′Night milk′ aims to help people sleep | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 26.10.2010
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'Night milk' aims to help people sleep

A Munich company has just received a patent on "night milk crystals," which are freeze-dried milk packets from cows with elevated levels of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone.

Nacht-Michkristalle received a patent earlier this month

Nacht-Michkristalle received a patent earlier this month

Many people know the frustrations of a sleepless night. Some listen to the radio, count sheep, or drink warm milk as a way to get to sleep. One Munich company, though, has just been awarded a patent for its melatonin-infused "night milk crystals."

Earlier this month, Nacht-Milchkristalle received its German patent, and continues to expand around Europe, most recently to Austria. Its product, a thin, freeze-dried nine-gram packet, which can then be added to any milk, has a retail price of 25 euros ($35) for 16 packets. The "night milk" has been available in Germany for the past six months.

Company representatives say that the milk contains naturally-induced elevated levels of melatonin, a hormone that can help with sleep.

Melatonin is already available as an over-the-counter additive in the United States, but is more restricted in Europe. Plus, it's also used as an additive in some American canned drinks. The American Federal Drug Administration even started looking into the issue earlier this year.

Company says red light is good for melatonin production

The company says that it only milks its cows at night for maximum melatonin production

The company says that it only milks its cows at night for maximum melatonin production

"The cows need much light during the day and no light during the night," said Kai Oppel, a company spokesperson.

"Normally there is light in the cow shed also during the night. And that's why there's less melatonin in the milk and in the blood. So we installed lights and these lights are burning the whole day, but during the night we switch the lights off and have only red light. We need red light because it's long wave light which is about 650 nanometres and that's a good light for melotonin production."

The company adds that their cows are milked at midnight, when melatonin production is the highest.

"In all sheds milk is taken all the time and the consumer gets something like a mixture of different milks," Oppel said. "So if you drink milk from the supermarket you have milk from 1 p.m., from 6 p.m., from 3 p.m., the milk is mixed. But we only take the night milk."

Some sleep scientists stay skeptical

A German magazine called the night milk nothing more than a placebo

A German magazine called the night milk "nothing more than a placebo"

Jim Lorne, the head of the Sleep Research Center at Loughbourough University in the United Kingdom is worried how strong of an effect melatonin can have, even if the cows themselves manage to stay awake.

"Melatonin is not the substance which induces sleep," he said.

"It's effective for telling the organism it's night-time and as something to regulate the body clock. Of course if you're a nocturnal animal, a rat or a fox, they still have this surge in melatonin and it tells them to wake up. My point here is that melatonin can help adjust your sleep but I'm not sure how good it is for making you sleep."

Lorne certainly isn't alone - the German health magazine "Gute Pillen, Schlechte Pillen" (Good Pills, Bad Pills) recently described this night milk as "nothing more than expensive placebos," adding that the amount of melatonin is too small to be effective.

But that may be just part of the point. If people expect this special milk to do the trick, perhaps a placebo effect is all they need to get a good night's sleep.

"People think of a milky drink as a comfort and something that helps you sleep, and the thought that it contains melatonin as well, might be all part of the impression that it might do you good," Lorne added.

"I'm not saying it's not effective, I merely say let the buyer beware. I'm not so sure you can expect great things from melatonin anyway and whether it's effective in this milk is another matter."

Author: Jonathan Gifford, Munich
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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