Plant-based melatonin: A real alternative to synthetic forms?

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/aquarius83men
©iStock/aquarius83men

Related tags: Dietary supplement

The origins, purity and the relatively low risk of contamination in plant melatonin have opened the door to its use as a nutraceutical compound, Spanish scientists suggest.

Acknowledging the antioxidant and rhythm-synchronising benefits of animal-based or synthetic melatonin, its plant-based form has been put forward as a viable alternative with aromatic and medicinal plants presenting higher phytomelatonin levels than ordinary vegetables.

“The absence of undesirable contaminants generated during the chemical synthesis of melatonin is the key factor in choosing phytomelatonin as a “100% natural” supplement,”​ the study said.

”New preparations containing phytomelatonin will inevitably appear, with synthetic supplements almost certainly being displaced by natural substances.”

It wasn’t all good news though, as the team noted the possible harmful effects of phytochemicals (other than phytomelatonin) of either vegetable origin (such as alkaloids), or of non-natural origin (such as pesticides).

Risks to phytomelatonin formulations were highlighted with the presence of solvent residues produced during the extraction process a particular issue.

The presence of pesticides or other compounds due to previous cultivation or postharvest treatments of the plant source was also a consideration.

Added to the botanical’s fragile nature, tendency to easily degrade and variations in phytomelatonin quantities, the researchers, based at the University of Murcia in Spain, urged its presence in plant extracts to be taken into account and studied in depth.

Phytomelatonin applications

The range of commercial formulations containing phytomelatonin is a select group that are mainly based in the US although there is a small European presence.

Italian-based Effegilab, who make the cosmetic cream Fitomelatonina, use selected alpine plants (Avenasativa, Achillea mille folium, Salvia officinalis​) to extract phytomelatonin oil.

This is the key ingredient in the firm’s range of skincare cream, gels and serums as well as self-tanning treatments and after sun protection.     

The nutricosmetic theme carries on with US-based Curapharm, whose Curaderm body creams contain a blend of botanical extracts and essential minerals.

Other applications include those offered by New Zealand-based Tru2U, who make available its sleep support supplement using phytomelatonin extracted from the skins and juice of Montmorency tart cherries.

Montmorency tart cherries have been the subject of many a study that have shown not only its link to a good night’s sleep but also cognitive enhancement, athletic performance/recovery and lowering blood pressure.

These benefits, say Drs Marino Arnao and Josefa Hernández-Ruiz—the study’s authors—are one reason why consumers in the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan demonstrate great acceptance of these products, and readily pay the premium prices that the most of them have.

For nutraceutical producing companies, the potential nutritional interest is perhaps outshone by the prospective market value that is expected to reach the €200bn ($250bn) mark by 2018.

The team outlined a number of considerations for manufacturers.  In many cases, the raw material is often a decisive factor in production costs.

“In the case of phytomelatonin supplements, on choosing low-cost raw materials, the levels of phytomelatonin in the plant material selected should be taken into account. Manufacturers should consider these facts.”

Choppy regulatory waters

Other considerations detailed include the regulatory environment that phytomelatonin would be expected to navigate.

Its status as a botanical would prove difficult considering the seven-year delay resulting from clashes between rules for health claims on botanicals used in food and claims for therapeutic uses of traditional herbal medicinal products.

Such a discrepancy raised concerns as to how botanical ingredients should be dealt with, while ensuring no misleading claims appear on foods.

With recommendations, expected by the end of last year, moves to resolve this conflict may finally be on track with a number of public and industry consultations reaching conclusion.

Back in 2011, the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) approved a health claim for melatonin’s effect on promoting sleep in the general population.

The Panel ruled that in order to obtain the claimed effect, 1 milligram (mg) of melatonin should be consumed close to bedtime.

Source: Molecules
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.3390/molecules23010238
“The Potential of Phytomelatonin as a Nutraceutical.”
Authors: Marino Arnao and Josefa Hernández-Ruiz

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