melatonin’s main function as the clock of the internal clock gives him little data. However, a recent study by neuroscientist Makesh Thakkar of the University of Missouri underpins the sleep-inducing effect of the hormone. When administered as a drug, unlike other drugs, it does not affect sleep itself but the circadian system, ie the brain’s 24-hour cycle. “Melatonin normalizes the sleep rhythm and strengthens the qualitative aspects of sleep,” explains Kunz.
In sleep, the human brain does not turn off, but usually works at full speed. What was learned during the day is solidified. Kunz puts it this way: “At night, Messi learns to play football.” These processes are often suppressed by other sleeping pills. You sleep longer then, but feel like you are in the morning. Also in connection with melatonin, some patients report fatigue, dizziness and nausea. But while this almost inevitably goes along with other sleeping pills, melatonin depends on the time of ingestion. It has to be exactly the same every day and is best between 22 and 23 o’clock. Kunz compares this with a children’s swing, which, pushed to the wrong point, gets completely out of step. For sleeping pills such as the Z-preparations, this is different, they let regardless of the time of taking almost all, including healthy, sleep faster and longer. Melatonin, on the other hand, has a more natural and gentle effect, which is why it is not approved for the treatment of severe sleep disorders.
The clock is ticking in every cell
That we are controlled by an internal clock has been established for some time. To decipher the genetic level of this process, the American scientists Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young received the Nobel Prize in 2017. The corresponding branch of research is chronobiology, after “Chronos”, the Greek word for time. Not just the brain, but every part of the human body is subject to a 24-hour rhythm. If this rhythm is disturbed by external circumstances such as jet lag, the internal clock also gets out of hand for a short time. The organism is confused and takes a while to adapt to the new lighting conditions. Melatonin can then help to better tolerate the transatlantic flight.
In the United States you can buy melatonin like chewing gum in every drugstore. In Germany, however, stricter regulations apply. As a dietary supplement, which may contain only a small amount of active ingredient, melatonin is also in German drugstore shelters, legally it is in this country but a prescription drug. Dieter Kunz thinks this is correct: “It is used to influence disruptions, and you should already know what you are doing.”
Of cows and cherries
Of course, the cows of the Brandenburg dairy farm Kolochau do not know that. Unlike the majority of their conspecifics, who live their lives day and night in stalls under neon tubes, they graze in the sun during the day. This also promotes melatonin production in them. At night, they are milked, then their milk contains extra much of the dark hormone. As a freeze-dried milk powder, it has been selling the Munich company “Nachtkristalle” since 2010 as a sleep aid. It should not advertise directly, which prohibits the legal situation. In addition, studies are missing which prove the effectiveness. “Many can not afford that,” admits Thomas Penzel of the Charité.
The problem is also known in the Berlin scene. Since the summer of 2017, the start-up company “Sleep.Ink” sells a “natural sleep drink” based on sour cherry juice and containing melatonin as well as other substances such as hops. The founder Malte Laff considers the legal situation to be outdated: “After all, there are many foods that contain melatonin.” The Brandenburg “Nachtmilch” contains significantly more natural melatonin than conventional milk. But also in pistachios, bananas or cucumbers is the dark hormone, but only in small quantities. “At least one hundred kilos of bananas you would have to eat to get on a tablet Circadin,” estimates Dieter Kunz.
Ronaldo is not allowed to sleep
“Healthy people do not need that,” says sleeping physician Thomas Penzel. But when are sleep problems a disease? Is it still normal for one hour before falling asleep? “Many patients do not know who to contact,” says Gerhard Klösch, neurologist at the University Hospital Vienna and head of the certificate course “Sleep Coaching”. In three semesters, sleep theory, sleep-related illnesses, relaxation and hypnosis techniques are taught there.
That more and more people complain about sleep disorders, Klösch explains on the one hand by the increased attention that the subject of sleep currently enjoys in the media. And secondly by our “24-hour society”, which does not stop in the constant self-optimizing delusion even before curious techniques such as the “sleep hacking”. At the same time, the core sleep time is reduced to a few hours, and some even leave it altogether. During the day “Power Naps” will help to overcome the midday low. The football star Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, should sleep no more than ninety minutes at a stretch, according to his personal sleeping coach.