Today’s society has access to a wider range of entertainment, education and convenience than ever before thanks to modern technology. Cell phones, tablets and laptop computers are more portable than ever, allowing us to lead lives in which we are constantly in touch. However, the huge preponderance of screens we’re exposed to emanate unnatural light that can prevent human brains from making melatonin at the levels needed for good function. Low melatonin levels in the population are causing a variety of health problems, affecting more than just sleep.
Melatonin and Your Health
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland of your brain in response to a lack of light. While most people associate melatonin with sleep, it actually controls hundreds of activities related to metabolism and the cell cycle. Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant, helping to repair oxidative stress that’s occurred during the day. It serves as a cue for the production of other hormones, including female reproductive hormones, as well. In addition, melatonin is crucial in turning on genes that produce proteins that are needed for DNA repair and other restorative processes that mainly occur when we sleep.
When people have low melatonin levels, the most obvious symptom is a disruption of the circadian rhythm. However, the effects of low melatonin are far-reaching and can impact almost every system in the human body.
Low Melatonin Levels: A Modern Epidemic
Artificial light has become ubiquitous in modern life. From the television to the smartphone, this light is all around us. While humans once went to bed with the sunset, we now can be productive long into the night. This constant unnatural light interferes with our body’s production of melatonin. This is not merely theoretical; research has repeatedly linked insomnia and other sleep disorders to the use of devices with lighted screens. Heavy cell phone use is linked to increased sleep disorders as well as a higher prevalence of depression, mental health problems and other disorders linked to a lack of sleep.
The High Cost of Low Melatonin
Melatonin is a master hormone that governs a variety of crucial cell processes, so a deficiency can have wide-spread consequences. Some effects of low melatonin are not surprising: Fatigue, depression and lowered mental function. However, low melatonin levels have also been linked to a variety of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and IBS/IBD.
The reason for this link appears to lie in melatonin’s role in the immune system. Autoimmune diseases are characterized by an increase in the Th-17 subset of T-helper cells, which produce a cytokine called IL-17. This protein is important in protecting our bodies against infection, but when it is produced unchecked it causes much of the inflammation and damage that we associate with autoimmune disease.
Melatonin appears to lower levels of IL-17 by putting Th-17 cells “to sleep.” These cells are less active when there are high levels of melatonin and more active during the day when melatonin is low. The presence of increased IL-17 in people who have low melatonin levels suggests that a disturbed circadian rhythm can have even more destructive effects than previously believed.
New Treatments, New Hope
It is difficult or even impossible for most people to divorce their lives entirely of technology and screens. However, this does not mean we must resign ourselves to lives with fatigue and other negative health effects of low melatonin levels. People can choose to turn off screens and dim lights one to two hours before bed to allow melatonin levels to rise. In addition, there are melatonin supplements that can raise levels of this crucial hormone to the amounts needed to stimulate crucial processes such as sleep, cell repair and immune modulation.
Maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm is difficult in the modern world, but more important than ever. Although technology has made our lives better in many ways, it is a mixed blessing. Low melatonin is a risk to your health that can be successfully treated with lifestyle changes and supplementation, allowing you to enjoy good old-fashioned health in the modern day.