It’s becoming one of the main reasons people see their primary care doctors and left untreated, can wreak havoc on every part of your life.
Some sufferers toss and turn each night, anxieties of the day playing over and over in their head. They’re desperate for a few moments of true rest but can’t get it.
Others have their rest interrupted halfway on a nightly basis, left to stare at the ceiling, the wall, or worse, the clock for hours until morning.
If these sound familiar, then you too could be struggling with insomnia.
At a certain point, you’ll be ready to try anything—any prescription, any pill—that promises a good night’s rest.
And I’m here to tell you that relief is possible… but some pharmaceutical promises will backfire… and leave you worse off than when you started!
Basic Sleep Chemistry
This is how things are supposed to work:
To fall asleep, your body needs two hormones—melatonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).
Melatonin is produced by the Pineal gland. This gland is turned on by darkness and turned off by light—like a backwards solar panel. 🙂 Melatonin helps determine your circadian rhythm by inducing sleep-wake cycles, controlling blood pressure, and acting as a strong antioxidant.
GABA, your primary inhibitory or “relax” hormone, puts you in that deep, non-REM sleep. It also inhibits the release of cortisol (stress hormone) from the hypothalamus.
In a healthy body, these hormones usually all get along. But when they get cranky and stubborn, you can’t get to sleep as easily—if at all—and when you do, it doesn’t last long.
When this situation becomes chronic, it’s tempting to head for the big guns.
But Do You Know What You’re Doing to Your Body?
Over my years as a doctor, I’ve seen some of these drugs prescribed by other medical professionals whose patients don’t know enough to know better. Other patients go “off book,” taking meds strictly for their drowsy side-effects.
Here’s what’s really happening to your body.
A very common drug class prescribed by medical providers for poor sleep and anxiety is Benzodiazepines. You may have heard of these drugs by either brand or generic names: Valium (Zentran), Lorazepam (Ativan), Alprazolam (Xanax), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Temazopam (Restoril), etc.
Benzodiazepines (Benzos) work on the brain, acting selectively on gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA-A) receptors in the brain. Remember, GABA inhibits or reduces the activity of nerve cells.
All Benzos work in a similar way, but there are differences in how long they affect you.
Valium, for example, has a half-life of 72 hours, and shorter acting ones, such as Ativan, have a half-life one-third of that.
The problem is that these are VERY addictive.
After a few doses, you can’t fall asleep without them. They decrease slow wave and REM sleep and have been linked to increased falls and injury in the elderly, memory problems—even dementia, if you use them long enough.
In 2005, a study was published that found not only did Benzodiazepines mess with visuospatial ability, speed of processing thoughts and perceptions and the ability to absorb verbal lessons, but even after patients stopped using, they couldn’t fully regain those abilities.
Most people use over-the-counter Antihistamines like Tylenol PM, diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or other allergy meds. Similar drugs in this class you should avoid include doxylamine and hydroxyzine.
They work by inhibiting a primary brain activating hormone, histamine.
And anyone who’s taken one knows the dozy crash that soon follows.
An antihistamine coma can be irritating for those looking for allergy relief… but alluring to the chronically sleep deprived.
Kicking histamine out of play, however, causes daytime fatigue and severe hangovers that may last for days. Worse, it compounds over time. If you’re reading this, you are already likely fatigued and begging for energy—why would you make it worse in the attempt to get better?
- Old antidepressants
Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil), imipramine (Tofranil), and doxepin (Sinequan)—there are many others—should also be avoided by the insomniac.
They work on several of your brain’s neurotransmitters, suppressing REM sleep, and all of them are associated with weight gain over time.
Many antipsychotics (Zyprexa, Seroquel, and others) and antiepileptic (Neurontin and Lyrica) drugs are also used for sleep, but have a side effect profile longer than your leg, including weight gain. I’d avoid those as well.
Before You Can Find the Solution, You Need to Determine the Cause
Before making the leap to heavier sleep supplements and prescriptions, look at your lifestyle.
Many of us try to get sleep immediately after extended time in bright rooms, or—a sleep killer—smartphone use. You’ve heard it again and again, but I’ll repeat it once more: blue phone light tricks your brain into suppressing melatonin, keeping you awake, and inhibiting restful sleep.
High cortisol will also fight those zz’s. If you stress all day or over-exercise, the hormones in your body can’t calm the cortisol enough to let you doze. Few people can sleep on high body alert. For a list of practical sleep tips, check out my post here.
Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep. Avoid these havoc-making drugs, and as always, remember to talk to your doctor about any of these problems, identifying the root cause of your insomnia, not just medicating the symptoms.
Want to Optimize Your State of Mind and Relieve Stress?
Whole health often begins with what’s going on between your ears. I’ve developed a simple mental well-being checklist that you can use each day to optimize your mental well-being.