Recall that the hypothalamus, part of the diencephalon of the brain, sits inferior and somewhat anterior to the thalamus. Inferior but somewhat posterior to the thalamus is the pineal gland, a tiny endocrine gland whose functions are not entirely clear. The pinealocyte cells that make up the pineal gland are known to produce and secrete the amine hormone melatonin, which is derived from serotonin.
The secretion of melatonin varies according to the level of light received from the environment. When photons of light stimulate the retinas of the eyes, a nerve impulse is sent to a region of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is important in regulating biological rhythms. From the SCN, the nerve signal is carried to the spinal cord and eventually to the pineal gland, where the production of melatonin is inhibited. As a result, blood levels of melatonin fall, promoting wakefulness. In contrast, as light levels decline—such as during the evening—melatonin production increases, boosting blood levels and causing drowsiness.
The secretion of melatonin may influence the body’s circadian rhythms, the dark-light fluctuations that affect not only sleepiness and wakefulness, but also appetite and body temperature. Interestingly, children have higher melatonin levels than adults, which may prevent the release of gonadotropins from the anterior pituitary, thereby inhibiting the onset of puberty. Finally, an antioxidant role of melatonin is the subject of current research.
Jet lag occurs when a person travels across several time zones and feels sleepy during the day or wakeful at night. Traveling across multiple time zones significantly disturbs the light-dark cycle regulated by melatonin. It can take up to several days for melatonin synthesis to adjust to the light-dark patterns in the new environment, resulting in jet lag. Some air travelers take melatonin supplements to induce sleep.