Chronic hypoxia (CH) leads to the deterioration of myocardial functions with impaired calcium handling in the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR), which may be mediated by oxidative stress. We hypothesized that administration of antioxidant melatonin would protect against cardiac and ischemia-reperfusion (I/R) injury by ameliorating SR calcium handling. Adult Sprague-Dawley rats that had received a daily injection of melatonin or vehicle were exposed to 10% oxygen for 4 wk. The heart of each rat was then dissected and perfused using a Langendorff apparatus. The ratio of heart-to-body weight, ventricular hypertrophy and hematocrit were increased in the hypoxic rats compared with the normoxic controls. Malondialdehyde levels were also increased in the heart of hypoxic rats and were lowered by the treatment of melatonin. The hearts were subjected to left coronary artery ischemia (30 min) followed by 120-min reperfusion. Lactate dehydrogenase leakage before ischemia, during I/R and infarct size of the isolated perfused hearts were significantly elevated in the vehicle-treated hypoxic rats but not in the melatonin-treated rats. Spectroflurometric studies showed that resting calcium levels and I/R-induced calcium overload in the cardiomyocytes were more significantly altered in the hypoxic rats than the normoxic controls. Also, the hypoxic group had decreased levels of the SR calcium content and reduced amplitude and decay time of electrically induced calcium transients, indicating impaired contractility and SR calcium re-uptake. Moreover, there were reductions in protein expression of calcium handling proteins, markedly shown at the level of SR-Ca(2+) ATPase (SERCA) in the heart of hypoxic rats. Melatonin treatment significantly mitigated the calcium handling in the hypoxic rats by preserving SERCA expression. The results suggest that melatonin is cardioprotective against CH-induced myocardial injury by improving calcium handling in the SR of cardiomyocytes via an antioxidant mechanism.