When Melatonin Helps: What it Really Means
Melatonin quickly became a household name as parents around the country discovered it can help konk out children at night, erasing or easing bedtime fights and struggles. But, just as quickly as popularity peaked for this hormone that is normally created in the brain and gut through amino acid synthesis, its following tanked when the media unleashed a volley of warnings about side effects and unknown dangers.
Although the caution is merited and well worth noting, it turns out that melatonin is a big player. Parents might have fallen in love with the supplement because it heralded an end to the struggle over bedtime. Now, they need to learn about its vital role outside of the bedroom.
Melatonin is a hormone. The body normally synthesizes it in the gut and brain by converting an amino acid, l-tryptophan, through several fairly complex stages. Most people recognize melatonin as a brain hormone that regulates the circadian rhythm, which is to say, it helps people go to sleep at the right time.
Stopping there is a disservice to this important hormone, which actually has several big roles in the body such as regulating the immune system, assisting with producing the primary antioxidant called glutathione, and scrubbing free radical and oxidative damage.
Another role melatonin plays in the body is binding with heavy metals and healing the damage from them. This is not a minor role. The medical literature is so compelling on melatonin's ability to remove heavy metals from the body that it's considered more effective than other popular chelating substances such as vitamin C! Pieri et al measured radical scavenger activity using commonly accepted antioxidants such as vitamin E and glutathione, and found that melatonin was superior (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7934611).
Not only does melatonin effectively eradicate metals and alleviate oxidative stress, it also continues to support and enhance other antioxidants, helping the immune system to recover from the toxic exposure or trauma.
Helping is a Red Flag
If you've given your child melatonin out of desperation in the face of SPD, ASD, or ADHD symptoms and found that it helps, it's most likely a red flag warning that you need to do more research and potentially provide more supplements or lifestyle changes. Tryptophan, the precursor that helps to create serotonin and melatonin in the body, is a simple amino acid available in a variety of foods. Short of a severely restricted diet, an actual deficiency probably does not explain why giving supplemental melatonin is helping your child. This means a problem lies in other areas, such as the body needing more than normal to combat a problem.
Since the symptoms of metal toxicity and impaired immune function overlap many behavioral disorders, it's important to look carefully at your child's health status and environment. Heavy metals such as lead and aluminum are ubiquitous, present in food, water, cosmetics, art supplies, and every day household items. Something as innocent as a tube of toothpaste can contain over 10mg of aluminum. And electronic devices and cords are often contaminated with lead. If you become a detective and look under every stone in your child's life, you might find the underlying cause, and finally be able to eradicate it.
Here's a quick list of items that represent chronic, accumulative exposure to aluminum:
Aluminum soda cans and aluminum coated juice pouches
Aluminum foil used for cooking
A quick list of lead sources:
Lead tainted water
Glazes used on dishes
These are just two quick lists of two common heavy metals! It's easy to see how chronic, overlooked exposure can occur. And this slow, accumulative exposure can impair young children silently, resulting in things such as verbal delays, tics, seizures, bedtime wetting, mineral deficiencies, abdominal pain, dizziness/balance issues, hyperactivity, teeth defects, leg cramps, low muscle tone, and nausea. Some of these issues fly under the radar because they look like something else. Muscle cramping and twitching for example, might be categorized as normal growing pains and missed until it continues for many months. Nausea and abdominal pain might cause a young child to act picky or refuse to eat, resulting in other diagnoses such as sensory disorders or anxiety.
Take the next step
One thing that must be emphasized: if you do suspect heavy metal toxicity, research, and then research again. Mobilizing and excreting metals from the body is not a simple process, especially if your child has an actual burden. This is truly one of the cases where it's wise to spend the money and take the time to work with a professional. Despite the thousands of blog posts and forum discussions available on detoxing metals, it remains a complicated and sometimes damaging or painful journey that's best done with someone who is experienced. Melatonin as a supplement is also still a synthetic hormonal intervention with scant data on chronic use in young children. This is about researching and then weighing the benefits and the risks.
If your child has been displaying concerning or difficult behaviors and melatonin seems to help, don't hesitate to dig deeper. Start reading about various related topics so you can fit the pieces together. Learn about the role of active B vitamins in overcoming genetic defects. Review how the liver works at breaking down toxins and how it can be damaged. Look at the endocrine system and the immune system and how they work together. As you start to see the whole puzzle, you'll be more likely to find the missing pieces for your individual child, whether that's something such as an acute injury from vaccination, or gut damage from antibiotics, or genetic defects that have created chronic nutritional deficiencies, or anything else.
Investigate your child's environment and look for hidden sources of toxins and heavy metals. If you haven't already, or haven't in several years, take your child in for basic lead testing and vitamin D testing. These are two tests that are less-invasive and less expensive, which makes for a great first baby step. The sooner you begin to find the issue, the sooner you can start to make additional changes for your child's health and wellbeing!