Healthy young and middle-aged adults generally secrete about 5 to 25 micrograms of melatonin each night. This amount tends to decline with age, and this decline is possibly linked with an age-related rise in sleep difficulties.

What is Melatonin, Really?
Melatonin is sometimes described as the sleep hormone, but this is not correct. It is not geared to the sleep cycle, although it may help you fall and stay asleep. It is produced in the dark, regardless of whether or not the person is sleeping. Hence its name, which was coined in 1958 from the Greek word, ‘melas,’ meaning ‘black.’ Theoretically, you could be up and about in the dark (such as listening to the radio) and still produce the normal amount of melatonin.

At dusk, the decrease in sunlight sends a signal from receptors in the eyes to the brain that stimulates the pineal gland to produce more melatonin. Hormone levels then continue to rise steadily for hours, peaking at around 2 a.m. (3 a.m. in older people). It then declines sharply as morning approaches. By 8 a.m. or so your melatonin levels are back down to their typical low daytime point, only to start the cycle over again the following evening.

The pineal gland is a small part of the body’s endocrine system and is located between the brain’s two hemispheres. This particular gland secretes melatonin, which is believed to contribute to our effects of well-being and happiness and regulates our sleep/wake cycle. Melatonin is also believed to fight free radicals that can damage neurons. Melatonin may be the most powerful endogenous, non-enzymatic free radical scavenger currently known in all organisms.

Technology vs. Melatonin Production
As humanity continues into the new millennium, technology and communication continue to play an increasingly important role in human life. Today, most people in developed countries are completely connected through cell phones, tablets and computers. Today’s households have an increasing array of electrical devices, from wireless modems to intelligent appliances to smart meters. Where 50 years ago, 1 electrical outlet per room was sufficient, today, homes have at least 1 outlet per wall on every wall of the house. People are always connected, and figuratively, the world is getting smaller each day. As the Information Age unfolds, so does information about our exposure to artificial electromagnetic fields (EMF) that many believe can be quite harmful to the human body.

It is documented that the pineal gland is sensitive to all types of electromagnetic fields, in addition to light and geomagnetic fields of the Sun’s solar storms. The problem with doing research on the topic of the effects of electromagnetic fields on the pineal gland and melatonin secretion is that the issues are very complex. Attempts at doing research in free living humans are contaminated by multiple influences, including light exposure, magnetic fields in the home and workplace setting, stress effects, nutrition status and other external magnetic field exposures. Much of the research is been done in animals, particularly using high frequency magnetic fields, such as cell phone frequencies and intensities. It’s well known that it is hard to extrapolate results from effects in animals to humans because of the very different physiologies.

Even if you don’t believe that heavy usage of devices such as cell phones can cause cancer and brain tumors, one must acknowledge the documented proof that electronic devices can disrupt or alter brain function. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies external electromagnetic fields (EMFs) as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans that might transform normal cells into cancer cells. This applies primarily to the high frequency EMFs in the environment from cell towers, Wi-Fi, TV and radio stations, cell phones and in-house electrical appliances, including electric blankets. Researchers reported that those who were using conventional electric blankets showed no variations in melatonin metabolite excretion. However, when using continuous polymer wire (CPW) blankets there were more significant changes in nighttime excretion. The CPW blankets switched on and off approximately twice as often when in service and produced magnetic fields that were 50% stronger than those from the conventional electric blankets.

Pineal Gland vs. EMFs, Power Lines, and Devices
One author postulated that the pineal gland likely recognizes EMF as light, which consequently would result in reduced melatonin production, just as light does. For example, from staying up too late watching TV or using electronic devices, ie, both EMF and light sources.

Since melatonin is produced at specific times during the night, it would be expected that there would be different effects of external stimuli that would affect the pineal gland differently based on the time of day of exposure. So there would be daytime exposure, early night, mid-night and late night. Another author found in rats that exposure to magnetic fields during mid- or late dark phase of the night of natural melatonin production significantly suppressed the main enzyme in melatonin production, as well as the melatonin content in the pineal gland. These parameters were not influenced by magnetic fields when the exposure occurred early in the dark phase or during the day. These results suggest that the responsiveness of the pineal gland to magnetic fields changes throughout the day and night.

Another variable in this mix of stimulators is power lines. Power line cables can ionize the air creating so-called corona ions. These corona ions generate aerosols which subsequently attach themselves to larger pollutant aerosol particles in the air. These may be carried considerable distances from the power line by the wind. Analysis suggests that at head height, typically 20% of pollutant aerosols either become charged or carry excess electric charge. On average the effect can extend to about 600 feet downwind of power lines. In one case, the effect extended more than 1500 feet from a 275 kV line. So, power lines in your neighborhood can be affecting you too. The hypothesis of melatonin disruption in studies of human populations could be possibly due to factors other than field intensity level, such as electrical wiring transients or switching, or due to the field type (electric rather than magnetic field).

Light emitting diodes [LEDs] in our electronics in our bedrooms can also affect us by light effects through the frequencies emitted by the various types of lights, red, blue, yellow, etc. These can disrupt pineal melatonin production as well. In fact, another research study found that while an individual exposure, on any given night, may not create a problem, chronic exposures over time may create disruptions in pineal melatonin production.

Summary of Research
In a very good research summary, they found that in many animals, EMF exposure reduces levels of the protective hormone melatonin. Over the years, some investigators reported similar effects on human melatonin levels, while others looked carefully and found no effect. Two new studies demonstrate that women sleeping in bedrooms with higher average measured magnetic field levels have decreased average levels of melatonin production at night. Even more interesting, both studies hint that such an interaction between magnetic fields and melatonin may be specific to certain subgroups of women, revealing stronger melatonin effects in older women, women who are heavier, and those who use certain drugs such as beta blockers.

In one of the studies there was no overall effect of EMF exposure on nighttime urinary excretion of the melatonin metabolite in the study group. Higher mean magnetic field exposures do increase the effect of certain factors associated with decreased melatonin secretion, specifically higher age and excessive body weight. The difference may have been due to the characteristics of the study subjects or to the magnetic field characteristics, with “natural” fields in the epidemiologic studies being lower in average intensity, more variable, and laced with higher frequency components due to transients on the electrical service. Basically, what this review is telling us, is that the interaction between electromagnetic fields and melatonin is copied and uncertain what the contribution is of any given aspect of the sensitivity to environmental or therapeutic magnetic fields.

Because we want to honor the principle of “first of all, do no harm,” we often have to make a clinical choice between helping people with the problems they have versus the potential risk of harm, albeit small. It’s likely that so many things are interacting in our bodies simultaneously that the effects of interactions of many other stimuli to the body or cumulatively more potent than whatever may happen with PEMFs. Still, using the cautionary principle, and not knowing to what extent the external therapeutic application of PEMFs may have on melatonin production, I have long been recommending that people, particularly women, should consider using melatonin, even in very low doses ranging from .5 mg to 3 mg per night to offset any potential added risks that therapeutic PEMFs could have.

Testing the EMF-Melatonin Hypothesis. Goldberg, Robert. EMF Health Report. November/December 2001. Volume 9 • Number 6.
Multi-night exposure to 60 Hz magnetic fields: effects on melatonin and its enzymatic metabolite. Graham C1, Cook MR, Sastre A, Riffle DW, Gerkovich MM. J Pineal Res. 2000 Jan;28(1):1-8.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. William Pawluk is an international medical expert in the medical use of electromagnetic fields (PEMFs), with over 27 years experience. He has had academic appointments at Johns Hopkins and U of Maryland, co-hosted a natural medicine radio show for over 10 years, has appeared on The Dr OZ Show, written and done interviews and lectures on magnetics, conducted research on the use of various kinds of PEMFs on pain, wound healing, concussion, etc., and teaches professionals and consults regularly with the public on the use of magnetic therapies. He has an authoritative website, and published the book Power Tools for Health, reviewing the science and various therapy options.