By Kim Ross, DCN, CNS, IFMCP
Reviewed by Deanna Minich, PhD, CNS, IFMCP
March 14, 2023
Melatonin is just melatonin, right?
There are at least three different sources of melatonin from which supplemental melatonin can be derived: animal, synthetic, or plant sources. Each format can dramatically impact their effectiveness and even safety. As more people, and medical professionals, discover the broad benefits of melatonin, some are going deeper to question the source.
The first source was from animals
Melatonin was first isolated in 1958 from the pineal gland in cows. For thirty years after that time, melatonin supplements were exclusively sourced from cows, sheep, or pigs. However, due to safety concerns of animal sources, such as viral infections and prions (e.g., mad cow disease), melatonin supplements began to be manufactured synthetically in the mid 1990s. Over the last twenty years, nearly all melatonin has been synthetically produced, derived from petrochemicals and other chemicals through an industrial process .
99% of the melatonin on the market is synthetic and is polluting the environment
Most people don’t realize that the majority of melatonin supplements are chemically-produced because that type of information isn’t usually on the label. However, with greater awareness of the benefits of plants, along with initiatives that encourage an environmentally-friendly process, phytomelatonin (also known as plant melatonin) appeared on the market in 2007. By 2020, melatonin supplement sales reached $821 million , with 99% of those sales being for the synthetic form of melatonin and less than 1% from plant sources.
While synthetic melatonin is cost-effective to produce and purchase, the manufacturing of synthetic melatonin may contribute to pollution and environmental concerns as it involves industrial processing, solvents, or petrochemicals. It was pointed out that synthetic melatonin could contain up to 13 different toxic substrates or contaminants , not to mention the other concerns around dosing, quality, and efficacy.
Today’s dose may be 400% stronger than the one you took yesterday
In 2019, Canadian researchers analyzed 31 melatonin supplements and noted several issues . First, the actual melatonin content in the products ranged from 17% to 478% of the label claim, raising toxicity concerns in vulnerable populations, such as children. Second, there was substantial variation in batches, by as much as 465%. Finally, 8 out of 30 supplements tested contained serotonin, which has even more severe health implications than melatonin, particularly for those on medications that may be influencing serotonin levels (such as SSRIs), and further to those who may develop serotonin syndrome .
Unlike synthetic melatonin, plant melatonin is environmentally safe. The cultivation techniques employed include selecting plants based on the ideal location, soil, climate, and harvest time to optimize melatonin levels. It is free of potential contaminants, chemicals, excipients, fillers, and binding agents. Even further, plant melatonin supplements can have the added benefit of naturally-occurring vitamins, amino acids, and phytonutrients including carotenoids (e.g., beta-carotene, lutein), flavonoids, tocopherols, and antioxidants (e.g., chlorophyll) [1,5].
Just because it says “natural” doesn’t mean it came from a plant, but most likely came from a “manufacturing plant”
It pays to be wary. Search Amazon and health food stores around the country and you’ll see the claims “natural,” “vegan,” “vegetarian” and even “plant” melatonin—all coming from companies that supply synthetic melatonin. How is that even possible? Good question, and it has been the inspiration for this blog and getting the word out so people are well-informed.
A member of our team, who is a vegetarian, saw a popular health site recommend another company’s melatonin as the “best vegan and natural” melatonin. This claim was surprising considering that it was actually synthetic and contained other ingredients such as microcrystalline cellulose, magnesium stearate, silicon dioxide, stearic acid, cellulose gum, maltodextrin, gum arabic and hypromellose.
Be empowered with the truth about melatonin
As you probably already know, “natural” has no definition in the health product marketplace. When you read the word “natural” melatonin, it can mean it is animal, synthetic, or plant. Animal sources are defined as natural. Melatonin made in a lab using chemicals, where the original source material that was replicated was a plant (e.g., corn), can be defined as natural, vegan, vegetarian, plant, and even sometimes herbal. It can also be the case where herbal ingredients will be mixed with the synthetic melatonin to further muddy the waters for the average consumer. They will call them a “natural sleep aid” or “organic sleep aid”.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that melatonin was detected in plants [2,5]), and it was only in 2007 that the first plant melatonin supplement was released (Herbatonin®) containing a proprietary blend of alfalfa, chlorella, and rice. At present, there are five plant-based melatonin products available commercially: three as a dietary supplement and two as a cosmetic cream . The two additional supplements that have been made available contain extracts from Montmorency tart cherry skin (Prunus cerasus), St. John’s wort, and extracts of plants and herbs. Only Herbatonin® and one other supplement have actual therapeutic doses of melatonin, with the other supplement and creams measured in nanograms, not milligrams.
Yes, you can get melatonin from food. But, can you stomach 45 pounds of cherries?
If the daily dose is the modest recommendation of 0.3 mg, which is consistent with the scientific research, it would take a significant quantity of foods, even the highest melatonin-containing foods, to get to that level. Most foods have nanogram or picogram amounts of melatonin in a gram, which is a miniscule amount. Also, foods have unreliable levels of melatonin due to the variability in growing conditions.
Our scientific team did the calculations to find that it would take up to 45 pounds of cherries, 1500 pistachios, or 3852 bananas to get the daily dose of 0.3 mg of melatonin. Now think of not just eating those foods on a daily basis, but eating them before bedtime!
What’s more, and most importantly, recent research on the first supplement, Herbatonin®, has shown that it may be up to 646% more effective than synthetic melatonin as an anti-inflammatory, 470% more effective at free radical scavenging, up to 100% more powerful around cellular health. The antioxidant score (measured as ORAC) was over 356% greater! So, knowing your source of melatonin is becoming more and more important, not just to avoid toxins, but to make sure you get all the benefits possible.
Knowing where your melatonin came from is vital because of where it’s going—into your body.
In summary, here’s what you need to know:
Most melatonin supplements are synthetically produced and may contain contaminants.
There may also be differences between the amount of melatonin stated on the label and what is actually in the product.
Supplements that claim to be natural, vegan, and plant-based may be synthetically manufactured.
Herbatonin (plant melatonin), has been shown in cell studies to outperform synthetic melatonin in its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and mitochondrial health function.
Herbatonin contains no chemicals, fillers, excipients, allergens and, in fact, contains additional helpful plant compounds to further enhance its health benefits.
Shop Herbatonin - the world's first plant melatonin
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