The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) is a major source of extrapineal melatonin. In some animals, tissue concentrations of melatonin in the GIT surpass blood levels by 10–100 times and the digestive tract contributes significantly to melatonin concentrations in the peripheral blood, particularly during the day. Some melatonin found in the GIT may originate from the pineal gland, as the organs of the digestive system contain binding sites, which in some species exhibit circadian variation. Unlike the production of pineal melatonin, which is under the photoperiodic control, release of GI melatonin seems to be related to periodicity of food intake. Melatonin and melatonin binding sites were localized in all GI tissues of mammalian and avian embryos. Postnatally, melatonin was localized in the GIT of newborn mice and rats. Phylogenetically, melatonin and melatonin binding sites were detected in GIT of numerous mammals, birds and lower vertebrates. Melatonin is probably produced in the serotonin-rich enterochromaffin cells (EC) of the GI mucosa and can be released into the portal vein postprandially. In addition, melatonin can act as an autocrine or a paracrine hormone affecting the function of GI epithelium, lymphatic tissues of the immune system and the smooth muscles of the digestive tube. Finally, melatonin may act as a luminal hormone, synchronizing the sequential digestive processes. Higher peripheral and tissue levels of melatonin were observed not only after food intake but also after a long-term food deprivation. Such melatonin release may have a direct effect on the various GI tissues but may also act indirectly via the CNS; such action might be mediated by sympathetic or parasympathetic nerves. Melatonin can protect GI mucosa from ulceration by its antioxidant action, stimulation of the immune system and by fostering microcirculation and epithelial regeneration. Melatonin may reduce the secretion of pepsin and the hydrochloric acid and influence the activity of the myoelectric complexes of the gut via its action in the CNS. Tissue or blood levels of melatonin may serve as a marker of GI lesions or tumors. Clinically, melatonin has a potential for a prevention or treatment of colorectal cancer, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, children colic and diarrhea.

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