Melatonin as a Hormone: New Physiological and Clinical Insights

Endocr Rev. 2018 Dec 1;39(6):990-1028. doi: 10.1210/er.2018-00084.


Melatonin is a ubiquitous molecule present in almost every live being from bacteria to humans. In vertebrates, besides being produced in peripheral tissues and acting as an autocrine and paracrine signal, melatonin is centrally synthetized by a neuroendocrine organ, the pineal gland. Independently of the considered species, pineal hormone melatonin is always produced during the night and its production and secretory episode duration are directly dependent on the length of the night. As its production is tightly linked to the light/dark cycle, melatonin main hormonal systemic integrative action is to coordinate behavioral and physiological adaptations to the environmental geophysical day and season. The circadian signal is dependent on its daily production regularity, on the contrast between day and night concentrations, and on specially developed ways of action. During its daily secretory episode, melatonin coordinates the night adaptive physiology through immediate effects and primes the day adaptive responses through prospective effects that will only appear at daytime, when melatonin is absent. Similarly, the annual history of the daily melatonin secretory episode duration primes the central nervous/endocrine system to the seasons to come. Remarkably, maternal melatonin programs the fetuses' behavior and physiology to cope with the environmental light/dark cycle and season after birth. These unique ways of action turn melatonin into a biological time-domain-acting molecule. The present review focuses on the above considerations, proposes a putative classification of clinical melatonin dysfunctions, and discusses general guidelines to the therapeutic use of melatonin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Melatonin / metabolism*
  • Melatonin / therapeutic use*
  • Peptide Hormones / metabolism*
  • Peptide Hormones / therapeutic use*


  • Peptide Hormones
  • Melatonin