You go to bed at your usual time, read until you’re sleepy, and turn off the lights. Then it starts. You lie there, looking at the clock periodically, willing yourself to sleep, and thinking about how tired you’re going to be in the morning. Or you fall asleep easily but wake up in the middle of the night and spend what seems like an eternity fretting about your inability to get back to sleep.
If you’re lucky, this only happens once in a while. But insomnia is a frequent occurrence for a third of adults and a majority of older people—and all too often they reach for a sleeping pill.
Popping a pill may seem like an easy solution for insomnia, but these drugs are bad news. First, they don’t work very well. In placebo-controlled clinical trials, they cut the average time it takes to fall asleep by just 10–15 minutes and increase sleep duration by only 15–20 minutes. Second, their meager benefits pale in comparison to their risks. And third, sleep medications are a temporary fix for a very serious problem that can wreck your health.
Say No to Pills and Yes to Natural Solutions for Insomnia
The most popular prescription drugs for sleep are Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, and several generics. Classified as sedative hypnotics, they’ve largely replaced benzodiazepines such as Restoril, Halcion, Valium, and Xanax. Benzodiazepines, which are also used to treat anxiety, are notorious for their adverse effects. They cause daytime grogginess, poor concentration, increased risk of falls and accidents, rebound insomnia—and they’re highly addictive.
But the newer prescription drugs aren’t that much better. They too cause next-day drowsiness, decreased alertness, and driving impairment. In the wake of hundreds of reports of drug-related automobile accidents, the FDA ordered manufacturers to halve the starting dose of Lunesta, Ambien, and related generics. Big Pharma’s latest would-be superstar, Belsomra, also fell flat last year being labeled expensive, ineffective, and rife with the same safety concerns as older prescription sleep aids.
Hypnotics also carry a risk of rebound insomnia and dependency, plus they’re associated with parasomnias—weird and sometimes risky behaviors such as wandering around, eating, having sex, texting, even driving that occur during sleep and are not remembered the following day. Most disturbing, hypnotics dramatically increase risk of death. Researchers compared outcomes of more than 10,000 people who had been prescribed these drugs with a control group. Individuals who took fewer than 18 pills in a year were 3.5 times more likely to have died during the two-and-a-half–year study period, and at high doses the risk of death was five times greater. Sleeping pills were also associated with a 35 percent higher risk of cancer.
Even if sleeping pills were a safe and effective solution for insomnia, they’re a temporary fix, approved only for short-term use and intended to be used for just seven to 10 days. Yet all too often they’re taken for months, even years—and that’s when you really run into problems.
Do OTC Sleep Aids Offer Help for Insomnia?
What about over-the-counter sleep aids? Most contain diphenhydramine (Sominex, Benadryl, Nytol, Advil PM, and Tylenol PM) or doxylamine (Unisom and NyQuil), antihistamines that have sedative effects. These drugs are safer than prescription sleeping pills, but they also cause daytime drowsiness and memory impairment and shouldn’t be used regularly. Furthermore, long-term use of anticholinergic drugs such as diphenhydramine have been linked to memory and cognitive issues. You’re far better off seeking natural solutions for insomnia.
Supplements = Real Help for Insomnia
So, what works for insomnia? Your best bets are supplements such as melatonin, valerian, and theanine. Melatonin is the “sleep hormone” that regulates our biological rhythms. Production naturally declines with age and is also disrupted by erratic bedtimes, time zone changes, and nighttime light exposure. Boosting levels helps reset sleep-wake cycles and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. And because melatonin is a potent antioxidant, it benefits other aspects of health as well.
Valerian, a popular herb in Europe, boosts concentrations of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has calming effects on the brain. It does have a mild sedative effect, but it’s much weaker than the drugs and rarely causes morning drowsiness. L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that increases alpha-wave activity, which calms the mind, relaxes the body, and facilitates sleep. All these are safe, gentle, natural solutions for insomnia that can be taken for prolonged periods.
Solve Underlying Problems
It’s important to realize that insomnia is almost always a symptom of an underlying problem. For permanent relief, you need to figure out the cause and correct it—which is exactly what we do at Whitaker Wellness.
Anxiety and ruminating thoughts can keep you awake at night. One of our most reliable treatments for anxiety is Dilantin, an anti-seizure drug with a number of off-label uses. (I take 100 mg of Dilantin when I wake up at 3:00–4:00 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep. It works every time!) Prostate problems that necessitate nighttime trips to the bathroom improve with saw palmetto and beta sitosterol. Night sweats and other menopausal symptoms can be controlled with bioidentical hormones. When pain, allergies, chronic cough, restless leg syndrome, and other conditions that interfere with slumber are successfully treated, sleep dramatically improves.
The most serious sleep-related disorder is obstructive sleep apnea. It occurs when the airways in the throat collapse during sleep, causing periodic cessation of breathing. Your body goes into survival mode, waking you out of the deep, restorative stages of sleep so you’ll start breathing again—and throwing your sleep cycles all off kilter. Sleep apnea is associated with weight gain, thickening of the carotid arteries, hypertension, memory loss, mood disturbances, and increased risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke, even premature aging and death.
All these risks recede when sleep apnea is treated with continuous or automatic positive airway pressure (CPAP or APAP). You have no idea how much better you feel once high-quality sleep is restored. A Whitaker Wellness patient I’ll call Jane came to us with complaints of fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, panic attacks, and very poor sleep. Because she’s thin and reported little snoring (snoring is a cardinal sign of sleep apnea), we didn’t think to test her until we’d exhausted all other therapeutic options. It turned out she had mild sleep apnea, so we treated her with APAP. Within days, Jane felt like her old self—energetic, cleared headed, relaxed…and she got off her anxiety drug.
We now test most of our patients for sleep apnea with small monitors worn overnight in their own homes. You’d be surprised at how many test positive—and how dramatically they improve with treatment.
What Works for Insomnia Recap…
Do whatever it takes to get help for insomnia. As the old saying goes, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”
Look for sleep-enhancing supplements containing melatonin, valerian, and L-theanine in health food stores or online and use as directed. To order the supplement we use at the clinic, call 800-810-6655.
For more information about treatment of sleep apnea and other conditions that contribute to poor sleep, call Whitaker Wellness at 866-944-8253 or fill out this form for a consultation with one of our Patient Services Representatives.