May
21
2014

Forty Percent Of Premature Deaths Can Be Prevented

A new report from the CDC (Center of Disease Control) in the US has revealed that up to 40% of premature deaths could be prevented by simple lifestyle changes. As this link shows every year about 900,000 premature deaths occur in the US, which are due to 5 major diseases that in the opinion of the CDC can be prevented by 20 to 40%. Here are the diseases that kill: cancer, heart disease, COPD/emphysema, stroke and accidents/injuries. These conditions were responsible for 63% of all deaths in the US in 2010.

Let’s discuss each of these conditions and how one could lower the risk of dying from them.

1. Cancer:

The Framingham Heart Study has shown that smoking and cancer are closely related. Smokers who quit can significantly reduce their risk of getting cancer. We also know that exercise and prophylactic supplements like fish oil and vitamin D3 have cancer preventative effects.

Antioxidant supplementation that included beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E daily or on alternate days for 1 to 12 years, along with selenium supplementation reduced the incidence of cancer of the esophagus, colon, pancreas, stomach or the liver. Insulin resistance due to sugar and starch overconsumption is causing cancer, particularly breast cancer, colorectal cancer and endometrial cancer. I have discussed this in a recent blog.

Pollution has been linked to increased lung cancer risks as discussed here.

2. Heart disease:

Heart disease can be caused by several factors in combination. Lifestyle issues are important: Smokers need to quit smoking as the Framingham Heart Study has shown more than fifty years ago that smoking causes heart attacks. Obesity and diabetes also contribute significantly to the risk of heart disease. Often these are connected to faulty nutrition, which is another lifestyle issue that comes to mind when too much sugar and starchy foods are taken in; your liver will convert these into fatty acids, triglycerides and elevated, oxidized LDL cholesterol, which gets deposited under the lining of the arteries. A lack of exercise adds to this problem as a lack of exercise lowers the protective HDL cholesterol and fat is deposited under the lining of the arteries. Start exercising and your protective HDL cholesterol will rise, your total cholesterol to HDL ratio will lower to healthier levels and your risk for hardening of the arteries and for getting a heart attack will fall. If you have diabetes, it is important that you manage your blood sugars well; this means that if you inject insulin, you want the blood sugar tests to be within the normal range and the hemoglobin A1C values to be below 5.5%. Poorly controlled diabetes is an important cause of heart attacks and strokes. High blood pressure is also an important cause of developing heart attacks and strokes. It is important to control your blood pressure by taking blood pressure lowering pills and also by exercising regularly. Exercise seems to send a signal to relax the blood vessels thus lowering the blood pressure, which in turn prevents heart attacks.

Forty Percent Of Premature Deaths Can Be Prevented

Forty Percent Of Premature Deaths Can Be Prevented

 

3. COPD/emphysema:

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema is mostly caused by chronic exposure to cigarette smoke from smoking. The earlier you can quit, the better your chances that your breathing will not be the limiting factor when you age. But it is also important to avoid exposure to other noxious gases, such as from welding and from exposure to pollution. This may involve a decision to move to a less polluted area. Or it might involve a job retraining. Those who are suffering from COPD can be helped to a certain extent by a portable oxygen tank with nasal prongs.

4. Stroke:

As mentioned before, quitting smoking, controlling high blood pressure and controlling blood sugar, if you suffer from diabetes have been shown to stabilize your blood vessels including the ones that supply your brain. The key is to prevent hardening of the arteries by a healthy lifestyle. Exercising and keeping your weight under a body mass index of 25.0 have been shown to be effective stroke prevention. Healthy nutrition as indicated above under “heart disease” is equally important for stroke prevention. Go green (eat more vegetables, consume more green smoothies), cut down grains, sugar and starchy foods and you will live longer without strokes and heart attacks. Remember, what’s good for your heart is good for your brain!

5. Unintentional accidents/injuries:

Wearing helmets when bicycling, wearing seat belts when driving in a car, avoiding risky behaviors are all measures that save lives. One factor stands out in all of this: if you drink too much, you run the risk of being involved in unintentional accidents or injuries. People may not like to hear this, but your brain lacks the natural inhibitory impulses when you are under the influence of alcohol, so you become more daring and you may not pay attention for the split second that could have prevented an injury or accident. People react very differently to alcohol. Some people feel inebriated after only ½ a glass of wine or beer whereas others can drink more before they make mistakes. The best is to be sober when you drive, ski, use power tools or walk in traffic. Even climbing ladders requires a clear mind!

Conclusion:

As the CDC said 20 to 40% of premature deaths (deaths that occurred before the age of 80) could have been prevented, if the above-mentioned recommendations were followed. Let me rephrase this: 180,000 to 360,000 premature deaths every year in the US before the age of 80 could have been prevented! Curative medicine cannot help with these statistics as a heart attack or stroke has happened when it has struck you. Cancer and end stage lung disease are similar conditions that you are suddenly faced with when they occur and unintentional accidents just seem to happen. This is where the importance of prevention can be seen, because these little baby steps every day are adding up to something formidable, a force to be reckoned with. Be part of the solution, think prevention!

More information on:

1. Cancer mortality: http://nethealthbook.com/cancer-overview/overview/cancer-mortality-rate/

2. Higher vitamin D3 intake lowers mortality from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, fractures due to osteoporosis: http://nethealthbook.com/news/higher-vitamin-d-levels-associated-lower-risk-mortality/

Last edited Nov. 8, 2014

Dec
07
2013

Slow Down Aging And Prevent Disabilities

You have seen it many times before: a man or a woman retires at age 65; for a while you see them around at social functions; then they are not seen any more and they return in a wheel chair only to die prematurely. You ask yourself: what can I do better to avoid this death trap?

There are several aspects to this equation: first, we would like to slow down the aging process. Part of this is to retain our physical functioning. In the following I am discussing the ingredients that are necessary to achieve the goal of aging in dignity, but avoiding disability.

It starts with a healthy mind set

You need to be optimistic and have a mindset of believing in yourself that you can do it. With a negative attitude, you will manage to find something to complain about, no matter how perfect the day has been. Negative thinking is rampant, and depression tends to be higher in the older population. If you suffer from depression or you had negative events such as accidents or abuse in the past, it is important to do some house cleaning. Do not be hesitant seeking professional help and counseling from a health professional to help you build up your self-esteem.

Regular exercise is important

A regular exercise program helps you to get your day organized. If you think that you are too busy to find the time to exercise, you are sacrificing your wellness and in fact you sabotage your health. It’s time to rethink your lifestyle! The reason you need exercise is to set the automatic pilot on staying healthy and active. If you are accustomed to sitting down in front of the computer or television set for hours, your muscles do not get the exercise they need. Fast-forward several decades and you will be one of those who rely on walkers, wheel chairs and assisted living establishments. Without training your muscles you are more prone to falls and injuries. Your balance organ is not getting the impulses it needs on an ongoing basis to prevent you from falls later in life. People in their 80’s are often stable up to the point where they trip and fall. I have seen many patients like this arrive in an ambulance where I was doing my shift as the emergency physician in a community hospital. When I summarize the fate of all of the people in their 80’s who had falls and broke their hips over the years, 50% of them made it through the surgery and went back home (often with a walker or in a wheel chair) or ended up in a nursing home; the other 50% died from complications of the surgery, often from heart attacks during the surgery or from clots in their pelvic veins or in the leg veins that dislodged and turned into pulmonary emboli. A fracture and in particular a hip fracture in your 80’s is a serious, potentially deadly accident. So, you need strong muscles and joints and you need strong bones. All of this comes free to you from years of regular exercise in your 60’s and 70’s.

Slow Down Aging And Prevent Disabilities

Slow Down Aging And Prevent Disabilities

You guessed right: good nutrition is important!

Eat right and your body will function right. This is where a lot of people are sent on the wrong path due to clever advertising from the Agro Industry, Big Pharma, the American Dietetic Association and the United States Department Of Agriculture. So they preach that wheat and wheat products are good for you, but the lab tests show that it induces hyperinsulinemia and leads to diabetes. The genetic changes of wheat (“accomplished” through forced chemical hybridization in the 1970’s) are responsible for the metabolically very active wheat belly (accumulation of visceral fat) that Ref. 1 has described in detail. But others have researched this topic as well. Ref. 2 for instance confirms that gliadin, the glue in wheat, which allows dough to stick and makes it easy to create bread, bagels and pasta, is responsible for neurological issues like numbness of fingers and feet (peripheral neuropathy), balance problems and cognitive decline all the way to Alzheimer’s disease. If you continue to eat wheat and wheat products (all contained in conveniently packaged “processed” foods), you may very well find that your balance and muscle control will deteriorate by the time you are in your eighties. This condition is not new: one of the lecturers I listened to at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario in 1977 referred to those unfortunate individuals who were severely disabled as the “tea and toasters”. The tea in this case was probably the lesser evil, but the wheat induced malabsorption and malnutrition was a reality already in the mid and late 1970’s.

However, if you start eating organic foods to avoid the chemicals and estrogen-like xenoestrogens from pesticides, and you cut out sugar, high-density carbs and wheat products, you will no longer have problems with weight control and you will maintain your muscle, brain and nerve function. This is not what you learn from the regular agencies mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, but Ref. 1 and 2 will fill you in on the details. Essentially, I follow a Mediterranean diet without sugar, starchy foods and wheat or wheat products. Ref. 2 stressed the importance of enough saturated and healthy fat (omega-3 fatty acid rich oils) in a balanced diet consisting of 20% protein and low carbs. No specific numbers were given regarding the %-age of fat. I would say that a limit of about 25 to 35% for fat would be reasonable except for the Inuit who are used to a fat content in their diet of 80%. The new thinking is that healthy fats are good for your brain and heart. Healthy fats are omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) derived from fish oil as they are very protective (anti-inflammatory) oils, so is olive oil and coconut oil. These latter two are anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fatty acids. Keep in mind that you want to change the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (the ratio in this link is cited as omega-6 to omega-3) more in the direction of omega-3 fatty acids, so that the ratio will be between 1:1 and 1:3. Most Americans are exposed to ratios of 1:8 to 1:16 (too many omega-6 fatty acids in fast food and processed foods), which leads to inflammation of the arteries as well. Omega-6 fatty acids, found in safflower oil, sun flower oil, grape seed oil and canola oil are bad for you when not balanced by enough omega-3’s (flax seed oil and fish oil) as they lead to inflammation through the arachidonic acid system in the body. It may be a surprise to you that saturated fats are OK: animal fat like butter, lard, cream, ghee (clarified butter), and other animal fats provided they come from clean (not antibiotic or bovine growth hormone treated) animals. Buy organic and buy organic meats as well such as grass fed beef and bison, chicken and turkey.

Here is an example of what a day would look like nutritionally in terms of a breakfast, lunch and dinner (recipes by Christina Schilling):

Breakfast:  Great Greens Omelet

(2 servings)

1 tablespoon olive oil or coconut oil

3 chopped green onions

3 cups spinach leaves or a mix of greens: kale, spinach, Swiss chard

1 red pepper cut into strips

3 eggs and 3 egg whites

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano

In non-stick pan sauté green onion, greens and pepper strips in oil, stir eggs and egg whites and pour over the vegetables, sprinkle with Parmigiano. Cook on medium heat, till the egg mixture has started to set. Turn over and briefly let cook. Remove from pan, divide into two portions and sprinkle with a bit of salt (optional). Serve with salsa and guacamole.

Lunch: Oriental Salad

(2 portions)

1 small Sui choy cabbage (Napa cabbage)

2 cups mung bean sprouts

1 small daikon radish, shredded to yield 1 cup

1 red pepper, cut into thin slices

3 green onions, chopped

1 medium sized carrot, cut into matchstick size pieces

1 can sliced water chestnuts, rinsed.

Dressing: 2 tablespoons sesame oil,

2 tablespoons rice vinegar,(light balsamic vinegar works too)

1-tablespoon tamari soy sauce

1 tablespoon Thai sweet chilli sauce

1-teaspoon fresh grated ginger

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Prepare all vegetables and put into salad bowl. Stir all dressing ingredients together and pour over vegetable mix. Stir gently, cover and refrigerate. This salad can be consumed immediately or kept refrigerted for a day. To complete the salad with a protein portion add your choice of 6 oz. cooked shrimp or the same quantity of cubed or sliced grilled chicken.

Dinner:  Florentine Chicken

(2 servings)

1 large boneless chicken breast

1 tablespoon of chopped fresh basil-alternatively use 1 teaspoon dried basil.

1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano

4 thin slices prosciutto

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tomatoes- cut into halves

3 chopped green onions

2 cups baby spinach leaves

pinch of salt

Spread chicken breast flat and top it with the basil, Parmigiano and prosciutto slices. Fold into half an hold the stuffed chicken breast together at the edges with a toothpick or two. Heat olive oil in frying pan, add onion and tomato slices and put the chicken breast on top. Put lid on the pan, and cook at medium heat till the chicken is cooked through. If you test with a fork, the juices will be clear. Remove vegetables and chicken from pan, put on serving plate and keep warm. Remove toothpicks from meat, and cut chicken breast into two portions. Put spinach into pan and let the leaves wilt at medium heat (cover with lid). Put spinach on the side of the chicken and tomatoes, and sprinkle with a bit of salt.

Dessert after dinner: Berry Sorbet

(2 servings)

2 cups of deep frozen berries (strawberries, blueberries or a berry mix, no sugar added)

¾ cup of organic yogourt or goat’s milk yogurt

a few drops of liquid stevia or small amount of powdered stevia-to taste.

Put into blender and process till smooth. You will have to open the blender jar to stir the contents in between. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream,  if desired.

What about the “slow down” of menopause and andropause?

It is a fact that as we age, our hormone glands do not produce as much hormones as when we were in our 20’s and 30’s. But if you find a health care provider who is interested in anti-aging medicine (there are about 26,000 physicians, chiropractors and naturopaths who are members in the A4M), your hormones can be measured accurately from saliva and blood tests. This will tell whether you are hypothyroid, deficient in sex hormones and whether you should be supplemented with the missing hormones in adequate doses through bio-identical hormones. For instance, women are often deficient in progesterone in menopause and men deficient in testosterone. Treatment needs persistence and patience, as it often takes months for the patient to feel better and up to 2 years, to find the exact balance for you where the hormones are re-balanced and your symptoms of tiredness, insomnia, hot flushes etc. disappear. All our body cells have hormone receptors that require stimulation for the cells to function normally. Your health professional needs to pay attention to this and not just treat your symptoms symptomatically. When your hormones are in balance and you take a few supplements, your bones will be strong (no osteoporosis), your brain will be clear, your hearing perfect, and your balance great. You will be much less likely in your eighties to fall and break a bone and your mind will be clear and sharp.

Stress management

As the baby boomers age, they need to be aware of the stress in their lives. You may have been accustomed to having lots of energy when you were in your child rearing years or in your active professional career. Often we do not even notice that there may be stress in our lives. But your adrenal glands know. This is really a subpart of what I said of hormones: they need to be in balance. But cortisol, which is produced in your adrenal glands, is different from the menopause/andropause hormones. Corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus and adrenocorticotrophin hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland are the rulers of the adrenal glands. And it is how you handle stress when you are in your 40’s, 50’s and 60’s which will determine whether you come down with adrenal fatigue, various degrees of adrenal insufficiency or not. Ref. 3 is a whole book that deals with this topic. Here I like to mention only that the best test to diagnose adrenal problems is a four-point saliva hormone test for cortisol. You connect the four points and get a curve where the cortisol level is expressed as a function of time. If this curve is below the lower normal range, which the laboratory provides for you, you need to be managed by a knowledgeable health care professional in order to build up the reserves of your adrenal glands. Yoga, meditation, deep prayer, self-hypnosis and enough regular sleep are all proven methods to overcome any stress related issues. Sometimes more effort is needed to rebuild the adrenals by specific herbs or porcine adrenal gland cortex extracts. Your health care provider can tell you more regarding this.

Useful supplements

1. On March 17, 2013 I wrote in a blog about prevention of osteoporosis the following summary:

“The best combination is 1000 mg (or 1200 mg as per National Osteoporosis Foundation recommendation) of calcium per day together with 400 to 800 IU of vitamin D3 (for cancer prevention you may want to take 4000 IU to 5000 IU of vitamin D3 per day instead monitored by a 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood level test through your physician) and 100 micrograms of vitamin K2 (also called MK-7). In the age group above 50 missing hormones such as bioidentical testosterone in men and bioidentical progesterone/estrogen combinations in women should be given as well. This works best, if you also watch your weight, cut down your alcohol consumption to a minimum (or better cut alcohol out altogether), exercise regularly (this builds up bone and muscle strength) and stick to a balanced diet resembling a Mediterranean or zone type diet (low-glycemic,  low fat, wheat free and no sugar).” I would add in view of Ref. 1 and 2 that “low fat” should now be replaced by “balanced fat diet”. With this I mean that nuts, almonds, olive oil, unsalted butter are allowed within reason. Lately there have been new insights that some cholesterol is needed for normal hormone production. What needs to be cut out are omega-6 fats and trans fats.

2. Omega-3-fatty acid supplements from molecularly distilled fish oil at a good dosage (3 to 6 capsules a day) will prevent chronic inflammation that often causes arthritis. Chicken cartilage (UC-II) from the health food store will desensitize your system in case you have rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. This will prevent crippling arthritic disease down the road.

3. Mitochondrial aging (the mitochondria are the energy packages in each body cell) is slowed down by the two supplements ubiquinol (=Co-Q-10, take 400 mg per day) and 20 mg of PQQ (=Pyrroloquinoline quinone). Co-Q-10 repairs DNA damage to your mitochondria and PQQ stimulates your healthy mitochondria to multiply. Between the two supplements you will have more energy.

4. Vitamin C 1000 to 2000 mg per day and a multivitamin supplement help to support the rest of your metabolism. Some may want to add PS (Phosphatylserine) 100 to 200 mg per day, which works together with vitamin D3 for Alzheimer’s prevention.

Conclusion

By now you noticed that nothing comes from ignoring the fact that we are aging. We need to pay attention to our body functions and think about what we can do to make us stronger. In the end we are our own caregivers. When we are in our eighties, we should still be active and our brains should function with a lot more experience than in our past. Our bones will be strong and our balance should prevent us from falling. I do not want to use assisted living and I do not like the confinement of a wheel chair. In the meantime I am going to carry on dancing.

More information on:

1. Fitness: http://nethealthbook.com/health-nutrition-and-fitness/fitness/

2. Nutrition: http://nethealthbook.com/health-nutrition-and-fitness/nutrition/

3. Vitamins, minerals and supplements: http://nethealthbook.com/health-nutrition-and-fitness/nutrition/vitamins-minerals-supplements/

References

1. William Davis, MD: “Wheat Belly. Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health”. HarperCollins Publishers LTD., Toronto, Canada, 2011.

2. David Perlmutter, MD: “Grain Brain. The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, And Sugar-Your Brain’s Silent Killers.” Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2013.

3. James L. Wilson, ND, DC, PhD: “Adrenal Fatigue, the 21sty Century Stress Syndrome – what is it and how you can recover”; Second printing 2002 by Smart Publications, Petaluma, Ca, USA

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014

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Sep
28
2013

Sleepless Nights

Sleeping problems (insomnia) are very common. About 10% of the population suffers from chronic insomnia; 30% of the population suffers from occasional sleep problems. In a large outpatient population of a clinic consisting of 3500 patients who had at least one major clinical condition, 50% complained of insomnia, 16% had severe symptoms, 34% had mild symptoms (Ref.1). Insomnia is more common among women, and older people as well as in people with medical or psychiatric illnesses. Long-term studies have shown that the same insomnia problems persist throughout many years. It is not possible to offer a simple remedy for insomnia, because insomnia is a complex problem. Here I will discuss some of the causes of insomnia and also discuss some of the treatment options.

Symptoms of insomnia

The person who suffers from insomnia will usually state that they have problems falling asleep. Worries of the day suddenly circulate through their thoughts and they toss and turn nervously looking at the clock from time to time and getting more and more anxious that they cannot sleep. Others fall asleep OK, but in the middle of the night they wake up perhaps to visit the restroom, but then they cannot go back to sleep. Others wake up 2 hours before their normal alarm clock time and they feel their stomach rumbling making it impossible to fall back to sleep. Older people with chronic diseases and general poor health suffer more from insomnia. In this setting insomnia may be more related to the underlying disease rather than old age. Psychiatric disorders also are associated with more insomnia. Treat the underlying psychiatric illness, and the insomnia disappears.

Although insomnia is a sleep disturbance during the nighttime, people who are affected with this complain of daytime fatigue, of overstimulation, yet they catch themselves making frequent mistakes, and their inability to pay attention gets them involved in accidents and falls. Longitudinal studies have shown (Ref. 1) that people with chronic insomnia are more likely to develop psychiatric disease, such as major depression,  anxiety disorder and alcohol and substance abuse. Unfortunately these disorders can by themselves again cause insomnia, which reinforces chronic insomnia. Insomnia leads to poorer social and physical functioning, affects emotions, leads to a lack of vitality and physical endurance, contributes to worsening of pain and can affect general and mental health.

Research about insomnia

Much has been learnt from sleep studies using polysomnography monitoring during a full night’s sleep. These studies have been used mainly as a research tool. In such studies eye movements, brain wave activity, muscle activity, chest movements, airflow, heart beats, oxygen saturation and snoring (with a microphone) are all simultaneously recorded. This way restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, snoring, seizure disorders, deep depression etc. that can all lead to insomnia can be diagnosed and separated from insomnia. The stages of sleep (wakefulness, stage 1 to 3 sleep and the REM sleep stage) can also be readily measured using polysomnography (Ref.2). According to this reference the majority of insomnia cases do not need this complex procedure done.

Sleepless Nights

Sleepless Nights

Causes of insomnia

Traditionally insomnia cases are classified into primary insomnia and secondary insomnia. Secondary insomnia is caused by all of the factors discussed below. When they are dealt with, we are left with cases of primary insomnia.

The following medical conditions can cause insomnia: heart disease, pulmonary diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); gastrointestinal disease like liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, colitis, Crohn’s disease; chronic kidney disease; musculoskeletal disease like arthritis, fractures, osteoporosis; neurodegenerative disease like MS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease; endocrine disease like diabetes, hyper- or hypothyroidism, adrenal gland fatigue and insufficiency; and chronic pain conditions. Also, psychiatric conditions like major depression, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders can cause insomnia.

This list in not complete, but it gives you an idea of how complex the topic of insomnia is.
The physician who is seeing a patient with insomnia needs to rule out any of these other causes of insomnia to be certain that the only condition that is left to treat in the patient is insomnia itself. The other diagnoses have to be dealt with separately or else treatment of insomnia will fail.

Ref. 1 points to a useful model of how to think about causation of insomnia: there are three points to consider, namely predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors. Let’s briefly discuss some of these.

Predisposing factors

We are all different in our personal make-up. If you are well grounded, chances are you are not susceptible to insomnia. Anxious persons or persons who have been through a lot of negative experiences in life will have personality traits that make them more prone to insomnia. Lifestyle choices such as late nights out, drinking with the buddies in a bar (extreme circadian phase tendencies) will have an impact on whether or not you develop insomnia.

Precipitating factors

A situational crisis like a job change or the death of a loved one can initiate insomnia.  However, there could be a medical illness such as a heart attack, a stroke or the new diagnosis of a psychiatric illness that has become a precipitating factor. Sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome belong into this group as well as would the stimulating effect of coffee and caffeine containing drinks. Jet lag and nighttime shift work can also be precipitating factors.

Perpetuating factors

Daytime napping to make up for lost sleep the night before can undermine sleep initiation the following night, which can lead to a vicious cycle. Similarly, the use of bedtime alcoholic drinks leads to sleep disruption later that night and can become a perpetuating factor, if this habit is maintained. Even the psychological conditioning of being anxious about whether or not you will fall asleep easily or not the next night can become a perpetuating factor.

I will return to this classification and the factor model of causation of insomnia when we address treatment options.

Drugs that can cause insomnia

One major possible cause for insomnia  can be side effects from medications that patients are on (would belong to the ‘perpetuating factors’ among causes). Physicians call this “iatrogenic insomnia”. The antidepressants, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) like Prozac are particularly troublesome with regard to causing insomnia as a side effect. Other antidepressants like trazodone (Desyrel) are used in small doses to help patients with insomnia to fall asleep. Some asthmatics and people with autoimmune diseases may be on prednisone, a corticosteroid drug. This can cause insomnia, particularly in higher doses; so can decongestants you may use for allergies; beta-blockers used for heart disease and hypertension treatment; theophylline, an asthma medication and diuretics. Central nervous stimulants like caffeine or illicit drugs can also cause insomnia. Hormone disbalance in general and hyperthyroidism specifically as well as Cushing’s disease, where cortisol levels are high will cause insomnia.

Treatment of insomnia

So, how should the physician approach a patient with insomnia? First it has to be established whether there is secondary insomnia present due to one of the predisposing, precipitating or perpetuating factors. In other words, is there secondary insomnia due to other underlying illnesses? If so, these are being addressed first. Lifestyle choices (staying up late every night) would have to be changed; alcohol and drug abuse and overindulging in coffee or caffeine containing drinks needs to be dealt with. Cognitive therapy may be beneficial when mild depression or anxiety is a contributing factor to insomnia.

The remaining insomnia (also medically termed “primary insomnia”) is now being treated.

The following general points are useful to get into the sleeping mode (modified from Ref. 3):

  1. Ensure your bedroom is dark, soundproof, and comfortable with the room temperature being not too warm, and you develop a “sleep hygiene”. This means you get to sleep around the same time each night, have some down time 1 hour or so before going to bed and get up after your average fill of sleep (for most people between 7 to 9 hours). Do not sleep in, but use an alarm clock to help you get into your sleep routine.
  2. Avoid caffeine drinks, alcohol, nicotine and recreational drugs. If you must smoke, don’t smoke later than 7PM.
  3. Get into a regular exercise program, either at home or at a gym.
  4. Avoid a heavy meal late at night. A light snack including some warm milk would be OK.
  5. Do not use your bedroom as an office, reading place or media center. This would condition you to be awake.  Reserve your bedroom use only for intimacy and sleeping.
  6. If you wake up at night and you are wide awake, leave the bedroom and sit in the living room doing something until you feel tired and then return to bed.
  7. A self-hypnosis recording is a useful adjunct to a sleep routine. Listen to it when you go to bed to give you something to focus on (low volume) and you will find it easier to stop thinking.

Drugs and supplements for insomnia

1. In the past benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), fluorazepam (Dalmane), temazepam (Restoril), triazolam (Halcion) and others were and still are used as sleeping pills. However, it was noted that there are significant side effects with this group of drugs. Notably, there is amnesia (memory loss), which can be quite distressing to people such as not remembering that someone phoned while under the influence of the drug, you promised certain things, but you cannot remember the following morning what it was. Another problem is the development of addiction to the drugs with worse insomnia when the drugs are discontinued. Many physicians have stopped prescribing benzodiazepines.

2. There are non-benzodiazepines drugs that are used as sleeping pills (hypnotics), such as Zaleplon (Sonata), Zolpidem (Ambien) and Eszopiclone (Lunesta).  They seem to be better tolerated.

3. Ramelteon, a melatonin agonist, is available by prescription in the US. It probably is the best-tolerated mild sleeping pill and works similar to melatonin, but is more expensive. Chances are that your physician likely would prescribe one of the non-benzodiazepines drugs or Ramelteon for you as they do not seem to be addicting.

4. However, there is an alternative: Many patients with insomnia tolerate a low dose of trazodone (Desyrel), which is an antidepressant with sleep restoring properties. A low dose of 25 to 50 mg at bedtime is usually enough for insomnia. This allows the patient to fall asleep within about 30 minutes of taking it, and sleep lasts through most of the night without a hangover in the morning. Many specialists who run sleep laboratories recommend trazodone when primary insomnia is diagnosed. However, this is still a drug with potential side effects as mentioned in the trazodone link, but 50 mg is only ¼ of the full dose, so the side effects will also be less or negligible.

5. I prefer the use of melatonin, which is the natural brain hormone designed to put us to sleep. Between 1 mg and 6 mg are sufficient for most people. We know from other literature that up to 20 mg of melatonin has been used in humans as an immune stimulant in patients with metastatic melanoma with no untoward side effects other than nightmares and some tiredness in the morning. A review from the Vanderbilt University, Holland found melatonin to be very safe as a sleeping aid. There are several melatonin receptors in the body of vertebrates (including humans), which are stimulated by melatonin.

6. Other natural methods are the use of L-Tryptophan at a dose of 500 mg at bedtime, which can be combined with melatonin. It is the amino acid contained in turkey meat, which makes you tired after a Thanksgiving meal. GABA is another supplement, which is the relaxing hormone of your brain, but with this supplement tolerance develops after about 4 to 5 days, so it is only suitable for very short term use. Herbal sleep aids are hops, valerian extract and passionflower extract. They are available in health food stores.

Conclusion

A lack of sleep (insomnia) is almost a given in our fast paced lives.

When it comes to treatment, all of the other causes of secondary insomnia need to be treated or else treatment attempts would fail. What is left is primary insomnia. This is treated as follows:

We need to review our sleeping habits, lifestyles and substance abuse. Remove what is detrimental to your sleep. Start with the least invasive treatment modalities such as self-hypnosis tapes, melatonin, L-Tryptophan or herbal extracts. Should this not quite do the trick, asks your doctor for advice. The non-benzodiazepines drugs or Ramelteon would be the next level up. It may be that an alternative such as low dose trazodone would be of help. Only, if all this fails would I recommend to go to the more potent sleeping pills (keep in mind the potential for addiction to them).

References

1. David N. Neubauer, MD (John Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD): Insomnia. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice – Volume 32, Issue 2 (June 2005)  © 2005, W. B. Saunders Company

2: Behrouz Jafari, MD and Vahid Mohsenin, MD (Yale Center for Sleep Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, USA): Polysomnography. Clinics in Chest Medicine – Volume 31, Issue 2 (June 2010), © 2010 W. B. Saunders Company

3. Jean Gray, editor: “Therapeutic choices”, 5th edition, Chapter 8 by Jonathan A.E. Fleming, MB, FRCPC: Insomnia, © 2008, Canadian Pharmacists Association.

Last edited Sept. 28, 2014