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Israeli doctors said Thursday they had found a way to use a natural hormone to help elderly people with insomnia to sleep.

In a report in the Lancet medical journal, Nava Zisapel and colleagues at Tel Aviv University said they gave melatonin specially formulated to be released in the body gradually to 12 people who said they did not sleep well at night.All reported they fell asleep more quickly and slept more soundly, although they did not sleep for any longer.

The researchers said all 12 seemed to have a deficiency of the hormone, which in most people is secreted at night by a gland at the base of the brain.

"Melatonin deficiency may have an important role in the high frequency of insomnia among elderly people," they wrote.

"Controlled-release melatonin replacement therapy effectively improves sleep quality in this population."

Melatonin has been used experimentally to help people with "jet-lag" and other sleep disorders.