Melatonin: Roles in influenza, Covid-19, and other viral infections.

Reviews in medical virology. 2020;30(3):e2109

Plain language summary

Viruses like influenza and coronaviruses change quickly, making it challenging to develop effective treatments and vaccines in a short time frame. Consequently, the use of generic substances that limit viral effects are of high interest. In this paper, the authors summarize a range of mechanisms in which melatonin can alter the impact of virus infections and infection-associated inflammatory overdrive aka cytokine storm. Melatonin, the sleep hormone, is well known for its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action. It seems highly likely that melatonin can modulate the cellular function of all cells, mostly via mitochondrial function. This is particularly relevant in immune cells. For example, the daytime variance in immune function seems to be closely linked with mitochondrial activity and energy production. Other relevant mechanisms described are the antiviral role of melatonin-induced sirtuins - proteins that regulate cellular health-, the impact of viruses on cell coordinating microRNA, the role of the gut microbiome and gut permeability, as well as sympathetic nervous system activation and the protective effects of parasympathetic activation. Also considered are pre-existing health conditions and conditions that are linked with a decline in melatonin along with ageing, all being groups in which severity of viral infections is felt. This paper may be of interest to those who like to explore in more depth the mechanisms behind melatonin and its ability to influence viral disease progression.


There is a growing appreciation that the regulation of the melatonergic pathways, both pineal and systemic, may be an important aspect in how viruses drive the cellular changes that underpin their control of cellular function. We review the melatonergic pathway role in viral infections, emphasizing influenza and covid-19 infections. Viral, or preexistent, suppression of pineal melatonin disinhibits neutrophil attraction, thereby contributing to an initial "cytokine storm", as well as the regulation of other immune cells. Melatonin induces the circadian gene, Bmal1, which disinhibits the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex (PDC), countering viral inhibition of Bmal1/PDC. PDC drives mitochondrial conversion of pyruvate to acetyl-coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA), thereby increasing the tricarboxylic acid cycle, oxidative phosphorylation, and ATP production. Pineal melatonin suppression attenuates this, preventing the circadian "resetting" of mitochondrial metabolism. This is especially relevant in immune cells, where shifting metabolism from glycolytic to oxidative phosphorylation, switches cells from reactive to quiescent phenotypes. Acetyl-CoA is a necessary cosubstrate for arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase, providing an acetyl group to serotonin, and thereby initiating the melatonergic pathway. Consequently, pineal melatonin regulates mitochondrial melatonin and immune cell phenotype. Virus- and cytokine-storm-driven control of the pineal and mitochondrial melatonergic pathway therefore regulates immune responses. Virus-and cytokine storm-driven changes also increase gut permeability and dysbiosis, thereby suppressing levels of the short-chain fatty acid, butyrate, and increasing circulating lipopolysaccharide (LPS). The alterations in butyrate and LPS can promote viral replication and host symptom severity via impacts on the melatonergic pathway. Focussing on immune regulators has treatment implications for covid-19 and other viral infections.

Lifestyle medicine

Fundamental Clinical Imbalances : Hormonal ; Immune and inflammation
Patient Centred Factors : Mediators/Melatonin
Environmental Inputs : Mind and spirit
Personal Lifestyle Factors : Sleep and relaxation ; Stress and resilience
Functional Laboratory Testing : Not applicable
Bioactive Substances : Melatonin

Methodological quality

Jadad score : Not applicable
Allocation concealment : Not applicable
Publication Type : Journal Article ; Review