Melatonin, better known as the “sleep hormone,” regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Apart from helping in regulating sleep, melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant, and it’s considered as beneficial as some vitamins. In recent years, researchers have studied the role of melatonin for acid reflux, and they have found that melatonin supplementation can provide relief from GERD.
What Does Research Say About Melatonin and GERD?
As per conventional beliefs, the pineal gland (a small gland located in the brain) is responsible for producing and releasing melatonin in the body. However, researchers have found that cells in the stomach and the intestines (gastrointestinal tract) also secrete melatonin. These cells are responsible for maintaining melatonin levels during the day.
A study by Polish researchers in 2013, published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, found that mean melatonin levels were lower in patients with GERD and recurrent stomach ulcers, as compared to healthy individuals. The study also concluded that lower levels of melatonin in the GI tract contribute to the onset and progression of many ailments of the stomach and the intestines. The researchers suggested that melatonin supplementation can be beneficial if used for therapeutic purposes.
Another study found that lower melatonin levels in the innermost lining of the stomach can give rise to spontaneous ulcers. The research showed how supplementation of melatonin can reverse these ulcers.
Various studies have independently concluded that melatonin is highly effective in treating symptoms of GERD. One study used a combination of melatonin and L-tryptophan as a dietary supplementation. Tryptophan is an amino acid (one of the 20 “units” that make up proteins in our body) which is a substrate for melatonin. This combination was extremely effective in reducing symptoms of GERD like heartburn and stomach pain in a majority of patients. In patients with GERD, melatonin levels are usually low because the cells of the gut are unable to produce enough of it. And hence to support its biosynthesis, L-tryptophan is supplemented along with melatonin.
In the above-mentioned study, researchers gave omeprazole (a proton pump inhibitor) to 175 patients, while 176 patients received a supplement containing melatonin, L-tryptophan and B vitamins over a period of 40 days. All the patients given the melatonin supplement showed complete disappearance of symptoms compared with only 66% of the patients in the omeprazole group who experienced complete relief from symptoms.
This melatonin supplement combination is effective in treating ulcers. This was demonstrated in a patient who had a large ulcer of almost 6 cms. He had lost 88 pounds in six months due to his inability to eat. This was because he wasn’t able to swallow his food without experiencing acute pain. He also suffered from stomach pain and often vomited blood. The patient had tried taking omeprazole and other PPIs as prescribed by gastroenterologists, for many months. But he had no relief. Finally, he was prescribed the melatonin supplement combination. Within 32 days of treatment, his ulcer size had reduced significantly, and he gained 66 pounds during that time. His ulcer disappeared completely within 9 months.
How Does Melatonin Act Against GERD?
There are two ways in which melatonin works on GERD. One, it regulates gastric acidity by inhibiting excess acid formation. It also stimulates the production of bicarbonate (which is an alkali) that neutralizes excess acid produced within the stomach.
Two, it strengthens the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Relaxation of LES is a major reason for acid reflux. Nitric oxide is a chemical that relaxes the LES. However, the type of relaxation brought by nitric oxide (and many other chemicals) is temporary. While a temporary relaxation of the esophageal sphincter is normal, and indeed required, too much of it can cause acidic contents to enter the esophagus and cause heartburn. Melatonin inhibits the biosynthesis of nitric oxide, thereby helping to strengthen the LES and reduce reflux.
Natural Sources of Melatonin
Our body produces melatonin naturally. However, certain lifestyle habits and health problems can hamper the production of melatonin. These include sleep disruption, alcohol, caffeine, blood sugar imbalances, exposure to light, stress and age, among others.
There are certain foods that contain melatonin, like:
- Sweet corn
- Red wine
Certain foods contain tryptophan (a precursor for melatonin), which can also be a great way to increase the production of melatonin.
Foods rich in tryptophan are:
- Dairy products (avoid cheese)
- Beans and pulses
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Whole grains
- Turkey and chicken
How Much Melatonin Helps?
Studies showing efficiency of melatonin to relieve GERD symptoms used a dosage of 3 mg/day for 6-8 weeks. Some experts also suggest a higher dosage of 6 mg for 40 days to treat GERD. You should consult your Functional Therapist to set the right supplement dosage for your condition. Melatonin taken in combination with L-tryptophan and B vitamins is also highly effective in treating GERD.
Here’s one supplement combination that worked for a GERD patient in a study.
- Melatonin 6 mg
- 5-hydroxytryptophan 100 mg
- D,L-methionine 500 mg
- Betaine 100 mg
- L-taurine 50 mg
- Riboflavin 1.7 mg
- Vitamin B6 0.8 mg
- Folic acid 400 mcg, and
- Calcium 50 mg
Is Melatonin Safe?
Melatonin taken as a supplement (even synthetically produced) is safe at low doses (2 mg per day) even if taken for a long time (as long as 2 years). In some rare instances, melatonin can cause side effects like:
- A temporary feeling of depression
- Stomach cramps
- Dizziness, and
- Daytime sleepiness
Melatonin for GERD – The Final Verdict
Melatonin has been proven to be an effective and safe supplement for relieving symptoms of GERD as well in treating stomach ulcers. Studies have shown it to be safe even for long-term use. Side effects are rarely seen if the supplement is used at low dosages.
Melatonin production by stomach cells is 400 times greater than that produced by the pineal gland in the brain. This underlines the importance of this hormone in gastrointestinal health. Research done to highlight its role in the health of the gut has yielded definite results and has made us realize the importance of this hormone in maintaining gut health.