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5 Functions of the Pineal Gland

What is the pineal gland?

Did you know?
The pineal gland is also known as the:
  • pineal body
  • epiphysis
  • epiphysis cerebri
  • third eye

The pineal gland is a small, pea-shaped gland in the brain. Its function isn’t fully understood. Researchers do know that it produces and regulates some hormones, including melatonin.

Melatonin is best known for the role it plays in regulating sleep patterns. Sleep patterns are also called circadian rhythms.

The pineal gland also plays a role in the regulation of female hormone levels, and it may affect fertility and the menstrual cycle. That’s due in part to the melatonin produced and excreted by the pineal gland. A 2016 study suggests that melatonin may also help protect against cardiovascular issues such as atherosclerosis and hypertension. However, more research needs to be done into the potential functions of melatonin.

Keep reading to learn more about the functions of the pineal gland.

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Melatonin

1. Pineal gland and melatonin

What is the third eye?
The pineal gland is sometimes called the “third eye.” This refers to a supposed metaphysical function of the gland. It’s believed by some to be a link between the physical and the spiritual worlds. The third eye is said to open in the sunlight, and yoga and meditation, among other things, are thought to stimulate it.

If you have a sleep disorder, it could be a sign that your pineal gland is not producing the correct amount of melatonin. Some alternative medicine practitioners believe you can detox and activate your pineal gland to improve sleep and open your third eye. There is no scientific research to support these claims, though.

One way to control the melatonin in your body is to use melatonin supplements. These will typically make you feel tired. They may help you realign your circadian rhythm if you’ve been traveling to a different time zone or working a night shift. Supplements may also help you fall asleep faster.

For most people, low-dose supplements of melatonin are safe for both short-term and long-term use. Typically, dosages range from 0.2 milligrams (mg) to 20 mg, but the right dose varies between people. Speak to a doctor to see if melatonin is right for you and to learn which dosage is best.

Melatonin supplements may cause the following side effects:

  • sleepiness and drowsiness
  • grogginess in the morning
  • intense, vivid dreams
  • slight increase in blood pressure
  • slight drop in body temperature
  • anxiety
  • confusion

If you’re pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or nursing, talk to your doctor before using melatonin supplements. Additionally, melatonin may interact with the following medications and groups of medications:

  • fluvoxamine (Luvox)
  • nifedipine (Adalat CC)
  • birth control pills
  • blood thinners, also known as anticoagulants
  • diabetes medications that lower blood sugar
  • immunosuppressants, which lower the activity of the immune system

Learn more: Can you take melatonin and birth control at the same time? »

Cardiovascular health

2. Pineal gland and cardiovascular health

A 2016 review looked at past research on the connection between melatonin and cardiovascular health. Researchers found evidence that melatonin produced by the pineal gland can have a positive impact on your heart and blood pressure. They concluded that melatonin may be used to treat cardiovascular disease, though more research is needed.

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Female hormones

3. Pineal gland and female hormones

There’s some evidence that light exposure and related melatonin levels may have an effect on a woman’s menstrual cycle. Reduced amounts of melatonin may also play a role in the development of irregular menstrual cycles. Studies are limited and often dated, so newer research is needed.

Mood disorders

4. Pineal gland and mood stabilization

The size of your pineal gland may indicate your risk for certain mood disorders. One study suggests that a lower pineal gland volume may increase your risk of developing schizophrenia and other mood disorders. More research is needed to better understand the effect of pineal gland volume on mood disorders.

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Cancer

5. Pineal gland and cancer

Some research suggests that there may be a connection between impaired pineal gland function and cancer risk. A recent study on rats found evidence that lowering pineal gland function through overexposure to light led to cellular damage and increased risk for colon cancer.

Another study found evidence that, when used with traditional treatments, melatonin may improve the outlook for people with cancer. This may be especially true in people with more advanced tumors.

More research is needed to determine how melatonin affects the production and blocking of tumors. It’s also unclear what dosage may be appropriate as a complementary treatment.

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Complications

Malfunctions of the pineal gland

If the pineal gland is impaired, it can lead to a hormone imbalance, which can affect other systems in your body. For example, sleep patterns are often disrupted if the pineal gland is impaired. This can show up in disorders such as jet lag and insomnia. Additionally, because melatonin interacts with female hormones, complications may affect the menstrual cycle and fertility.

The pineal gland is located near many other important structures, and it interacts heavily with blood and other fluids. If you develop a pineal gland tumor, it may affect many other things in your body. Some early symptoms of a tumor include:

  • seizures
  • disruption in memory
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • damage in vision and other senses

Talk to your doctor if you have a sleep disorder, or if you want to know more about taking melatonin supplements.

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Outlook

Outlook

Researchers still don’t fully understand the pineal gland and melatonin. We know melatonin plays a role in setting sleep patterns with day-night cycles. Other research suggests that it helps in other ways, such as in regulating the menstrual cycle.

Melatonin supplements may be helpful in managing sleep disorders, such as jet lag, and in helping you to fall asleep. Remember to speak with your doctor before using melatonin, especially if you take certain drugs.

Q&A

Q&A: Pineal gland malfunction

  • I have a sleep disorder. Could it be caused by a problem with my pineal gland?
  • There isn’t very good research on what problems with the pineal gland look like. Very rarely, there can be pineal gland tumors. However, it seems as though the main symptoms come from the pressure these tumors cause, rather than changes in hormone production. People can also get calcifications, which may contribute to certain types of dementia in older people. In children, calcifications affect the sexual organs and skeleton.

    - Suzanne Falck, MD
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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Tips

Tips for a better night’s sleep

If you’re looking for a better night’s sleep, there are several methods you can use to try to improve your quality of sleep.

Go to sleep earlier. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night. If you know it takes you a while to fall asleep, start winding down earlier, and get into bed before you want to fall asleep. Consider setting an alarm to remind you to get ready for bed by a certain time.

Avoid the snooze button. Try to avoid using the snooze button on your alarm. Sleep between snoozes is of lower quality. Instead, set your alarm for the time you need to get out of bed.

Exercise regularly at the right time. Exercising regularly helps reduce anxiety and improves sleep quality. Even a 15-minute walk at a brisk pace can make a difference. Avoid exercising too close to bedtime, though. Instead, plan your workout so that you have at least a couple of hours between exercise and bedtime.

Try yoga and meditation. Both yoga and meditation can help you de-stress right before sleep.

Keep a journal. If racing thoughts are keeping you awake, consider writing your feelings down in a journal. While it may seem counterintuitive, this may actually make you feel more at ease.

Stop smoking. Nicotine, which is found in tobacco, is a stimulant. Using tobacco can make it harder to sleep. Smokers are also more likely to feel tired when they wake up.

Consider cognitive behavioral therapy. This involves seeing a certified therapist and getting some sleep assessments. You might also need to keep a sleep journal and refine your bedtime rituals.

Read more: 8 natural sleep aids »

Article resources
  • Barron, M. L. (2007, July). Light exposure, melatonin secretion, and menstrual cycle parameters: An integrative review [Abstract]. Biological Research for Nursing, 9(1), 49-69. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17601857
  • Bauer, B. A. (2014, November 11). Is melatonin a helpful sleep aid — and what should I know about melatonin side effects? Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/melatonin-side-effects/faq-20057874
  • Carpenter, J. S., Abelmann, A. C., Hatton, S. N., Robillard, R., Hermens, D. F., Bennett, M. R., … Hickie, I. B. (2016, November 3). Pineal volume and evening melatonin in young people with affective disorders [Abstract]. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 1-10. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11682-016-9650-2
  • Di Bella, G., Mascia, F., Gualano, L., & Di Bella, L. (2013, February). Melatonin anticancer effects: Review. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 14(2), 2410-2430. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3587994/
  • Fındıklı, E., Inci, M. F., Gökçe, M., Fındıklı, H. A., Altun, H., & Karaaslan, M. F. (2015, June). Pineal gland volume in schizophrenia and mood disorders [Abstract]. Psychiatria Danubina, 27(2), 153-158. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26057310
  • Frajacomo, F. T. T., de Paula Garcia, W., Fernandes, C. R., Garcia, S. B., & Kannen, V. (2014, December 8). Pineal gland function is required for colon antipreneoplastic effects of physical exercise in rats [Abstract]. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25(5), e451-e458. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/sms.12348/abstract
  • Geoffroy, P. A., Etain, B., Franchi, J. A., Bellivier, F., & Ritter, P. (2015). Melatonin and melatonin agonists as adjunctive treatments in bipolar disorders [Abstract]. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 21(23), 3352-3358. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26088111
  • Macchi, M. M., & Bruce, J. N. (2004, September-December). Human pineal physiology and functional significance of melatonin [Abstract]. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology25(3-4), 177-195. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15589268
  • Sánchez-Barceló, E. J., Cos, S., Mediavilla, D., Martínez-Campa, C., González, A., & Alonso‐González, C. (2005, May). Melatonin–estrogen interactions in breast cancer [Abstract]. Journal of Pineal Research38(4), 217-222. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15813897
  • Srinivasan, V., Pandi-Perumal, S. R., Trahkt, I., Spence, D. W., Poeggeler, B., Hardeland, R., & Cardinali, D. P. (2009). Melatonin and melatonergic drugs on sleep: Possible mechanisms of action [Abstract]. International Journal of Neuroscience119(6), 821-846. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19326288
  • Sun, H., Gusdon, A. M., & Qu, S. (2016, August). Effects of melatonin on cardiovascular diseases: Progress in the past year. Current Opinion in Lipidology, 27(4), 408-413. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4947538/
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