Melatonin not cure-all

November 18, 1999

This is an edited excerpt of a Boston Globe editorial, which was published Monday.

A STUDY on aging and sleep published this month in the American Journal of Medicine belies a couple of popular myths: that the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin decreases as people get older and that a bottled version of the stuff is needed to correct the deficiency.

Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues show that there is no problem. In sleep lab experiments, the researchers found that the melatonin levels of healthy people ages 65 to 81 matched those of people ages 18 to 30.

So those ads hawking melatonin as a must-have supplement for anyone over 40 are akin to the babble of the old medicine wagon huckster. Yes, the bottled hormone may work in individual cases, but it is not a proven panacea that, as promoters insist, not only aids sleep but cures cancer and enhances sexual drive.

Dr. Czeisler says some research indicates that melatonin supplements might actually be harmful -- a test tube trial showed that the hormone constricted coronary arteries. He also points out that the hormone may actually decrease sexual drive, for it has been shown to shut down the reproductive system in animals so they don't breed in winter.

The U.S. government does not require manufacturers of dietary supplements to prove their claims, as drug manufacturers must, and no strong quality-control standards are in place guaranteeing that consumers are getting what they pay for.

Studies have shown some products to be contaminated or to contain an entirely different substance from the one touted on the label. Aggressive industry lobbying and consumer demand have created this free-wheeling and potentially dangerous market.

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