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Dopamine Hormone Guide
Dopamine is a hormone that serves many complex purposes throughout the body, although it is most well-known for its impact on reward and addiction. Dopamine belongs to both the phenethylamine and catacholamine families. Drugs from the phenethylamine family are known for their stimulant effects as well as their psychoactive effects. Catecholamines are hormones which alter the overall activity level of the central nervous system.
How Did Dopamine Get Its Name?
Dopamine gets its name directly from its chemical structure. Dopamine is an amine, meaning that it is a nitrogen-based organic molecule. Dopamine is formed when an L-DOPA molecule loses its carboxyl group. Dopamine is active both in the brain and in the peripheral systems of the body, but Dopamine acts independently as released in both contained systems.
What is the Function of Dopamine in the Brain?
Dopamine is a hormone that sends messages to other parts of the brain, also known as a neurotransmitter. There are a number of areas of the brain that are activated by Dopamine, most notably, the area associated with desire and reward, but the hormone is associated with a wide variety of other physiological actions as well.
The majority of things that we, as humans, find rewarding—delicious food, sex, drugs—cause this dopamine-based reward system to be activated. Things that are addictive have the ability to fire off these pleasure centers to an extent where the body and mind begin to crave further stimulation.
Dopamine is also related to other activities in the brain, however. It stimulates the release of other hormones, and it helps control movement. There are a number of neurological motor disorders associated with Dopamine dysfunction, including Parkinson's disease.
Parkinson's disease is a neurological, degenerative condition which causes the body to shake near-uncontrollably, while also slowly leading to immobility over time. Parkinson's is caused when the substantia nigra no longer produces the Dopamine which helps regulate motor activity.
Although Parkinson's is a chronic, degenerative disorder, it can be treated with drugs which increase the concentration of Dopamine in the brain. These drugs are also known as antipsychotics.
Other conditions which are hypothesized to be associated with dopamine-inhibition are Restless Legs Syndrome and ADHD.
What Is the Function of Dopamine in the Human Body?
Dopamine is highly active in the brain, but it also serves a number of purposes in the peripheral systems of the body, where it acts as a hormonal messenger.
In the cardiovascular system, dopamine blocks the release of norepinephrine, causing the blood vessels to open up.
In the renal system, the hormone encourages urination and the evacuation of sodium.
Dopamine inhibits the production of insulin by the pancreas
In the gastrointestinal system, Dopamine slows down the rate at which foods pass through the system, and it also helps protect the lining of the intestines.
In the immune system, Dopamine slows down the activity of white blood cells.
Aside from the cardiovascular system, all peripheral effects of Dopamine are considered paracrine activity—this means that Dopamine is released in the immediate vicinity of where it is absorbed by nearby cells, exerting its influence.
How do Medications Affect the Release of Dopamine?
Because of the importance of the hormone, there are a variety of drugs available which affect the way that the body secretes or utilizes Dopamine. Bio-Identical Dopamine Injections are a common form of treatment, but Dopamine, when administered intravenously, is incapable of passing through the blood-brain barrier. Dopamine is frequently used as an emergency treatment for patients suffering from shock or heart failure, for example.
Because there is no way to directly deliver Dopamine to the brain, the most effective way to increase Dopamine levels via medication is through the Dopamine precursor, L-DOPA. L-DOPA does have the ability to pass through the blood brain barrier, and is one of the most common treatments for Parkinson's, because it can suppress tremors by providing Dopamine to struggling areas of the brain.
Drugs which stimulate Dopamine are almost always addictive in high quantities, but they are effective at modest doses to alleviate ADHD. Antipsychotics, on the other hand, are medications which suppress the activity of Dopamine in the body. There are similar drugs that suppress Dopamine through other means that are highly effective at treating nausea.
Dopamine and the Brain
The area of the brain that is central to the body's physiological reward system is located in the ventral tegmental area, and nerves in this region secrete dopamine in response to or in preparation of reward. After Dopamine is produced it travels to the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens.
Dopamine also controls motor ability, but does so through a different mechanism which does not interact directly with the pleasure pathway. In order to help control movement, Dopamine is released by neurons in the substantia nigra, and the hormone travels to the striatum. The striatum is responsible for our mind's ability to control our movements, and it also allows for fine motor function by suppressing the body's minor conscious movements to enhance control. It also plays a role in social inhibition.
Dopamine is a hormone which plays a wide variety of roles. It is a reward mechanism, it stimulates cognition, motivation, arousal, and physical self-control. There are a number of automatic functions that are related to Dopamine as well, such as the sensations of nausea and sexual pleasure, as well as lactation.
Perhaps surprisingly, there aren't a whole lot of neurons in the brain that are dedicated primarily to Dopamine production. In fact, the entire brain only has about 400,000 of these neurons, and they are located in very particular areas of the brain. In spite of their small number, they have a widespread impact on physiological function.
Areas of the Brain Which Release Dopamine
The Substantia Nigra - Dopamine and Fine Motor Control
As we mentioned earlier, Dopamine plays a vital role in the body's ability to control its movements. Dopamine exerts control over motor function through the substantia nigra, which is an area of dark brain tissue that is attached to the basal ganglia. Most of the Dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra are located in an area known as the pars compacta.
The cells which emit Dopamine in this area can become damaged quite easily, and if a large portion of these cells die, it brings about symptoms that are very similar to Parkinson's Disease.
The Ventral Tegmental Area - Dopamine, Motivation, and Reward
Another area of the brain with dense Dopamine activity is the ventral tegmental area. It is this area of the brain that is responsible for providing the psyche with motivation. Researchers have actually noted that the actions of Dopamine in the ventral tegmental area affect psychological motivation in a similar manner that the nucleus accumbens affects the fine control of motor activity. This means that the ventral tegmental area is also responsible for controlling fine cognitive activity as well, including the mind's ability to make decisions.
Dopamine and the Hypothalamus
There are also cells which produce Dopamine which are located in the posterior hypothalamus, which extend into the spinal cord, but medical researchers are not completely sure how Dopamine impacts the body through this route. There is evidence backing the hypothesis that this Dopamine pathway controls the suppression of motor movement in the body, and those with Restless Legs Syndrome suffer from Dopamine Deficiency in this area of the brain. Restless Legs Syndrome makes it hard to sleep, resulting from the unconscious movements of the body, which is most severe in the legs.
Dopamine and Lactation
Dopamine Neurons in the Periventricular Nucleus and the Arcuate Nucleus suppress the release of breast milk, which is encouraged through the release of prolactin. Dopamine produced in this part of the brain flows into the pituitary gland. The body produces Dopamine as a means to prevent lactation, and when mothers prepare to nurse, this pathway suppresses the production of Dopamine, which allows lactation to take place.
When discussed in the context of this system, Dopamine is often referred to by other names, including Prolactostatin, Prolactin-Inhibiting Hormone, or Prolactin-Inhibiting Factor
Dopamine, Puberty, and Sex Hormone Production
This area of the brain is tightly interconnected with the Hypothalamus. In order for the body to produce sex hormones, Dopamine is released from the Zona Incerta into the Hypothalamus, where the hormone encourages the production of Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone. The number of Dopamine Receptors in the brain increases dramatically during this period, which helps encourage the rapid onset of sexual changes associated with puberty.
Dopamine and Eyesight
Dopamine also plays a role in eyesight. During the day, amacrine cells in the retina produce Dopamine which simultaneously increases the receptivity of cone cells while reducing the influence of rods. This mechanism makes it easier to see during the day. At night, Dopamine production in this area declines, making it easier to see in dim light.
Dopamine Activity In the Body
As Dopamine is unable to cross from the blood stream into the brain, any Dopamine that is produced by the peripheral systems of the body has no direct impact on Dopamine activity within the brain. There is a lot of Dopamine that travels through the circulatory system, but researchers are still learning how Dopamine impacts the physiology of the body via this pathway.
Some Dopamine is absorbed through the diet, but the body converts this Dopamine into a different form that researchers have discovered no use for. This form of Dopamine is eventually released after it is filtered out by the kidneys.
It is believed that an active form of Dopamine is produced by certain organs, including those in the digestive system and those in the sympathetic nervous system. Physiologically active Dopamine can go through a number of processes in the body. It is sometimes converted by the adrenal glands into norepinephrine, an important hormone which regulates fight-or-flight mechanisms. It can also activate receptor sites throughout the body, or can simply be metabolized.
There are numerous receptors for Dopamine in the arteries. Dopamine activity in this area suppresses the production of norepinephrine and opens up the arteries.
Dopamine and the Immune System
Dopamine has a powerful effect upon the immune system, especially upon the circulatory system, bone marrow, and the spleen. Also, Dopamine suppresses the activity of white blood cells. Cells in the immune system have the ability to release Dopamine, so it is believed that Dopamine helps prevent the white blood cells from going into overdrive.
Dopamine and the Renal System
There are a number of locations in the kidneys that react with Dopamine, and Dopamine is actually produced by the kidneys by tubule cells. Dopamine serves a number of purposes in this system. It encourages filtration, helps draw sodium from the blood stream, and enhances blood flow to the organ. If the kidneys lose their ability to effectively produce Dopamine, this can lead to issues such as hypertension and elevated sodium levels.
Dopamine and the Pancreas
Dopamine plays an intricate role in the function of the pancreas. The pancreas has two sections, the endocrine area and the exocrine area. The exocrine section of the pancreas helps control digestion, releasing substances such as enzymes into the digestive tract to help break down and absorb food. Dopamine plays a role in this process, although researchers are not completely sure of its function. Researchers hypothesize that Dopamine both slows down the rate at which the body processes food and also preserves the inner lining of the intestines.
The areas of the pancreas which regulates internal health are known as the islets of Langerhans. This area is responsible for the production of hormones that are released into the blood stream, one of which is insulin. The cells within the islets of Langerhans which produce insulin are known as beta cells, and it is believed that these cells are receptive to the influence of Dopamine, and that Dopamine activation suppresses the production of insulin.
Dopamine and Risk
There is a strong correlation between Dopamine levels in the brain and one's desire and ability to take risks. Individuals with lower levels of Dopamine activity in the brain tend to be more cautious and are less likely to seek out risk, while individuals with high levels of natural Dopamine production are more likely to enjoy and thrive on risk.
Dopamine is the reason why, when we do something that takes effort and risk, it elicits a feeling of satisfaction. Dopamine encourages us to go outside of our comfort zone and do things we normally wouldn't do. It causes one to thrive on risk, experiencing a literal high when they meet their goals. This often causes them to seek out larger and larger risks, as their surmounted risks are no longer as exciting.
The difference in Dopamine levels among different groups of people explains why some people are happy with comfortable lives and are risk averse, while others seem to thrive on the sensations associated with risk.
Part of what controls Dopamine activity in the brain is the existence of what are known as autoreceptors. Autoreceptors bind with Dopamine and reduce their activity in the body. Researchers have found that people that enjoy risk have fewer of these Dopamine inhibitors, which causes them to be more interested in engaging in risk-taking.
Many people are addicted to Adrenaline. This is the sensation that happens when we ride roller coasters or get in dangerous situations. Adrenaline rewards risky behaviors, but it doesn't reward stepping out of one's comfort zone, necessarily. Whereas Adrenaline makes people love driving fast and getting into fights, Dopamine makes people want to engage in pursuits which might deter others. Dopamine doesn't engage the fight-or-flight response, it simply causes a person to downplay risks and be more likely to engage in out-of-the-box activities.
Dopamine and Depression
Dopamine deficiency is associated with an increased incidence of depression. Robin Williams recent passing is perhaps a testament to this connection. After Robin Williams committed suicide, it was revealed by his wife that Robin was struggling with the initial stages of Parkinson's disease. As we've discussed, Parkinson's is a medical disorder which is caused when the motor area of the brain no longer produces enough Dopamine to regulate motor movement, which leads to the tremors and shaking associated with the disorder.
Reduced Dopamine levels also can lead to depression, because the reward system of the brain is not as active. The body and mind simply do not experience pleasure in the same way, and this increases the likelihood of depression. In Williams' case, depression led him to suicide.
Dopamine also controls one's sense of motivation. In many cases when people truly want to do something but can't generate the willpower, this is a result of Dopamine Deficiency.
Parkinson's Disease and Depression are independent disorders, but one is more likely to occur when the other is present. The conditions also play off of each other and can worsen the effects of both for the patient. The combination leads to feelings of intense isolation and anxiety, which can be incredibly difficult to overcome.
The Mystery of Risk:
Dopamine Regulates Motivation to Act, Study Shows:
Serotonin Hormone Guide
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is an important hormone that regulates a wide variety of functions in the body, and is most notable for its effects upon mood and well-being. Serotonin is found in a number of areas of the body, including the brain, central nervous system, platelets and digestive system. Serotonin is synthesized by the body from a hormone known as tryptophan, which most people recognize as the hormone in turkey and many other foods that makes us sleepy. Maintaining Serotonin balance is a vitally important aspect of promoting both the health of the brain and the health of the body.
Effects of Serotonin both Psychological and Physiological
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of serotonin that is produced by the body is secreted into the digestive system, in order to promote motility in the intestinal track. Around ninety percent of the serotonin released by the body serves this purpose.
When Serotonin is released by the digestive system, it acts upon the intestines and drains out into the blood stream over time. Platelets actually have the ability to absorb this Serotonin, and use it for their own purposes. Platelets are cells in the blood stream that don't have nuclei which are primarily used as a clotting mechanism. When the platelets begin to form a blood clot, they emit their stored serotonin, which shrinks blood vessels in the surrounding area in order to control blood flow and help stop circulatory leakage.
Serotonin also promotes cellular metabolism in certain types of tissue, and it is hypothesized that the hormone helps speed up healing in the case of injury.
Neurological Effects of Serotonin
Aside from the digestive system, the second most active area for Serotonin production is the central nervous system, where the hormone impacts physiological activity in a variety of ways. Serotonin impacts a number of regulatory systems in the brain, including sleep, appetite, and mood.
Serotonin also has some influences on learning, memory, and other cognitive abilities. There are a number of antidepressant medications that function by altering the way that the body responds to Serotonin, including Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).
Serotonin in Nature
Serotonin is not only found in humans and animals, but also in plants and fungi. Serotonin actually has the ability to promote a pain response under some circumstances, and the hormone often coats the barbs of plants and is often a component of venom in insects. In fact, when Serotonin is administered via injection, it can sometimes cause pain to the patient, as if they were bitten or stung.
Serotonin and Digestive Health
There are also instances where Serotonin is produced by organisms within the digestive system. For example, there are amoeba which can replicate in the stomach and intestines, which release Serotonin, speeding up the digestive tract, which leads to diarrhea. Also, Serotonin is present in many fruits and seeds, which causes the digestive system to pass seeds more effectively.
Serotonin Produced by All Complex Animals
Serotonin is an important neural hormone and is produced by all animals with bilateral symmetry. Dependent upon the complexity of the organism, Serotonin serves an increasingly larger role in the nervous system. In simple animals like invertebrates, Serotonin primarily helps the organism to recognize the abundance of food in a particular area.
In more evolved animals, like vertebrates and arthropods, Serotonin not only evaluates food resources, but also plays a role in social interactions, including dominance and submission. Because reproduction and the viability of young depend on food availability, Serotonin contributes to the production of sex hormones and the motivation to breed. Serotonin also has a powerful impact on growth and mood.
Serotonin, Depression, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Serotonin plays a complex role in maintaining healthy emotional balance in human beings. People that don't produce enough Serotonin are both more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to suffer from compulsive thoughts. Related to the mechanisms of Serotonin, people that don't produce enough Serotonin are more likely to engage in risky activities, including promiscuous sex and self-harm.
There is some clinical evidence that Depression inhibits the brain's ability to produce new neurons in the brain, which suppresses activity in certain parts of the brain, in particular, those related to mood stability and well-being. It is believed that SSRIs have the ability to restore Serotonin Levels in the brain, encouraging the rejuvenation of brain cells, which helps the mind recover from depression and generally improve quality of life from a psychological perspective.
It is unclear, however, whether Serotonin Deficiency leads to depression or if it is perhaps the other way around. Of course, depending on the particulars of the patient, either or both of these issues could be at play. In patients that experience chronic depression and OCD from an early age, the cause would primarily be neurological, whereas in patients that experience depression later in life, the cause is much more likely to be the result of circumstances in their lives.
How Do SSRIs Treat Psychological Disorders such as Depression and OCD?
One of the most common treatments for both OCD and Depression is the prescription of a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. These medications increase the activity of Serotonin in the brain by slowing down the rate at which neurons reabsorb Serotonin after releasing the hormone. The way that our body uses Serotonin is rather simple. A neuron receives a signal to release Serotonin, and it does so, releasing it a very short distance to the next neuron, where it remains active in the space between the neurons, exerting its function.
In many patients with OCD and Depression, Serotonin is released, but it may not be released in sufficient quantities, or it may not stay active for the appropriate amount of time before it is absorbed. SSRIs can treat both of these issues by increasing the Serotonin activity in the brain.
Functions of Serotonin in Humans
Serotonin and Appetite
Many animals use Serotonin as a mechanism to convince the animals to stay in the presence of food, but in humans, Serotonin is used as an appetite inhibitor. When you smell food, this causes your brain to release Dopamine, which is why you suddenly get more hungry when you smell an appetizing meal. Serotonin, on the other hand, is released when you actually eat the food, which suppresses the release of Dopamine by the brain.
There are receptors on cells in the brain that produce Dopamine, known as 5-HT2C. These points absorb Serotonin and subsequently cause the cells to cease the production of Dopamine. In fact, there are drugs and neurological disorders which cause these receptors to deactivate, which prevents the brain from recognizing when its full, which leads to overeating. Many people that feel uncontrollable urges to eat are born without a full array of these receptors.
Serotonin and Diet
As we mentioned earlier, Serotonin is synthesized by the human body from tryptophan. Interestingly enough, simply eating food with tryptophan as an ingredient, such as turkey, does not have a subsequent effect upon Serotonin Levels. On the other hand, eating pure tryptophan does lead to an increase in Serotonin Levels.
There is a reason for this. tryptophan can cross the barrier from the blood stream to the brain, but only under certain circumstances. Tryptophan only crosses the barrier when it is isolated from other proteins that are present in food. This encourages the body to only allow tryptophan produced by its own peripheral organs to pass into the system easily, although this can be bypassed by taking pure tryptophan.
There are studies that present evidence that a high-carb low-protein diet can result in an elevation in Serotonin levels, and it does so by promoting the release of Insulin. The issue with this, however, is that if this process is sustained for a long period of time, it may lead to conditions such as Type-2 Diabetes, obesity, and increasing resistance to insulin which ultimately suppress Serotonin production.
People with more muscle actually have more Serotonin than their leaner counterparts. This is because the muscles use all amino acids except tryptophan, which, because the brain absorbs more Tryptophan when there are lower concentrations of other amino acids, increases Serotonin production.
Serotonin and the Digestive System
When we eat, food passes through the digestive system. As food passes into the intestines, it encourages the release of Serotonin by what are known as enterochromaffin cells. This encourages motility because it stimulates the contraction of the intestines. There are veins which connect to the intestines, and platelets pass this area, absorbing unused Serotonin.
Serotonin is also one of the mechanisms which cause diarrhea. If the body recognizes an irritant or potential danger in the digestive system, production of Serotonin in the digestive system increases dramatically in order to pass the offending substance(s) out of the body more quickly.
If the digestive system creates more Serotonin than the platelets can transport, this increases the concentrations of free Serotonin in the blood stream. Free Serotonin then circulates through the body and encourages nausea and vomiting. There are drugs designed to block this response, and they are generally used in order to suppress vomiting and nausea which are often symptoms of chemotherapy and radiation.
Serotonin and Social Interaction
In many animal species, one's access to food is dependent upon competition. If an animal does not display enough aggression, it may not get as much food to eat. Based upon this inter-relationship between social hierarchy and food availability, Serotonin became involved in social interaction from an evolutionary perspective.
In many animals, Serotonin encourages the animal to engage with its social peers as an alpha. On the other hand, Serotonin impacts the fight-or-flight response dependent upon the social rank of the animal. In aeta-subordinate animals, Serotonin suppresses the urge to flee, whereas in alpha animals, Serotonin encourages flight, based upon a different distribution of Serotonin receptors.
When Serotonin is used by the brain, it is usually absorbed by neurons designed to transport Serotonin. Research has shown that much of the pathology related to anxiety in humans is related to how Serotonin is distributed after it has been absorbed by these transporters.
Serotonin and Aging
There are many ways that Serotonin impacts the aging process, as well as the cognitive capabilities of the brain. In many more primitive animal species, as Serotonin levels rise, it improves certain forms of memory. Serotonin levels falls as the creature ages, which inhibits these processes, but by blocking the re-uptake of Serotonin, it is possible to bolster cognitive memory capability in spite of aging.
In human beings as well as mammals, Serotonin levels do not rise with age in the same way, but they do start to fall as people reach the late stages of the life span, which does impact cognitive capacity.
Serotonin and Bone Mineral Density
Research has shown that in human beings, Serotonin concentrations in the blood stream play a role in controlling and regulating bone mineral density. In rodent subjects, individuals that have their ability to produce Serotonin turned off in the brain but not in the digestive system experience Osteopenia. On the other hand, those that have high levels in the brain, but do not have high levels in the digestive system have elevated bone mineral density.
Human research has not been as in depth, but there is strong evidence that individuals with elevated Serotonin levels in the blood are more likely to experience Osteopenia and Osteoporosis later in life. In the future, regulating Serotonin may be a way to treat patients with health conditions related to bone metabolism.
Serotonin and Human Development
In many animals, Serotonin plays a central role in encouraging normal growth and development into adulthood. Proper Serotonin levels during childhood and adolescence ensure that the body focuses the prime amount of resources into the developing child. If there is not enough food available, or there are other similar situations which can impact health and viability during development, Serotonin levels drop, which causes the child to develop more slowly.
Serotonin also promotes the production of HGH and its related growth factors, especially IGF-1. This is one of the mechanisms which helps encourage growth during puberty, and it also increases healing capacity in the case of injury.
Serotonin and the Cardiovascular System
As we mentioned earlier, Serotonin is released by the digestive system and eventually absorbed by the platelets in the cardiovascular system. When there is damage in the arteries or veins, Serotonin encourages the healing process as it is released from the platelets after they have formed a blood clot. This released Serotonin also emits signals to the immediate area to restrict blood flow, which helps to stem bleeding.
How Does the Human Body Make Serotonin?
There are two mechanisms by which human beings and other mammalian species produce Serotonin, both of which rely on the conversion of Tryptophan into Serotonin. One form of Tryptophan known as TPH1 is converted into Serotonin by the digestive system (the enterochromaffin cells) and the pineal gland, while a second form, TPH2 is converted into Serotonin by circulatory structures attached to the digestive system (the myenteric plexis) and neurons in the brain stem (the raphe nuclei)
In lab mice, TPH1 is shown to be vitally important to heart health, and without the ability to produce TPH1, the subjects have significant issues with heart strength and circulation and have significantly increased mortality.
On the other hand, mice without the ability to produce TPH2 are fine while they are in utero, but they don't grow at the same rate as their peers after birth causing them to be much more likely to die before they have been weaned from the mother. If they survive past five weeks, they end up as healthy as their normal peers, but have significant social issues related to aggression.
How Does Serotonin Deficiency Impact Infant Health?
In the case of human beings, there is some evidence that SIDS may be the result of a malfunction in the way that the infant body processes Serotonin. In animal research, when mice were programmed to produce less Serotonin than normal, it directly led to many issues related to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, including cardiovascular insufficiency, which increased infant mortality rates. This is because Serotonin produced by the raphe nuclei play a role in breathing as well as heartbeat.
Serotonin Depletion and Mood Disorders
Serotonin is linked to a variety of disorders associated with mood. Serotonin Deficiency is strongly linked to both Depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Interestingly enough, Serotonin Deficiency is also a temporary condition that occurs when someone falls for another, emotionally, and is associated with OCD tendencies that occur in the early parts of many relationships.
Serotonin and Alcohol
Moderate consumption of alcohol leads directly to a state of Serotonin Depletion resulting from a reduction in the concentration of tryptophan in the blood stream. This is one of the reasons that people that drink alcohol are more likely to engage in impulsive activities, including sex, because Serotonin has a modulating effect upon both self-control and libido.
Serotonin and Your Health
As you can see, Serotonin is one of the most physiologically complex hormones produced by the human body, and affects change in a wide variety of ways. Healthy Serotonin balance is a vital part of sustaining health and wellness, both psychological and physical.
Melatonin Hormone Guide
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that is released by the pineal gland which encourages sleep and helps to preserve the natural human circadian rhythm. Melatonin is also produced by animals and many plants.
Human beings are naturally designed to be awake during daylight and to become sleepy once the sun goes down. That is because we are diurnal creatures. Although the average person sleeps eight hours per night, we have just begun to really understand why we sleep, and the processes behind it, in recent years.
Although we have been keenly aware of the connection between light/dark and the sleep cycle, we are only now becoming aware of the mechanisms which promote this cycle, and melatonin is one of the keys to this cycle.
It used to be believed that Mmlatonin was the primary mechanism which controlled the circadian rhythm, but today it is clear that melatonin is a tool that the body uses to change the body's physiological patterns to induce sleep, as controlled by the central nervous system.
How Do Light and Dark Promote Patterns of Wakefulness?
Our brains actually process the presence or absence of light through the eyes in order to send information to the brain regarding the sleep cycle. The eyes absorb light, and this information passes from the eyes to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus has a particular region known as the suprachiasmic nucleus which reacts to sunlight and other factors in order to either promote a state of wakefulness or sleepiness by manipulating body temperature, hormone release, and other factors which promote a normal sleep cycle.
Think of the suprachiasmic nucleus as a clock. Under normal circumstances, human beings usually wake up around the same time each day, and the appearance of sunlight plays a central role in establishing that set pattern. For example, when the suprachiasmic nucleus senses sunlight, it responds by promoting the secretion of cortisol and increasing ambient body temperature. In addition to this, the suprachiasmic nucleus also suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone which encourages the body to go into a sleep state. Once the sun goes down, the body stops suppressing melatonin release, which encourages sleepiness.
Melatonin is often taken as a supplement in order to help promote sleep. This can be effective for many patients, but should only be used for a brief period of time, because long-term use can affect the body's hormone patterns.
Of course, anyone that experiences significant issues with sleep should talk to a professional in order to get the appropriate treatment, but for mild or temporary sleeplessness, melatonin is often a fine option.
Where Does the Body Make Melatonin?
Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, which is about the size of a bean and is situated in the central portion of the brain. Under normal circumstances, the pineal gland does not produce Melatonin during the day, but as the sun goes down and the suprachiasmic nucleus no longer receives sufficient light signal, this causes the body to start producing Melatonin.
After the pineal gland produces melatonin, it immediately begins to circulate through the blood stream. For people with normal sleeping patterns, this generally happens at about nine o'clock at night. This is why, a couple of hours after the sun falls down, you naturally enter a state of sleepiness, which inhibits your alertness and causes you to seek out a comfortable place to rest.
Once the body starts to release melatonin, it will continue to do so until sunlight, when melatonin levels will drop, encouraging wakefulness, until around nine o'clock in the morning, when the pineal gland completely deactivates and melatonin production halts. During the day, the body produces almost no melatonin.
Of course, time is not the only factor with regard to melatonin, light is also important. If it is the appropriate time, but the body still senses bright light associated with daytime, then the pineal gland will be activated but will not produce melatonin. In many cases, light produced indoors, especially white light with a lot of blue waves, will be interpreted by the brain as sunlight. This is why it's important to turn off computers and televisions about an hour before bed in order to promote a healthy sleep cycle.
Melatonin is processed by the liver, and is filtered quickly. Ninety percent of Melatonin is processed by the liver the first time it passes through the organ.
How Much Melatonin Does the Body Release at Night?
Dependent on a wide variety of factors, different people produce different levels of melatonin. There does appear to be a strong correlation between age and melatonin production, where children produce the greatest concentrations of melatonin, and older adults produce less over time. This is both why children tend to sleep longer and deeper, and why adults tend to sleep for shorter periods of time. Older adults that have issues sleeping produce less melatonin than their peers on average.
How Much Melatonin Should I Take To Sleep?
Melatonin is a common supplement, and is actually the only hormone in America that can be obtained without a prescription. Because melatonin is present in many animal and plant-based foods, it is considered a nutrient, rather than a hormone, and is not regulated under the same rules as pharmaceutical drugs and other Bio-Identical Hormones. Supplements do not require FDA-Approval, and are not subject to regulations which are as strict as those intended for medications.
For this reason, it is important to source melatonin responsibly. An issue with many over-the-counter melatonin products is that they often provide much more melatonin than the body naturally has the capability to producein some cases twenty times more than the pineal gland secretes to promote sleep!
A few noted side-effects of melatonin supplementation are depression, fatigue, and vivid dreaming.
There has been quite a bit of animal research conducted with regard to melatonin, and there is evidence that melatonin affects blood pressure, and long-term or heavy use can potentially affect fertility. Because of the potential impact of melatonin upon blood pressure, those that are at high risk of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, or hypertension should always talk to their doctor before using melatonin. Melatonin may also exacerbate sleep apnea.
The best way to use melatonin is to use it to establish a healthy and natural circadian rhythm. This means that it should be taken an hour or so before you are ready to go to bed, so that you can get comfortable and fall naturally to sleep. Also, it is important to take a physiologically natural dose of melatonin in order to prevent side-effects and help your body stay in a normal rhythm.
It is important to note that our knowledge of melatonin (as is true with many other hormones), is incomplete, and more potential treatments or more effective usage protocols may be adopted in the future.
Is Melatonin Dangerous?
Although there are potential concerns regarding melatonin's effect upon mood and cardiovascular health, there has never been a case of melatonin overdose, and there is no evidence that Melatonin overdose produces any toxic effects.
Many people have taken melatonin and report that it does indeed help them sleep. It is unclear if melatonin is better than placebo at inducing sleep however. Some studies have shown that Melatonin is no more effective than sugar pill, but there is evidence that melatonin produces other benefits.
For example, melatonin does have the ability to help patients realign their circadian rhythm to a normal schedule. Continuing study needs to be performed, however, to compare the benefits of melatonin to sunlight exposure in promoting healthy sleep patterns. Even so, Melatonin can be very useful for individuals that are exposed to bright light, such as the light of a computer screen, after sundown.
Melatonin has been shown to be highly effective at restoring sleep patterns and promoting sleep both for individuals that work odd hours, and for people suffering from jet lag.
Melatonin does not seem to have an impact on average length of sleep, but it does appear to help patients sleep more soundly, and fall asleep more quickly. Patients that have trouble getting themselves in bed at night may find melatonin very effective. The jury is still out, however, as there are some studies that show otherwise.
The biggest benefit of Melatonin is that it can alter an individuals circadian rhythm, helping them to reset the clock when their bodies are out of sync with their lives. Supplemental melatonin provides this benefit for around six hours.
Individuals should not take Melatonin in the hours just after they have woken up, because it can lead to fatigue and cognitive disruption when taken during a period when the body has just had a large amount of sleep.
Melatonin for Insomnia
The body of research regarding Melatonin and Insomnia is small, and there have been mixed results. In one particular study of men and women over the age of fifty, melatonin appeared to improve both sleep quality and the time that it took to fall asleep. Other studies have shared the result of improved sleep onset, but melatonin did not help insomnia patients maintain energy levels in the daytime, and did not help patients stay asleep through the entire night.
Before more conclusive evidence can be drawn, more elaborate research will need to be performed in order to assess the effectiveness of melatonin as an insomnia treatment. Also, there are no set guidelines for how much melatonin to take to treat various conditions.
Melatonin and Jet Lag
Jet lag is a condition that occurs when an individual changes time zones rapidly, causing their normal sleep schedule, as governed by day-night cycles, to be disrupted. The more time zones that an individual travels, the more time that it will take to recover. As a result, people feel fatigued when they would normally be rested, and they also become hungry at off-times.
There are a number of things that can make jet lag worse. For example, many people don't sleep well on planes. Also, caffeine and alcohol can further alter sleep cycle. The circadian rhythm is important, and when individuals with set rhythms become disrupted, it can completely change their ability to go about their day.
A recent survey of people that regularly travel on business showed that around 50% of these individuals routinely have jet lag as a result of long-distance flights. As a result of this jet lag, they claimed that their productivity and performance were directly impacted. For reasons that are unclear, women were more affected by jet lag than their male peers.
Perhaps because melatonin is available as a cheap over-the-counter supplement, there has not been extensive study regarding its benefits with regard to jet lag. However, studies conducted thus far have shown that melatonin is highly effective at mitigating or completely preventing jet lag. Traveling forward in time or traveling 5+ time zones in a trip were correlated with the greatest degree of benefit.
Melatonin and Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
There are other conditions which impact circadian rhythm as well. For example, Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome is a condition in which patients have major issues falling asleep at normal times, sometimes unable to sleep before sunrise.
This condition affects people of all ages, but is most common among teens. Research shows that melatonin can be an effective method to treat this condition and promote healthy sleep, but for many patients, simply exposing oneself to bright light when one wishes to be awake is equally beneficial.
Melatonin and Libido
In animals, melatonin plays a role in sex drive. Melatonin has the ability to suppress both Follicle-Stimulating Hormone and Luteinizing Hormone, which are important for the maintenance of libido as well as the production of sperm. The way that a species responds to melatonin depends on whether they are sexually active during the day or at night.
Animals that mate at night breed better while melatonin levels are high and daytime breeders mate most effectively when melatonin levels are low. Taking melatonin can negatively affect fertility in some individuals, but there is also evidence that it can promote fertility and libido in others. More research needs to be done to more accurately show how melatonin affects human fertility and libido.
Melatonin and Leptin
Leptin is one of the hormones that controls our hunger. High levels of Leptin produce the sensation of satiety. Leptin levels are affected by melatonin in a complex way. Melatonin interacts with Leptin and Insulin, helping to reduce hunger during sleep. If Melatonin and Leptin interact outside of the presence of Insulin, this causes Leptin levels to decline, however.
Melatonin and the Immune System
In addition to sleep, sex drive, and hunger, melatonin also has an impact on the function of the immune system. The research is limited in this regard, but melatonin does seem to have antiinflammatory properties. Researchers are attempting to discover if melatonin can be used as a way to mitigate inflammation. It is believed that Melatonin promotes the synthesis of cytokines which limit inflammation. In the near future, melatonin may be an important part of fighting both viruses and bacterial infections, and it also may benefit many people with cancer.
Melatonin and Dreaming
In some cases, people that take melatonin supplements report intense dreams. Studies have shown that a 50 milligram dose of Melatonin appears to increase the number of dreams because it lengthens the period of time that an individual spends in REM-Sleep, the period where dreams are most common.
Melatonin and Autism
Melatonin is useful for patients with Aspergers and Autism, because it helps them sleep longer and deeper.
Melatonin and Aging
There is some evidence that suggests that melatonin may be a useful anti-aging tool. It has long been known that children produce higher levels of melatonin later in the night, and older individuals reach peak melatonin much earlier. It is hypothesized that this is one of the reasons why younger and older individuals often have such different sleeping habits. It is also hypothesized that this is why adults don't sleep as long, and why they are more prone to sleep dysfunction.
Animal research studies have also shown that exposure to exogenous melatonin changes the expression of thirteen separate genes in geriatric mice, reverting their expression to those associated with youth. The antioxidant properties in melatonin also may have a neuroprotective effect, which promotes neurological health deeper in to the lifespan, while also reducing inflammation. Both of these aspects have a significant impact on longevity.
Melatonin and Diabetes
Diabetes and Melatonin Levels appear to be correlated. Individuals that produce less melatonin than their peers appear to be more likely to develop Type-Two Diabetes. This could be because people that produce enough melatonin have greater issues controlling insulin, and also because less melatonin means that the body doesn't rest as well, which has a tremendous impact on hormone health.
Melatonin and ADHD Treatment
Research has shown that patients taking medications such as Adderall for ADHD find it easier to sleep at night if they take melatonin before bed. Preliminary studies have shown that this benefit of melatonin does not decrease over the course of three months of treatment.
Is There a Connection Between Melatonin and Fertility?
Melatonin and Sleep
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