Melatonin in the gastrointestinal tract

  • Datum:
  • Plats: Humanistiska teatern
  • Doktorand: Fanny Söderquist
  • Kontaktperson: Janet Cunningham, Annica Jacobsen
  • Disputation

The thesis' findings demonstrate the widespread presence of melatonin in the human gut and confirm a link between melatonin, psychiatric health and GI symptoms.


Melatonin is recognised as the pineal hormone regulating sleep and circadian rhythm. It has also been identified in peripheral tissues (mainly in animals) and thought to display a variety of actions, including anti-inflammatory properties, regulation of gastrointestinal (GI) functions, glucose homeostasis and beneficial effects in different tumour types. Patients with irritable bowel disorder commonly exhibit psychiatric co-morbidity and disturbances of the gut-brain axis have been proposed to play a role in these disorders. The focus of this thesis was to study melatonin and melatonin receptors in the normal human GI tract, the pancreas and small intestinal neuroendocrine tumours. The thesis also explores the complex relationship between GI symptoms and underlying psychiatric traits in the context of elevated levels of peripheral melatonin during waking hours.

In paper I-II, tissue samples from the normal human GI tract and pancreas and tumour tissue from small intestinal neuroendocrine tumours were analysed for expression of melatonin and melatonin receptors using immunohistochemistry. For tumour patients, melatonin was also analysed in plasma and set in relation to symptoms and outcome. In paper III-IV, a cohort of young adults (18-25 years) seeking psychiatric care was examined for GI symptoms, melatonin levels in saliva, depressive symptoms and anxiety traits. Psychiatric assessments were performed using structured or semi structured interviews. Depressive symptoms were measured using the self-rating version of the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale; GI symptoms were measured using the Gastrointestinal Symptoms Rating Scale for Irritable Bowel Syndrome; and personality traits were evaluated using the Swedish Universities Scales of Personality.

Melatonin and melatonin receptors were widely expressed in the normal human gut and pancreas (paper I) but even in small intestinal neuroendocrine tumours known to produce serotonin (paper II). The intensity of the melatonin immunoreactivity in tumour tissue was found to correlate with lower proliferation index. After treatment, plasma levels of melatonin were reduced in tumour patients. Young adult patients seeking psychiatric care reported more GI symptoms than healthy controls, regardless of the currently active psychotropic medication. The level of GI symptoms was associated with severity of depressive symptoms and trait anxiety (paper III). Higher postprandial levels of melatonin were associated with the GI symptoms of bloating and pain (paper IV).

In summary, these findings demonstrate the widespread presence of melatonin in the human gut and confirm a link between melatonin, psychiatric health and GI symptoms.