MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: How do we get more melanin in our body? Can we eat something? Fruit?

Date: Tue Jul 27 18:09:04 2004
Posted By: Dian Dooley, , Associate Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 1089917698.Gb

Aloha, Autumn,

     My apologies for taking so long in answering this question.  During 
summer, I'm not always in my office.  Also, I needed some help in 
answering this question, since it has several pieces to it, as you will 
see.  Dr. Alan Titchenal, who also teaches introductory nutrition with me, 
helped me think through some of the answer.  First off, I'm not sure if 
you meant to ask about 'melanin' or 'melatonin' I will discuss both.
     According to my medical dictionary, melanin is the dark pigment of 
the hair, skin, the covering of the eye, and a part of the brain 
(substantia nigra..'nigra' meaning 'black').  Melanin can also be found in 
some tumors (like dark moles on the skin).  It is made in the body from a 
portion of protein (the amino acid tyrosine) for your body to make 
the correct amount of melanin, you simply need to have adequate protein in 
your diet.  Fruits contain very little protein.  Good sources of protein 
include meat, fish, milk/milk products, eggs.  Protein is also found in 
varying amounts in grain food(bread, pasta, rice, noodles, etc.).  Your 
body is programmed via your genes (your inheritance from your biologic 
parents) to produce a certain amount of melanin...that is why we all have 
different colors to our skin.  People who have darker skin simply have 
more melanin produced in their skins that do people with lighter 
skins...and melanin does offer some protection from the damage that 
certain UV-wave lenghts in sunlight can cause.  Thus a darker-skinned 
person has more sun-protection than a fairer-skinned person.  As an aside, 
I don't think you can regulate the amount of melanin that your body 
produces...unless you modify your genetic make-up somehow...and  
scientifically we aren't there yet.

     The reason that I think you might have meant 'melatonin' is that it 
sounds like 'melanin'..and melatonin is in the news a bit, related to its 
use as a sleep-aid supplement. Melatonin is also made in your body from a 
piece of protein (the amino acid tryptophan).  Most of the melatonin in 
your body is found in the pineal gland, which is in the upper part of the 
brain, just under the skull.  Melatonin is a hormone that plays a role in 
sleep regulation...and people have used melatonin supplements to modify 
their sleep-wake cycles, with varying degrees of success/failure.  There 
is an excellent website about sleep/melatonin ( 
you're interested.  There is only one direct food source of melatonin that 
I've been able to find:  tart cherries.  I have no idea why it is found in 

     The melatonin in supplements is extracted from BEEF pineal glands.  
With all the current discussion about mad cow disease, I'm not sure if 
taking these supplements is a wise choice, since the prion (disease-
causing particle) that seems to be the cause of a mad-cow-like disease in 
humans (varient Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, vCJD) is found in the 
brain/spinal cord of infected cattle.  I don't think that eating beef 
grown/raised in the US is a danger (yes, I eat beef, myself), since we 
have had no cases of vCJD caused by any beef eaten here...and I don't 
think we will.  However, it has been a problem in England over the last 
decade.  Anyway, if you were interested in melatonin, rather than 
melanin...there are a number of things to consider:  the source of the 
supplement, the reason for taking it, and the amoung that you would be 

     Melanin?  Melatonin?  Either one:  they are made from portions of the 
protein in your food.  If you are getting enough of a variety of protein 
foods, you are able to make plenty of either.  Also, unless you take large 
amounts (like melatonin) as supplements, you probably can't change the 
amount of either in your body.  Especially for melanin, since the amount 
of that is tightly controlled by your genes.


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