Melanin is best known as the pigment responsible for skin, hair and eye color. But its functions within the human body go beyond just pigmentation. Believe it or not, melanin-producing cells called melanocytes can be found in the inner ear and even the brain, in addition to more obvious places such as the skin or iris. And the presence of the pigment in different parts of the body is testimony to its various functions and contributions to our health, although not all well understood. Here are 7 super benefits of melanin as backed up by scientific research:
1) Anti-aging effects. Melanin functions as a free radical scavenging agent in the body. It catches UVA and UVB radiation from sunlight and neutralizes its effects before it causes damage to skin (and eyes). People with naturally darker skin have more melanin and tend to have a more youthful appearance as they get older, develop fever wrinkles and age spots (as well as maintain a darker iris color longer). This is because the greater concentration of the pigment helps remove cells affected by free radical damage and prevents premature aging of the skin.
2) Higher level of protection against skin cancer. One of the biggest benefits of melanin in skin is its ability to absorb sun radiation so it doesn’t damage DNA. If DNA is damaged, then the risk of mutations in skin cells increases, creating a predisposition for skin cancers. The darker the skin tone, the more protected the skin is against UVA and UVB radiation and subsequent DNA damage from the sun. Darker skin tones have even been shown in some studies to be more efficient at removing skin cells affected by UVA and UVB radiation which correlates with the reduced incidence of skin cancer in people of color. On the other hand, the lighter the skin tone, the more prone it is to sun damage.
Of course, since melanin responds to sun radiation by initiating the tanning process (gradual darkening of the skin in response to sunlight exposure), lighter skin is also somewhat protected, depending on its ability to tan. If your skin is so light that it burns right away, turning red after even 15 minutes in the sun, or doesn’t tan almost at all, then you are the most at risk for sun damage. If you tan fairly quickly without redness, then you may enjoy a certain level of protection from sun radiation thanks to the quick response time of the melanin cells in your skin (but not complete protection).
But remember, excessive exposure to sunlight always carries a risk for your skin, no matter its melanin concentration. The radiation from sunlight that is absorbed by melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) can cause mutations in those cells that ultimately result in skin cancer.
The risk for sun damage and skin cancer is greater if you are not wearing sunblock or sunscreen or reapplying them at recommended intervals of time. Ideally, avoid going in the sun at its hottest (between 11 a.m. and 3-4 p.m.) and always wear sunblock or sunscreen. Also see What Is the Best Time for Sun Exposure? If possible, wear flowy clothes made from breathable fabrics, long sleeves, long trouser legs and hats.
3) Good eyesight. The pigment melanin is found not only in the skin and hair, but also in the eyes. It’s actually what gives your eyes their color, whether black, brown, green or blue. And wherever it is present, it serves functional purposes. The pigment helps in the development of the iris and retina, photoreceptor cells in the retina (cells that receive and process light) and optic nerve and actively contributes to good vision. So we can say that melanin and good eyesight go hand in hand.
Partial or total lack of pigmentation (also known as albinism) causes pink-red eyes and vision problems, including problems with peripheral vision, vision in low light (also called night vision), problems with perception of depth and poor visual acuity, misaligned eyes, astigmatism, nearsightedness and farsightedness. Albinism is a congenital condition present at birth. But there is also loss of pigment due to damage from sunlight radiation.
Iris discoloration is actually one of the first signs of losing pigment in the eyes as a result of free radical damage. It is fairly noticeable in lighter-skinned individuals over the age of 50 who initially had brown eyes. A former dark brown iris color may fade over the course of a decade to hazel, green brown then a light green or blue pigment, all indicative of loss of melanin pigment and associated with age-related vision problems. Factors that contribute to iris discoloration and subsequent poor vision include excessive direct exposure to strong sunlight, not wearing sunglasses outdoors in strong light as well as dietary factors or conditions that predispose to nutritional deficiencies such as alcoholism.
4) Good hearing. Melanin-producing cells are present in the Stria vascularis, a part of the inner ear involved in hearing. This particular inner ear portion produces a fluid called endolymph. This fluid stimulates receptors for hearing and contributes to balance and coordination. Since albinism and hearing loss are associated, it can be assumed that the presence of melanin cells in the inner ear is indicative of the role of the pigment-producing cells in contributing to good hearing.
5) Benefits for the brain and nervous system. Melanin functions in the brain have not been identified yet, but the presence of the pigment in brain structures has been theorized to lead to various benefits. The pigment occurs in the form of neuromelanin. It can be found in a structure of the brain called substantia nigra, the second term being a reference to the darker color of the area that results from the higher concentration of neuromelanin. It is believed the pigment protects neurons in this area from oxidative damage from metals such as iron, heavy metals and other potentially toxic or damaging elements.
Neuromelanin is also present in the locus coeruleus part of the brain stem, an area that is typically affected by massive cell death occurring in relation to degenerative conditions of the nervous system such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression and a range of anxiety disorders. Given its neuroprotective properties and presence in particular areas of the brain, it is believed it may play a role in averting such conditions and possibly bring a contribution to mental health, although these are but suppositions, theories, extensive research being needed to confirm such functions.
6) Melanin and Parkinson’s disease. Because of its neuroprotective properties on brain cells in the substantia nigra area, neuromelanin is believed to hold potential benefits for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Reduced neuromelanin concentrations in this area of the brain have been observed in people with the condition, hence the reason why it’s believed to hold neuroprotective properties and possibly contribute to reduced risks.
7) Stimulate and modulate the immune system. Melanin-producing cells function as immune system cells as well. Studies show they have the ability to induce an immune system response. They exhibit phagocytic activity, meaning they catch and eat pathogens and other foreign elements. They also release proteins for cell signaling known as cytokines which serve immuno-modulating purposes (such as producing inflammation as part of the immune system response). Research shows they are recognized by T cells (immune system cells) and can activate them as part of the immune response. Although more research is needed to better understand how melanocytes work, it is clear they activate on many fronts, including that of immuno-modulation.