Without proper melatonin levels, your inner clock can unwind Feeling run down?

February 02, 1993|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Contributing Writer

It is not unusual for healthy women to complain of being tired, whether they work outside the home or are full-time care-givers. Melatonin, a neurohormone which regulates sleep patterns and one's sense of fatigue, may be a central culprit. When melatonin levels are high, you're better able to sleep. Exposure to bright light reduces the body's production of melatonin and helps you stay awake.

As women enter new jobs -- including shift jobs -- they will experience new health dilemmas, including disruptions in the melatonin cycle. As it turns out, regular production of melatonin seems to be important for a healthy immune system, for controlling stress and for defending against cancer. Understanding melatonin is a new area of research which will be of increasing importance to employers and employees.

Q: Who should be concerned about melatonin and sleep patterns?

A: If you feel tired after a full night's sleep, your melatonin production may be disrupted. Women whose jobs involve alternating shifts, professionals or students burning the midnight oil, care-givers staying up to care for the family, new mothers, jet-lagged travelers, all are subject to this feeling.

Q: What does melatonin have to do with feeling tired?

A: Melatonin works on a 24-hour cycle. When the cycle is disrupted, the body's natural clock is reset. If, for example, the clock is reset by commencing work in a bright room at 10 p.m., the melatonin cycle starts the day again. It can take several days for melatonin levels to adapt to the new schedule and provide the rest you need.

Q: What does the melatonin cycle have to do with work?

A: When a person is exposed to bright light, in an office, a factory or at home, melatonin levels drop. This helps the mind stay alert but prevents an easy rest when bedtime rolls around.

Q: Why is this a problem?

A: When a person feels tired, she can't work or manage at home as well. Regular melatonin cycles reduce the effects of stress, which offers many health benefits. Frequent melatonin cycle disruptions undermine the immune system and people get sick more often and longer.

Disruptions in melatonin levels also appear to disturb the estrogen cycle. Some investigators hypothesize that when estrogen levels are out of balance with progesterone, it may increase the risk of breast cancer. Preliminary findings also link melatonin to fertility.

Q: What can be done to keep internal clocks balanced?

A: No one has all the answers. More research will help determine how this small substance balances daily activities and keeps the body healthy.

Even NASA is examining how to keep internal clocks running smoothly. To help with jet lag, astronauts are exposed to bright light for four days before a launch. New products are being developed which use timed exposure to light to keep internal clocks running smoothly.

Q: What can I do?

A: Understand that being tired is not a sign of weakness -- the demands of the environment on your body may influence melatonin levels and make you tired. This can subject you to physiological changes and health risks other than fatigue. The best advice for now is that when you have to change your day-night routine, try to do so gradually.

Employers, take heed of this when scheduling shift workers. You can help your staff stay productive and keep your lost time and health expenditures lower.

Share this information with co-workers or bosses. By making people aware of the consequences of disrupting sleep patterns, we can focus on solutions.

Dr. Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

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