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Open Access Review

Melatonin, a potent agent in antioxidative defense: Actions as a natural food constituent, gastrointestinal factor, drug and prodrug

Rüdiger Hardeland1* and SR Pandi-Perumal2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Zoology and Anthropology, University of Göttingen, Berliner Str. 28, D-37073 Göttingen, Germany

2 Comprehensive Center for Sleep Medicine, Department of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, 1176 - 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10029, USA

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Nutrition & Metabolism 2005, 2:22  doi:10.1186/1743-7075-2-22

Published: 10 September 2005

Abstract

Melatonin, originally discovered as a hormone of the pineal gland, is also produced in other organs and represents, additionally, a normal food constituent found in yeast and plant material, which can influence the level in the circulation. Compared to the pineal, the gastrointestinal tract contains several hundred times more melatonin, which can be released into the blood in response to food intake and stimuli by nutrients, especially tryptophan. Apart from its use as a commercial food additive, supraphysiological doses have been applied in medical trials and pure preparations are well tolerated by patients. Owing to its amphiphilicity, melatonin can enter any body fluid, cell or cell compartment. Its properties as an antioxidant agent are based on several, highly diverse effects. Apart from direct radical scavenging, it plays a role in upregulation of antioxidant and downregulation of prooxidant enzymes, and damage by free radicals can be reduced by its antiexcitatory actions, and presumably by contributions to appropriate internal circadian phasing, and by its improvement of mitochondrial metabolism, in terms of avoiding electron leakage and enhancing complex I and complex IV activities. Melatonin was shown to potentiate effects of other antioxidants, such as ascorbate and Trolox. Under physiological conditions, direct radical scavenging may only contribute to a minor extent to overall radical detoxification, although melatonin can eliminate several of them in scavenger cascades and potentiates the efficacy of antioxidant vitamins. Melatonin oxidation seems rather important for the production of other biologically active metabolites such as N1-acetyl-N2-formyl-5-methoxykynuramine (AFMK) and N1-acetyl-5-methoxykynuramine (AMK), which have been shown to also dispose of protective properties. Thus, melatonin may be regarded as a prodrug, too. AMK interacts with reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, conveys protection to mitochondria, inhibits and downregulates cyclooxygenase 2.