(An homage to Terra Sigillata; it might normally be covered on his beat.)
Astute readers of the New York Times may have noticed a front-page article from a few weeks back, highlighting a new late-night snack: Lazy Cakes. Taking a cue, perhaps, from the substance-laced brownies popular in the late ‘60s, these brownies pack a decidedly sleepy secret: each contains a “proprietary calming blend” of ingredients, chief among which is melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone usually secreted by the pineal gland (a pinecone-shaped gland located just above the cerebellum) in humans and other mammals, in response to dark surroundings. (Note: Although they sound similar, melatonin should not be confused for melanin, the skin pigment formed by sunlight exposure) In mammals, melatonin induces the circadian rhythms associated with sleep, affects the onset of puberty and may help regulate DNA transcription.1,2 Biologically derived from tryptophan, the amino acid and purported suspect of the Thanksgiving “turkey coma”, melatonin has been shown clinically to have benefits for memory loss, in addition to antioxidant potential. Melatonin capsules have been sold over-the-counter for insomnia and jet lag since the 1980s.
Technically speaking, the product is labeled a dietary supplement, and as such skirts regulation by the FDA. One valid concern are possible interactions that melatonin, like other supplements, could have with prescription drugs, a topic addressed both by Terra Sig and C&E News. More controversy over the soporific snacks springs from their colored packaging and wide availability. This intrepid blogger ventured out into the wild to recover a sample for analysis. The packaging, upfront, has a distinctly comic-book appeal: purple and green swirls, a trippy logo evoking That ‘70s Show, and a cartoon brownie mascot leaned back for a snooze. The brownie itself is compact, and has quite a bit of heft for your average baked good. The back of the wrapper evokes language usually associated with cigarette labeling: multiple tiny lines of serious text stating Recommended for Adults Only, and Do Not Drive or Operate Heavy Machinery.
The “calming blend” also includes valerian root, which is commonly found in teas and herbal supplements. Containing sugar-decorated polycyclic lactones called iridoids, as well as valerenic acid3 derivatives, the extracts have been shown clinically to reduce anxiety and relieve insomnia.4 Passion flower extract brings a dose of alkaloids into the bedtime mix; well-known sleep inducers opium and morphine are part of this general molecular family. The other ingredients, however, seem to just be along for the ride: current “superfruits” goji berry and açai, with the old Vitamin C standby of rose hips.
For my part, I don’t believe that a baked good packing a pharmaceutical punch should be sold in colorful wrappers, next to the candy bars. However, having experienced my share of late-night grad school anxiety, I can’t blame someone for wanting a good solid nap, any way they can.
1. Fox, Stuart Ira. Human Physiology, Sixth Ed. Boston: WCB / McGraw Hill, 1999. pp. 289, 315.
2. Merck & Co., Inc. The Merck Index, 13th Ed. New Jersey, 2001. p. 5841
3. Ramharter, J.; Mulzer, J. Org. Lett. 2009, 11, 1151-1153.
4. NIH Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Valerian. 2008. Downloaded from http://ods.od.nih.gov
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