If you, like many Americans, rely on Xanax, Valium, Ativan or Klonopin to reduce anxiety, panic, insomnia or another problem, this news might be just the incentive you need to find a healthier alternative. These drugs, known as benzodiazepines or sedative hypnotics, have now been shown to have a lasting negative effect on users’ thinking and memory…and to increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a right way and wrong way to use these drugs…and there are safer, natural alternatives to soothe anxiety and panic symptoms. Here’s what you need to know to protect your mind…
THE ALZHEIMER’S CONNECTION
The brain danger of benzodiazepine sedatives is linked to how long a person uses them, according to a study that compared six years’ worth of medical records of elderly people who did and did not use benzodiazepines. Because benzodiazepines are often prescribed for known symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as anxiety, depression and insomnia, the question, in earlier, similar studies, was whether benzodiazepine use was, in fact, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s or whether benzodiazepines were merely given to people who already had or were destined for Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers of the current study attempted to control for this by making sure that none of the study participants had Alzheimer’s disease at the start of study…and that more than five years had elapsed between getting a benzodiazepine prescription and a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s to better ensure that the participants were not getting the drugs for early symptoms of dementia.
The results: In patients who took the drugs for more than six months, the risk of Alzheimer’s was a whopping 84% higher than for people who did not take benzodiazepines! The risk was 32% higher for folks who took benzodiazepines for three to six months.
People in the study who had taken benzodiazepines for up to three months did not seem to be affected by them as far as Alzheimer’s risk went. Their risk was not increased over people who never took benzodiazepines. And the fact of the matter is that these drugs are not supposed to be used for more than three months, according to treatment guidelines set up by health-care standard-setters, because they are addictive. The longer they’re used, the longer it takes to wean a person off them without triggering withdrawal symptoms that can include seizures, psychosis, agitation and rapid heartbeat. What’s more, long-term use of these drugs for symptoms such as insomnia or agitation is not backed up by science. Regardless, doctors routinely give them to people as a more or less open-ended prescription.
NATURAL ALTERNATIVES TO SEDATIVES
So, the wrong way to use benzodiazepines is for more than three months, whereas these drugs appear to be safe and useful to get symptoms under control when used for three months or less. But if you or a loved one are taking a benzodiazepine and want to stop after reading this, don’t go cold turkey. Patients on benzodiazepines should never stop therapy abruptly because withdrawal symptoms are very real. You need to work with your physician or psychiatric therapist to slowly taper off the drug. You’ll also want guidance on alternative remedies. Dr. Mark Stengler, NMD, one of the country’s top naturopathic physicians and a Daily Health News frequent contributor, often prescribes the following options…
• Amino acids. Certain amino acids help promote calm instead of anxiety and, in fact, anxiety and panic can be caused by being deficient in certain amino acids. Dr. Stengler uses either gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) or L-theanine. His patients may be prescribed 250 mg to 500 mg of GABA three times daily. For L-theanine, Dr. Stengler often prescribes 200 mg three times daily. But ask your doctor about an appropriate dose for you. These supplements should be taken on an empty stomach so that your body most effectively absorbs them.
• Nutrient supplements. Another option is a nutrient called inositol, which has been shown to reduce panic attacks and ease anxiety. Dr. Stengler may prescribe up to six grams twice daily. Another antianxiety nutrient, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), helps boost serotonin levels in the brain, which helps memory and mood (and promotes restful sleep). Dr. Stengler finds that 100 mg three times daily benefits many of his patients. Don’t take either of these nutrients if you are still taking an antianxiety medication or an antidepressant because the nutrients will interact with such drugs.
Sleep problems often go hand-in-hand with anxiety and other mood disorders. Because benzodiazepines are often prescribed for insomnia, Dr. Stengler has found one or another of these sleep-enhancing alternatives beneficial…
• Melatonin. This naturally occurring hormone, which is produced by the pineal gland, helps regulate the body’s sleep/wake cycle. Dr. Stengler prefers sublingual melatonin supplements (lozenges placed under the tongue) to capsules or tablets, saying that the sublingual lozenges generally are faster acting and therefore more effective at helping a person fall asleep. He typically prescribes 1.5 mg of sublingual melatonin 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime. If no improvement is seen after three nights, the dose can be increased to 3 mg, said Dr. Stengler.
• Herbs and medicinal plants. Chamomile, passionflower and lemon balm teas can help bring on sleep, as can 300 mg of valerian root supplement taken 30 minutes before bed. But don’t take valerian if you are also taking a sedative drug because it might make for a double-punch of sedation and may also harm your liver. Also, if you are scheduled for surgery, stop taking valerian at least two weeks before surgery to prevent it from interacting with anesthesia. Also avoid taking valerian at the same time that you are taking anithistimines, statins or oral antifungals because they can stress the liver.
• 5-HTP. As mentioned above, 5-HTP is another option for sleep-enhancement. Dr. Stengler often prescribes 100 mg about an hour before going to bed.