German cows are working nights to help insomniacs.
A herd of 1,400 cows is being milked between the hours of 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. under the theory that they will produce more sleep inducing melatonin in their milk at a time when they are usually lying down in the dark.
To further boost the melatonin production, the bovines are fed clover and soothed under warm red lights to lower stress levels while being milked. And during the day when the weather is good, the pampered animals are turned out in a pen with grass and deep, cozy sand, which the workers call "cow beach."
By giving the cows special treatment, the Milchkristalle company says it's getting special milk with 10 times more of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin than normal milk.
The milk is freeze-dried and turned into a product known as Nightmilk Crystals, which can be mixed with regular milk or with yogurt and consumed before going to bed.
"It tastes like milk, maybe a little bit stronger," said Maike Schnittger, a Hamburg resident who uses Nightmilk Crystals.
Schnittger was out of work for awhile and at night worries would flood her mind, keeping her up for hours. But she says taking Nightmilk Crystals was a huge help, conking her out in just 30 minutes.
"It was a deep sleep and the next morning I felt really awake," she said, adding that she likes that the product is natural. "I didn't ever take medicine for sleeping and I don't want to."
Nightmilk Crystals' inventor Tony Gnann grew up on a farm. After spending a lifetime with cows, he became fascinated with melatonin after reading an Irish study on the subject a decade ago. After six years of research, the Munich-based company says its studies show that giving cows different care and milking them during the middle of the night changes the level of nocturnal melatonin in their blood and the milk they produce.
Milchkristalle began selling the Nightmilk Crystals in German pharmacies and through its website, www.nacht-milchkristalle.de in March. Recently, the company's had orders from India, Austria and the U.S.
Melatonin, which is widely available without a prescription in the U.S., is under much stricter restrictions in Europe where it's only available at pharmacies. The hormone is naturally produced by the body and used by the brain to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Doctors often recommend supplements of melatonin for people who have jet lag or work odd shifts.
"Melatonin won't make you sleepy, but will help you fall asleep if your body clock is out of sync," said David Schulman, a doctor at the Emory University sleep laboratory in Atlanta.
Cows Working During the Night for Insomniacs
Consumer watchdog groups have questioned the company's science, saying a person would have to drink an impossible amount of the milk product to see results.
Schulman also had concerns about dose size. The average recommended dose of melatonin is three milligrams, far more than a person would get from the 1,800 picogram dose of the Nightmilk Crystal supplement.
"I'd be surprised if this small a dose did anything at all," Schulman said, adding he didn't see the point of coaxing cows to produce the hormone, which is safely and cheaply produced in factories.
But Nightmilk Crystals user Schnittger was convinced it works, and has other concerns. Although she was relieved to be sleeping sounder, she couldn't help thinking about the cows busy working nights so she could rest.
"Maybe they want to sleep, like the human being," she said. "It's good for the people, yes, but if it's good for the cows I don't know."