Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice, marks the shortest day of the year with only a little more than nine hours of daylight here in Pittsburgh. With less light some people might be feeling ready for bed a little early. According to researchers, this is another way our bodies fight off some diseases.
With shorter days and longer nights our bodies’ melatonin levels are rising earlier than usual. Melatonin is the molecule that tells our bodies when it is night and prepares us for sleep. Melatonin has also been found to be important in maintaining healthy bones.
Duquesne University Professor of Pharmacology Paula Witt-Enderby has been researching the effects of melatonin in creating the cells that form our bones. Staying up late and exposing ourselves to artificial light such as computer or cell phone screens can greatly disrupt our body’s melatonin levels and throw off our natural circadian rhythm. Witt-Enderby’s findings show that melatonin levels can help to fight osteoporosis, bone fractures, and certain types of cancer.
“The new thing, kind of what we’re looking at is it also shows protection against bone loss so it seems to be this general molecule that just kind of keeps our bodies healthy and when you start to affect the rhythm of melatonin or even levels of melatonin in our bodies that’s when we start to see disease occur,” says Witt-Enderby.
Witt-Enderby’s research team conducted a trial that showed a way to reverse the bone loss associated with women going through menopause. As women’s estrogen levels change their bodies become more vulnerable to bone loss. By taking a melatonin supplement nightly, the subjects of the study were able to fight this bone loss.
Studies conducted by the Bassett Institute and Harvard Medical School have also shown that shift workers have an increased risk of hip and wrist fractures as well as breast, endometrial, and prostate cancers.
According to Witt-Enderby, many of the ways to increase melatonin production are pretty simple.
“The problem comes though if you leave your tv on at night or you stay up very late or you’re using your cellphone or just things that would disrupt your normal melatonin rhythm so that’s what we’re seeing as possibly being some culprit behind the ill health that we’re seeing in individuals.”