Melatonin in medicinal plants

In the early 1990s, melatonin became a popular supplement for counteracting jet lag, helping people sleep, and for use as an anti-cancer supplement. In 1995, an association between lower levels of melatonin and migraine headaches was reported. The Canadian researchers who conducted this study wondered if herbal products used for treating insomnia, depression, migraine, and other nervous system conditions might also contain melatonin [Murch et al., 1997]. They began by testing the Canadian fewerfew migraine remedy Tanacet® and leaf samples of what they called “green leaf” and “gold leaf” feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium [L.] Schultz-Bip., Asteraceae), in addition to flower and leaf samples of St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum L., Clusiaceae) unidentified plant parts from skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora L., Lamiaceae), and unidentified plant parts from the calming Chinese plant Huang-qin (Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi., Lamiaceae). No mention was made of the analytical method used to detect melatonin.

All of the compounds tested contained melatonin. Huang-qin yielded the highest concentration of melatonin (7.11 m g/g), followed by St. John’s wort flowers (4.39 m g/g) and then fresh “green leaf” feverfew (2.45 m g/g). The product Tanacet® contained little (0.57 m g/g), and the lowest content of all was found in skullcap (0.09 m g/g).

The authors of the review concluded that “Melatonin in plant tissues may explain ancedotal evidence of physiological effects, but also emphasises the need for complete biochemical characterisation of medicinal herbs.” On the other hand, ethnobotanist James Duke, PhD estimates that “it would take pounds of material to provide an effective dose of 3 mg melatonin” based on the levels of melatonin reported in this study. According to Duke, in the case of S. baicalensis (the richest reported source of melatonin), more than 60 g of plant material would have to be consumed to achieve a 0.3 mg dose of melatonin.

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[Murch SJ, Simmons CB, Saxena PK. Melatonin in feverfew and other medicinal plants. The Lancet 1997; 350: 1598-1599.]