As with many neurotransmitters, melatonin is also a hormone. And as with many neurotransmitters, melatonin seems to work in synch with other neurotransmitters, in this case serotonin, which will be discussed in my next post. Melatonin is responsible for our body rhythms, known as circadian rhythms, which boils down to our sleep and wakefulness cycles. These cycles are directly influenced by our exposure to light. As darkness sets in, melatonin is released, promoting the urge to go to sleep.
Teenagers usually release melatonin at later times in the evening so they tend to fall asleep later and wake up later. There is no “early” in that description and the result is that teenager circadian rhythms are usually out of synch with school start times. The National Sleep Foundation has found that school start times should be altered to accommodate teenagers and thus promote more healthful patterns resulting in more beneficial learning environments.
SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) results from exposure to too little sunlight in the fall and winter months. The Heschong Mahone Group did extensive research on the impact of daylight on performance, both in schools and in businesses. The results of their research show that natural light has a consistent and predictable positive effect on student performance. “The results of this study of student performance, when combined with the companion study showing the positive effect of skylighting on retail sales, also strongly support the thesis that these performance benefits from daylighting can be translated to other building types and human activities.” Dr John W Kimball, a former Tufts and Harvard professor, maintains an online biology text that has a simple exlanation of Melatonin and the Pineal Gland, including a link to The Circadian Clock in Mammals.