By Bo Martinsen, MD
Some 25 years ago, many of my patients at my clinic in Norway were working for an international IT company that required them to travel frequently. Seeing how exhausted they would be from their travels, I explored possible remedies. Back then, melatonin was starting to be touted as a jet lag aid, so I suggested my patients try it out.
For some patients, melatonin seemed to help. But it also struck me that melatonin’s effects seemed to vary greatly from one person to another in terms of sleep. After a year or two, I became less fascinated by melatonin’s sleep-inducing abilities and did not talk about it frequently.
Fast forward two decades and my interest in melatonin has renewed as I’ve found that the benefits of this molecule extend far beyond that of sleep. Researchers today are exploring the role of melatonin in cancer medicine, aging, and immune health. In addition, there is a small body of research that has started to look at the synergy between melatonin and my specialty, omega-3 fatty acids. From the research, it appears that melatonin and omega-3s increase the benefits of one another and may also be instrumental for protecting the powerhouse of the cell — the mitochondria — from damage.
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a molecule that’s indispensable for life. Secreted by the brain’s pineal gland in response to darkness, melatonin helps regulate our circadian rhythm. It is also found plentifully in the intestinal tract, liver and retina, working simultaneously as a scavenger of cancer cells, an anti-inflammatory agent, and as a powerful antioxidant.
This antioxidant function is what initially drew me back to melatonin. Studies indicate that melatonin can protect omega-3 fatty acids from lipid peroxidation, a process in which free radicals attack and damage molecules. If an omega-3 molecule becomes damaged by exposure to oxygen, for instance, it’s prevented from carrying out its functions in the cell. Omega-3s are highly susceptible to lipid peroxidation because of their many double bonds. That’s why melatonin’s potential ability to shield these vulnerable fatty acids from damage could be instrumental for maintaining the safety and efficacy of foods and supplements that contain omega-3s.
How Melatonin and Omega-3 Work Together
Aside from protecting them from lipid peroxidation, melatonin also seems to promote the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids in the body. Studies show that, when taken together, melatonin increases the levels of the EPA omega-3 fatty acid in the brain, thus improving the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. This is also significant since scientists note the benefits of EPA for specific cell types involved in reducing neuroinflammation.
Intriguingly, omega-3 fatty acids also appear to be helpful for the body’s production of melatonin. Because omega-3 fatty acids make up a part of the pineal gland, some scientists believe that the pineal gland may actually be synergistically regulated by the omega-3 molecules.
Melatonin and Omega-3s May Fight Aging
Perhaps most interesting of all is how melatonin and omega-3 may work together to fight aging via supporting the mitochondria.
If you don’t remember from your biology class, here is a reminder: The mitochondrion functions as the cell’s powerhouse, providing the energy our cells need to function. It is also connected with cellular aging. It’s believed that, if we can improve mitochondrial functioning and prevent damage to these important cell structures, we can delay the onset of age-related chronic diseases.
Both melatonin and omega-3 appear to come together to protect the mitochondria from damage. Research reveals that the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is important for optimal mitochondrial function. And in a recent study, it was also discovered that melatonin “exhibited a protective effect on mitochondrial function.”
While scientists are still trying to understand the intricacies of whether mitochondrial damage is a cause or symptom of aging, it is clear that omega-3 and melatonin are crucial for optimal mitochondrial functioning. Take a look at the mitochondrion, an intricate labyrinth of membrane surface. Omega-3 molecules make up a significant portion of this membrane. And it is here that the omega-3 molecules meet melatonin during energy creation, directly on the inside surface of the membrane.
New Formulations for Optimal Health
The more we discover about melatonin and omega-3s, the clearer it becomes that these molecules belong together. Omega-3 rich foods often contain high levels of melatonin. Cod liver oil, for instance, is a good source of both, but during the regular refining process, almost all of the natural melatonin is lost.
By combining melatonin and omega-3s together again, perhaps we can work towards smarter formulations for optimal health. We found that when we added melatonin directly into our omega-3 oil, the results were different than taking melatonin alone or as a tablet. While more research is still needed on this partnership, these early findings are promising.
About Dr. Bo Martinsen
Dr. Martinsen is an omega-3 specialist, innovator, and advocate for natural foods. As co-founder of Omega3 Innovations, he has created multiple patented technologies for medical devices designed to improve consumer compliance. He is also the creator of several medical food products that combine dose-
effective ingredients of omega-3 fish oil with soluble fibers and other nutrients. Before Omega3 Innovations, Dr. Martinsen practiced medicine in Norway, focusing on occupational and preventive medicine.
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