The amount of melatonin a person secretes during sleep may predict their likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.

Many of us take melatonin to get a good night’s sleep. Now, new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) suggests that melatonin may play another important role in our health. Led by Dr. Ciaran McMullan, a researcher in the Renal (Kidney) Medicine Division in the Department of Medicine at BWH, the study finds that the amount of melatonin a person secretes during sleep may predict their risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the brain and secreted into your bloodstream. Melatonin, mainly produced at night, helps regulate your body’s sleep cycles.

To determine the link between melatonin and type 2 diabetes, researchers studied women taking part in the Nurse’s Health Study. They identified 370 women who developed type 2 diabetes and compared them to 370 women of same age and race who did not develop the disease. Researchers found that women with low levels of nighttime melatonin production had about twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes than women with high levels of nighttime melatonin production.

The study accounted for other well-established risk factors for diabetes, such as body mass index, family history of diabetes and lifestyle factors including diet, exercise, smoking and sleep duration and still found that melatonin secretion remained a significant risk factor.

“Hopefully this study will prompt future research to examine what influences a person’s melatonin secretion and what is melatonin’s role in altering a person’s glucose metabolism and risk of diabetes,” says Dr. McMullan.

It is important to note that the study did not test whether increasing melatonin levels could protect against type 2 diabetes and so no recommendations on advantages of taking melatonin supplements to prevent diabetes can be made. In particular, many of the melatonin supplements available over the counter are not regulated and can cause spikes in blood levels of melatonin much higher than that normally seen in healthy people. Consult your physician before taking any dietary supplement.

“We feel that this research should encourage randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials to assess the effects of melatonin supplementation on glucose metabolism. Only if melatonin is shown to be effective in reducing the risk of incident diabetes in such a trial would it be wise to recommend melatonin as a means to reduce diabetes,” says Dr. McMullan.

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– Jamie R

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