I adore that movie with Meryl Strep directed by one of my favorite directors, Nancy Meyers, called “It’s Complicated.” That sums up so much of life. Well, it’s also an accurate way of looking at marvelous melatonin.

Melatonin is a multi-tasking complicated hormone. Many of us think of it as a sleep hormone. But it’s much, much more. Just a few examples are: melatonin is one of the most powerful and least damaging anti-oxidants there are. It fights multiple types of cancer as we sleep.  And, it helps prevent, but sometimes promotes, type-2 diabetes!

It’s complicated.

Here’s the melatonin/pancreas story.

When you sleep, your pancreas is supposed to sleep, too. As your pancreas snoozes, it’s supposed to secrete LESS insulin. This is a good thing. We are sleeping. We’re not eating or exercising. Our energy demands are down. So we need less insulin. Less insulin as we sleep, lowers our risk over our lifetime of type 2-diabetes. It also lowers our risk of getting fat. This is all very good.

How the pancreas makes less insulin at night is partly mediated by your melatonin blood levels. Your pineal gland squirts melatonin into your blood stream. Some travels to your pancreas. These melatonin signals then inform special cells, called beta cells, to manufacture less insulin. Over time, these lower nighttime levels of insulin decrease your risk of type-2 diabetes. They also decrease your risk of becoming obese, especially obesity that’s hard as heck to shed.

In other words, melatonin helps the pancreas secrete less insulin while you sleep and keep your waist, hips and thighs thinner.

But some people have melatonin genes that are rogue. Up to 30% people may have them. People with melatonin genetic glitches may be predisposed to having a pancreas that’s adversely responsive to the insulin-inhibiting effects of melatonin.

There are 100 gene variants that have been identified which increase our risk of getting type-2 diabetes. Added now to this list is a melatonin gene variant called MTNR1B.  If folks have this melatonin gene variant, when the pineal gland releases melatonin as you sleep, the pancreas secretes too much insulin. This ups your risk of diabetes. And of getting fat. Especially resistant fat.

This suggests that some of us who have this melatonin gene variant may not do well with taking melatonin nightly. If you do take melatonin every night before bed, it’s a critical plan to work with a medical practitioner or provider that can measure and interpret your insulin levels to make sure you are getting benefits, not upping your risks.

If you don’t manufacture adequate melatonin because perhaps you have lights on, or your pineal gland is calcified which it does in many of us naturally as we age (thus we get more sleeping issues as we get older), or you don’t sleep long or deep enough, or some of your melatonin genes are “glitchy”, your pancreas may over-release insulin while you sleep.

Melatonin can be taken (called delivery mode) by fast acting, time release and even topical. All this depends on your individual situation. Once again, it’s best to work with a smart practitioner. Your typical nutritionist at the gym or even many functional medicine docs, most likely are not going to know these kind of in-depth details about melatonin.

If you sleep deeper and better, you get less fat. You have less risk of type-2 diabetes. Part of that reason is that the better sleep architecture causes the release of more melatonin. But this may only be good if you don’t have rogue melatonin genes that don’t allow sleeping pancreases to peacefully sleep.

Nature’s complicated, but amazing!

Tuomi, Nagorny, Singh et al. Increased melatonin signaling is a risk factor for Type 2 Diabetes. Cell Metabolism, 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.04.009

Safe Hormones, Smart Women (Awakened Medicine Press 2010)