When Newsweek published its second article on melatonin in three months, we
finally sat up and took notice, or rather, stretched out and dozed off.
Last week, melatonin, a hormone produced naturally by the pineal gland and
widely hailed for its eye-shutting properties, trumped news of General
Powell’s dignified eyelash batting, Bosnian war crimes and peace talks, and
Yeltsin’s failing heart. In an era when newscasters speak of non-events
with stony-faced seriousness, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find
Newsweek heralding a trend story it had laid like some golden egg with a
futuristic cover and the stark pronouncement: “The Melatonin Craze.” The
article opens with grand claims to historical profundity: “Health food fads
are nothing new, but rarely dose one hit with the force of the great
melatonin craze of 1995.” As though recent melatonin buying sprees
overshadow decades of hi-carbohydrate-lo-fat-lo-cal diets, aerobics videos,
and amphetamines — in short all the other multi-billion dollar industries
that exploit Americans’ tenacious belief that good health comes shrink
wrapped and water soluble.

The late summer publication of two books which tout the benefits of
melatonin — basically, it knocks you out faster than a Dole speech without
the side effects of prescription soporifics like Halcyon — and a growing
body of scientific research presented a legitimate hook for Newsweek’s
initial cheery feature. But a prediction in the third paragraph of this
piece that melatonin might become the Colin Powell of health
supplements — the wildly popular panacea for nearly everything that ails us,
from cancer to heart disease to aging — struck us as suspiciously premature.
The second story reports from the frontlines where Americans are making
frenzied purchases of the hormone, obeying the drumbeat of mass media hype.
Ironically, the prime mover behind the fad turns out to be none other than
Newsweek itself:

In the dervishly spinning media feedback loop, a Newsweek story, which
downplayed the unknown effects of melatonin, ignites widespread desire for
longevity and peaceful slumber and moves product. Glance at Internet
chatter about melatonin, and you’ll spot an uptick around the first
Newsweek article. The self-same magazine dubs this phenomenon a “craze,”
and voila a cover story, and then a follow-up piece in the Science section
of Newsweek Online. True, The Melatonin Miracle by Drs. Walter Pierpaoli
and William Regelson garnered the #3 spot of The New York Times Bestseller
list (Advice and How To), a fact duly noted by Newsweek. But by November
5th, David Letterman’s Book of Top Ten Lists, arguably inspired by a
different sort of hormone, one typically associated with adolescence, had
beat out the proselytizing doctors.

Meanwhile, no one knows the long term effects of taking melatonin
supplements or whether such consumption might eventually disrupt the body’s
production of the powerful hormone. Newsweek’s coverage of melatonin has
had mixed results here at the Filter. According to the straw poll, half of
us are sleeping better thanks to this week’s wonder drug. When insomnia
wracks the other half, we curl up with an issue of Newsweek and the latest
Ken Auletta puff piece on the titans of the communications industry; a dose
of self-serving media hype never fails to bring on a deep sleep.

— S.S. (October 1995)

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