The melatonin fad suffered another blow recently, when a team of researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston tested the popular substance for 28 days on 48 patients with advanced cancer who had lost a dangerous amount of weight as a result of their illness.
The team headed up by Dr. Egidio Del Fabbro had hoped that giving the patients 20 milligrams of oral melatonin at night would be a safe, effective, and easy way to improve their appetite. However, the results were discouraging, since the subjects didn’t gain appetite, weight, or improved quality of life compared with control subjects who were just given a placebo.
The doctors ended the study early since the melatonin wasn’t performing.
Melatonin is a popular over-the-counter supplement that became something of a fad in the United States in the 1990s. It’s a hormone produced at night in the tiny pineal gland while people are sleeping, and it helps to precisely time the body’s biological processes.
That small fact led to a rash of claims that the well-timed use of melatonin could improve sleep, fight jet-lag, and even slow aging. The hype got so crazy in the 90s that up to 24 companies were producing the product to allow do-it-yourselfers to tinker with the hormone levels in their own bloodstream.
I might as well confess that I tried it myself and concluded that it was completely bogus, although my personal experiments weren’t even remotely scientific. Like the MD Anderson doctors, I didn’t think it was harmful. It was just useless.
But I wasn’t the only disappointed customer. A 2012 report by sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus noted that it wasn’t a magic bullet for helping people with jet lag or sleep disturbances. It can also cause side effects, including grogginess and nightmares.
Melatonin may still have its uses, such as helping night shift workers adjust their sleep cycles.
But cancer patients can’t expect melatonin to improve their appetite.