Oxidative stress has been proven to be related to the onset of a large number of health disorders. This chemical stress is triggered by an excess of free radicals, which are generated in cells because of a wide variety of exogenous and endogenous processes. Therefore, finding strategies for efficiently detoxifying free radicals has become a subject of a great interest, from both an academic and practical points of view. Melatonin is a ubiquitous and versatile molecule that exhibits most of the desirable characteristics of a good antioxidant. The amount of data gathered so far regarding the protective action of melatonin against oxidative stress is overwhelming. However, rather little is known concerning the chemical mechanisms involved in this activity. This review summarizes the current progress in understanding the physicochemical insights related to the free radical-scavenging activity of melatonin. Thus far, there is a general agreement that electron transfer and hydrogen transfer are the main mechanisms involved in the reactions of melatonin with free radicals. However, the relative importance of other mechanisms is also analyzed. The chemical nature of the reacting free radical also has an influence on the relative importance of the different mechanisms of these reactions. Therefore, this point has also been discussed in detail in the current review. Based on the available data, it is concluded that melatonin efficiently protects against oxidative stress by a variety of mechanisms. Moreover, it is proposed that even though it has been referred to as the chemical expression of darkness, perhaps it could also be referred to as the chemical light of health.
© 2011 John Wiley & Sons A/S.