MELATONIN VS. CANCER
From The Cancer Chronicles #27
© May 1995 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
Some cancer patients are now taking a hormonal supplement called melatonin
as part of their comprehensive, non-toxic cancer treatment plan.
Typically, they take between 3 and 6 milligrams (mg) per day by mouth, although
some are taking even higher doses. Melatonin is the only hormone known to
be produced by the pineal gland, a small but crucial organ embedded in the
inner recesses of the brain. The pineal gland is shaped like a pine cone,
hence the name (Latin: pinea). It is about a quarter of an inch in length,
pinkish gray or white in color. The gland is relatively large in children,
but begins to shrink with the onset of puberty. Melatonin also prevents premature
sexual development before adolescence.
In some mammals it also plays a role in hibernation, metabolism, and seasonal
breeding. In humans, it is best known for its major role in regulating sleeping
patterns, since melatonin levels are elevated at night. It may also play
a role in seasonal affective disease (SAD), since decreased daylight in the
winter makes for more melatonin production. The hormone was discovered at
Yale University in 1958 and today is mainly used as an over-the-counter,
non-addicting remedy for insomnia.
One might suspect that such a powerful hormone has a role to play in cancer,
and that appears to be the case. One center of melatonin and cancer studies
today is the Division of Radiation Oncology of the San Gerardo Hospital,
Milan, Italy. There, doctors have developed a
"neuroimmunotherapeutic" protocol that includes a low-dose of IL-2 (3 million
IU/day for 6 days per week, for 4 weeks) with the addition of melatonin taken
by mouth (40 mg/day, starting 7 days before IL-2).
In a randomized clinical trial, reported in 1994, patients with advanced
disease (other than melanoma or kidney cancer) received either low-dose IL-2
alone or IL-2 plus the orally administered melatonin.
There was just one (partial) response out of 39 patients in the IL-2 group.
However, when melatonin was added, there were 11 complete or partial responses.
After one year on the treatment, there were just six survivors out of 39
patients on IL-2, but 19 survivors in the melatonin +IL-2 group. This was
statistically significant and was reported last year in the British Journal
of Cancer (1994;69:196-199).
In another randomized study, patients with inoperable brain metastases were
given either just supportive care or supportive care + melatonin (20 mg/day
at 8:00 p.m. taken orally). Survival at one year, as well as freedom from
brain tumor progression, and mean survival time were all significantly higher
in patients who were treated with melatonin than in those who received supportive
care alone (Cancer 1994;73:699-701).
Complete responses were seen in liver, pancreas, and stomach cancers. Partial
responses were seen in lung, liver, stomach, pancreas, breast, and colon
(J Biolo Regul Homeost Agents 1993;7:121-125).Even when it did not stop the
progression of advanced, metastatic disease melatonin has been found to improve
the performance status of patients (Ann NY Acad Sci 1988;521:290-299).This
immune system modulating "neurohormone" has a profound effect on many cases
Melatonin figures in an ingenious explanation of the rising rates of breast
cancer. It is well-known that the hormone estrogen promotes some cases of
breast cancer. According to an article in the American Journal of Epidemiology
(4/87), nighttime production of melatonin inhibits the body's production
of estrogen. But exposure to either light at night or to electromagnetic
fields can suppress the secretion of melatonin. Chronic exposures of this
sort could lead to an increase in an individual's cumulative lifetime dose
of estrogen, and therefore to an increased breast cancer risk. Two researchers
later showed that melatonin directly inhibited the proliferation of human
breast cancer cells in culture.
"Even more significant," they wrote, "we were able to demonstrate that the
concentration of melatonin needed to inhibit the growth of those cells was
comparable to what's present in human blood at night." Melatonin also increased
the level of naturally occurring antioxidants in breast cancer cells. It
may be capable of reducing the number of estrogen receptors on breast cancer
cells. "Since estrogen effectively feeds the growth of hormone-responsive
breast tumors," wrote Science News, "reducing the receptors might slow tumor
The FDA has begun to pressure stores to remove melatonin. FDA contends that
such a powerful hormone has no place on health food store or pharmacy
shelves. If melatonin is yanked, however, it will further restrict cancer
patients' freedom of choice. At this writing it is available through many
outlets. Three milligram (3 mg) capsules retail for around 20 cents apiece.
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