Melatonin 101

Melatonin is a hormone that is produced and secreted at night, and only at night, by the pineal gland. Exposure to light at night completely suppresses the production of melatonin. It doesn’t require very bright lights to stop the production of melatonin—bright indoor white light  at 300 lux) as well as very dim light at 0.25 lux, were both sufficient to prevent all melatonin production in laboratory animals.  Moonlight is about one lux.  Research conducted by the National Institutes of Health showed that even a very brief light exposure suppresses melatonin production in lab animals: a one minute exposure to white light every two hours during the night suppressed melatonin production by 65 percent. The only type of light that does not affect melatonin production is red light.

Melatonin is essential to the regulation of reproduction, body weight, and energy balance, and is necessary for the synchronization of sleep and circadian rhythms.  In other words, if you don’t get enough darkness, you have a very good chance of ending up tired, cranky, listless, out of whack, and possibly obese.  Consider the blue light emanating from the TV, from our laptops and our phones, how much time do you spend in front of it in the evening?

Research has also shown that one of melatonin’s functions is to thwart the growth of cancerous tumors. Researchers began studying the relationship between melatonin and cancer when it became obvious that women who work the night shift have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, and because it was known that nocturnal exposure to light–any color light other than red light—suppresses the normal nightly production of melatonin.

It turns out that human breast cancer cells being grown in live rats, as well as breast cancer cells being grown in petri dishes, proliferate wildly when exposed to artificial lights at night.  I wonder what percentage of cancer patients spent hours of leisure time in front of the tv thinking they were relaxing?  All the while getting weaker and not knowing what effect it was having on the cells of their body?

The fix is easy: Nighttime, go to bed and stay there til dawn.  If you have to be up during overnight  hours, use only red bulbs in your lamps.  Decide what tv shows are crucial and turn the tv on only for them.

My meditation altar has several sets of lights and at night the red lamp is on.  I may not be ready for bed as night falls, but I can keep melatonin production going by sitting to meditate, or to do inner work, or creative visualization, pretending and daydreaming.  When you have an interior life, there are many things you can do in the quiet in the dark alone.

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