Acid reflux is a common condition in which stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus - the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach - causing heartburn and a sour taste in the mouth. These symptoms usually last a few hours after a meal and then go away. Most people experience acid reflux from time to time, usually after eating certain foods.
Acid reflux that regularly occurs more than twice a week is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Melatonin is a neurotransmitter produced by a gland in the brain that regulates the wake/sleep cycle and other daily biorhythms. I recommend it in supplement form as a remedy for jet lag and insomnia, and as an immune booster. Over the past several years, various studies have investigated whether melatonin acts as an antioxidant and an antiaging supplement and have looked into its effects on sleep disturbances and seasonal affective disorder. It also is being studied for treatment of endocrine problems and some forms of cancer. Much of the research to date has been done in cultured cells, in animals or in very small numbers of human subjects.
The use of melatonin as a treatment for acid reflux was reported several years ago by Polish researchers who published their findings in March 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology.They recruited 60 patients with the disorder and divided them into two groups. Half of the patients took 5 mg of melatonin every evening; the others received a placebo. After 12 weeks, more than half the patients in the melatonin group no longer had reflux symptoms and 30 percent of the rest of the group reported partial improvement. Less than 10 percent of the patients taking the placebo reported any improvement in their symptoms.
The researchers noted that some of the patients who took melatonin weren't helped at all, and said that future investigations must explore the question of whether the benefits seen in this study will be permanent, or whether patients must continue to take melatonin indefinitely for lasting relief. I haven't found any follow up to these findings, although I did see the report of a single patient with GERD taking 6 mg of melatonin for 40 days, after which her symptoms did not recur. That lone case doesn't warrant a recommendation of melatonin as a treatment for GERD. However, while we have to regard the results of the Polish study as preliminary, I see no reason why you shouldn't try 5 mg of melatonin for a few months to see if it helps relieve your acid reflux. Aside from causing nightmares in a few people, supplemental melatonin has no known adverse effects.
Andrew Weil, M.D.