Melatonin, hormone of the pineal gland, is concerned with biological timing. It is secreted at night in all species and in ourselves is thereby associated with sleep, lowered core body temperature, and other night time events. The period of melatonin secretion has been described as ‘biological night’. Its main function in mammals is to ‘transduce’ information about the length of the night, for the organisation of daylength dependent changes, such as reproductive competence. Exogenous melatonin has acute sleepiness-inducing and temperature-lowering effects during ‘biological daytime’, and when suitably timed (it is most effective around dusk and dawn) it will shift the phase of the human circadian clock (sleep, endogenous melatonin, core body temperature, cortisol) to earlier (advance phase shift) or later (delay phase shift) times. The shifts induced are sufficient to synchronise to 24 h most blind subjects suffering from non-24 h sleep–wake disorder, with consequent benefits for sleep. Successful use of melatonin’s chronobiotic properties has been reported in
other sleep disorders associated with abnormal timing of the circadian system: jetlag, shiftwork, delayed sleep phase syndrome, some sleep problems of the elderly. No long term safety data exist, and the optimum dose and formulation for any application remains to be clarified.