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Melatonin’s benefits extend beyond sleep regulation for cattle

While a large number of studies have already examined the benefits of melatonin on regulating the circadian rhythms of humans, research on how this hormone may affect other animals has been scarce. 

Now, a team of scientists led by the Mississippi State University (MSU) has examined the functions of melatonin in cattle and how this crucial hormone may impact their health. The investigation revealed that, in bovines, melatonin’s beneficial effects extend far beyond the regulation of sleeping patterns.

“Over the years, we’ve looked at melatonin’s antioxidant benefits, which help alleviate oxidative stress in the animals and have implications on their cardiovascular health,” said senior author Caleb Lemley, an associate professor of Reproductive Physiology at MSU, who has been studying for over a decade how this hormone affects blood flow between dam and fetus during gestation. 

“Summer heat is a major stressor for cattle, and in our research here at Mississippi State, we’ve found that melatonin can potentially be used to control the animal’s body temperature,” added lead author Zully Contreras-Correa, a postdoctoral fellow in Animal and Dairy Sciences at MSU. 

“At night, when melatonin levels are highest, body temperature is lowest. Our recent research showed that melatonin supplementation during summertime reduced body temperature in pregnant cattle, so we hope to research it further in other livestock species.”

Besides improving cardiovascular health and reducing body temperature, melatonin also has a beneficial effect on cattle’s microbiome. “As melatonin levels fluctuate throughout the day and throughout the year, so do bacterial populations,” said co-author Riley Messman, a graduate student in Reproductive Physiology at MSU. “So, melatonin is altering the microbiome and the immune system, which plays a role in pretty much every physiological process you could think of.”

Finally, melatonin was also found to have a critical role in skeletal muscle growth. “Nutrient restriction naturally occurs in specific areas of the United States and at certain times of the year,” explained co-author Rebecca Swanson, another doctoral student at MSU. “Melatonin can help alleviate some of that nutrient restriction and promote the production of amino acids and more efficient muscle growth.”

Since melatonin is considered a supplement and is not currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there has been a limited number of studies investigating its numerous benefits. Moreover, although it is a legal supplement for show animals, food animals cannot legally receive it at the moment, due to worries related to consumers’ possible exposure to the supplement from meat. However, the scientists stress that it is highly unlikely that traces of the supplement would be present in the muscle tissue at the time of processing.

“Melatonin has a rapid rate of clearance and will leave the body within a day. When you consider that and the low cost of supplementing the cattle at 25 cents a day, there are a lot of potential benefits for producers,” Lemley concluded.

The study is published in the journal Biomolecules.

More about melatonin 

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the pineal gland, a small gland located in the brain. It plays a crucial role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle, also known as the circadian rhythm. Melatonin is often referred to as the “sleep hormone” because its primary function is to promote sleep and regulate the body’s internal clock.

The production and release of melatonin are influenced by the amount of light and darkness in the environment. Typically, melatonin levels begin to rise in the evening as it gets dark, signaling the body to prepare for sleep. Levels remain elevated throughout the night and start to decrease in the early morning hours, helping to promote wakefulness.

Melatonin supplements are commonly used as a sleep aid, particularly for individuals who have difficulty falling asleep or experience jet lag due to travel across multiple time zones. They are available over-the-counter in many countries and are typically taken in pill or tablet form.

It’s important to note that melatonin is not a sedative but rather a hormone that helps regulate sleep. It may help people fall asleep faster, adjust to new sleep schedules, or improve sleep quality. However, its effectiveness can vary among individuals, and it may not be suitable for everyone.

Melatonin supplements are generally considered safe for short-term use when taken at appropriate doses. However, it’s always advisable to consult with a healthcare professional, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions, are taking medications, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Melatonin has been a subject of ongoing research for its potential benefits beyond sleep regulation. Some studies suggest that melatonin may have antioxidant properties and may play a role in immune function, cancer prevention, and the management of certain conditions like migraines, Alzheimer’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. However, more research is needed to fully understand these potential benefits and their effectiveness.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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