Turning back the clock won’t save the pineal gland

As the shadows lengthen and the sun sinks into the west, darkness gently falls. Quiet settles over the land, interrupted only by the theme song of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Walking through the streets you can see each home alight with the loving, flickering, blue-light of television and the occasional steady glow of the computer terminal.

In the inner recesses of each human brain, accompanying the deepening shadows, will be the slow but sure release of N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine. This poetic-sounding compound, also known as melatonin, is secreted in response to darkness by a tiny, pea-sized organ in the brain called the pineal gland. In humans, the presence of melatonin in the blood causes the lowering of body temperature and the feelings of drowsiness. Ah, sweet peace.

The production of melatonin is inhibited by light. As the sun comes up, or the lights go on, blood melatonin levels decline, temperature rises and feelings of wakefulness increase. Invigorated and refreshed, we awaken. But it’s the melatonin levels in the bloodstream that help set our circadian cycles of rest and activity.

Melatonin is found in all animals, plants and microbes. It seems to play several roles, but it’s always involved in the timing of periodic events such as sleeping in humans, reproduction in animals that have specific breeding periods, and regulating plant response to day length. All have something to do with light levels.

However, day length just isn’t what it used to be. It used to be that the sun went down, and it got dark.  The pineal had a simple job, and it performed like clockwork. But now the pineal has to decide if it’s the sun you are staring at, or a television screen. (Of course one is enlightening and the other isn’t, but it’s hard for a gland to know.)

Then there’s the alarm clock that casts an eerie, red glow all through the night. The speaker on the computer has a brilliantly blue LED, the microwave is yellow and the entertainment center is a sickly golden hue. The street light outside and the night light in the children’s room casts shadows down the hall. One hardly notices when the house lights go off for all of these. Since melatonin levels start dropping even in the dim light of sunrise, one wonders if melatonin ever turns completely on in our modern world of artificial lighting.

People who are lacking in this hormone often have difficulty sleeping. Decreased melatonin has even been implicated in premature births, increased number and severity of accidents, and the increased occurrences of some cancers.

But too much melatonin is not a good thing. In northern climates where the days are short and winter sun indirect, it may never get bright enough to completely turn off the melatonin. Some people suffer from winter tiredness and depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) because the melatonin levels stay high enough that they never completely wake up. (This may help explain Alaskan politics.)

But tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 7, the gentle light of sundown, the peaceful gathering of the gloaming and the flickering enlightenment of “60 Minutes” will occur an hour earlier than it did today as far as your pineal gland is concerned. The gland will be completely caught off guard. Whipsawed by the artificial and unnatural manipulations of ignorant and mortal men, the pineal will vacillate wildly. The majority of Americans will end up having 40 minutes less REM sleep on Sunday night, almost completely obliterating the gain of one hour the night before.

On Monday we will awaken to the carnage of an increased number and severity of automobile and industrial accidents, grumpy and lethargic coworkers and confused pineal glands across the land. It will take a week for all the pineal glands to accommodate to the change that is daylight savings. In the spring of 2011 it will all happen again.

Leave the blasted clocks alone!

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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