Summary: Melatonin is a
natural hormone, synthesized and released by the pineal gland at the base of the
brain, in a cyclical manner, to regulate our inbuilt biological clock. This
induces sleep, hunger, etc. at set times, to regulate our body functions.
Now, there is some anecdotal evidence to show that melatonin may have some behavior modification role in Autism. Last updated January 21, 2007
MELATONIN HORMONE THERAPY OF AUTISM
The human body has a built in biological clock that runs on a 25 hour cycle, not the 24 hour cycle that the sun has. To correct this anomaly, the brain has a clock regulator called melatonin, a hormone secreted by a tiny gland situated at the base of the brain called pineal gland. The gland is closely associated with the pathway of nerves and neurons between the eyes and the visual centers in brain. The release of the melatonin hormone from the gland is signaled by the absence of signals from the eye to the brain, i.e. the sense of darkness. The resultant higher levels of the hormone in blood inhibit the centers in the brain stem responsible for keeping us awake, thus inducing sleep
This hormone has long remained a mystery, and still is. We know only sketchy details about its role in the human system. It helps the body to synchronize itself with the solar day, regulate when when we sleep, eat, work as well as when most other hormones should or should not be secreted. For example, the level of the stress hormone, hydrocortisone, peaks at mid-day and troughs at midnight. Corresponding to this, asthma attacks are least common at day and come with increased frequency and severity at night. This is a simple example of how melatonin may regulate the body. In totality, the actual effects of melatonin have much wider application.
Melatonin is so safe that it is permitted for sale over the counter without prescription, for sleep disturbances, especially for those due to Jet-lag after prolonged international travel, night duty work hours, etc.. It is usually given about half an hour before going to bed. The bedroom should be quite and dark for optimum effect. The usual dose is one to three tablets of 3 mg. each, given as a single pre-bedtime dose, though doses many folds higher have shown no ill effects. In case tolerance develops over time, it's use should be stopped for two to four weeks to allow the body to overcome the tolerance and regain efficacy. It's dose must not be increased to overcome tolerance.
Now, evidence is beginning to emerge that melatonin may also influence behavior in autism, as per an article by Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D. Bowling Green State University Bowling Green, OH
Autistic children often have sleep disturbances, which suggests that there may be some problem associated with the melatonin system. Melatonin seems to be an effective sleep regulator, not only for autistic children but also indirectly for their overworked parents. Autistic children receiving melatonin regularly exhibit benefits that cannot be explained in simple terms like better sleep. It may be a combination of better sleep, better control of biological rhythms and high Anti-Oxidant effect.
[During various body chemical reactions, many harmful ionized particles are liberated called FREE RADICALS. They try to burn adjacent body tissues and chemicals, and have been implicated as the cause of old age degenerations, hypertension, atherosclerosis, cataract, macular degeneration of eyes, and so on. Agents that neutralize these ionized particles before they can cause harm are called Anti-Oxidants, and include vitamin E, vitamin C, carotenoids in vegetables and fruits, as well as many body-generated chemicals. Melatonin is an extremely powerful Anti-Oxidant surpassing vitamin E or C.]
Melatonin therapy of Autism certainly merits more research. However, there appears to be no harm in giving it to sleep deprived autistic children / persons, as it appears to be safe, effective, and possible useful. If they sleep well, their parents or care-givers sleep well too. However, it is necessary to do so, especially in children, only under the supervision of the regular physician, till we have more data.
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