The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
Most of us have reached for an over-the-counter drug at some point.
Maybe Nyquil to help us sleep when we have a cold. Benadryl to treat allergies. Mucinex for congestion.
Dr. Brita Mutti, a registered naturopathic doctor and board-certified naturopathic oncologist at Hälsa Naturopathic Medicine in Colorado Springs, helps her patients dig deeper into what’s contributing to their symptoms, which often is a combination of things, versus taking a medicine to treat only the symptom itself. Finding that deeper understanding of the imbalances means potentially offering a cure.
“You’re offering preventative medicine,” Mutti says. “You’re offering a cure to the imbalance versus treating the symptom. That’s the difference between a naturopathic or homeopathic approach to medicine versus a conventional or allopathic approach to medicine. You’re taking a medicine to suppress a symptom versus finding the cause of that symptom.”
One common example is sleep. Many of us have taken some sort of sleep aid, either a pharmaceutical or over-the-counter pill, to make our way into the arms of Morpheus, but what’s at the root of our off-balance sleep cycles? Stress is often the culprit, which causes your body to make the hormone cortisol, which is meant to be high during the day and low at night, but can easily be thrown off-balance if you don’t calm it down at night.
Many sleep aids suppress your cortisol response, says Mutti, so the medicine is working, but it’s not healing why your cortisol isn’t naturally lowering at night. Melatonin, another important hormone, can influence cortisol. It goes up when the sun goes down, but exposing ourselves to bright lights at night can wreak havoc on it. That’s why you’re constantly bombarded with advice to dim your lights and stay away from screens during the evening hours — it works. Otherwise you’re working against your own body chemistry.
And then there’s the stress management portion.
“The really important thing is to have adequate stress management skills so you’re not telling your body it needs to secrete all this cortisol to respond to the stress around it,” Mutti says. “That’s things like meditation, prayer, restorative yoga. We can’t change the stress in our lives, but we can change the way our body responds to that stress.”
One herb she often recommends is ashwagandha, which can help your adrenal glands adapt to the environment so your body’s not overly stimulated. Adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure and your body’s response to stress and other essential functions.
As you might suspect, it’s not a quick process to learn to slow the mind, manage your stress and get off the sleep aid. It’ll take some work, which might be why so many prefer the quicker route of taking a pill that puts us to sleep.
Many of the folks who wind up in Mutti’s office are there to wean themselves off the sleep medicine. They often expect her to recommend an herb, nutrient or supplement as a replacement, but are disappointed to find it doesn’t work very well. And once again, the underlying cause of the sleep disruption hasn’t been discovered or addressed.
“When people really understand the approach to wellness is balancing and it’s curative, and we can really treat why the body is out of balance in the first place,” Mutti says. “When they understand how the body and hormones work and how the environmental pieces influence that balance, they tend to be excited. Knowledge is power.”
Are you thinking it’s time to stop taking the sleep aid? But it sounds like such hard work and sleep is so good, why not just keep taking the medicine? Because you could also be taking a chance with your health.
Sleeping pills especially can have long-term side effects, Mutti says. Trials done on the drugs are relatively short-term, so a drug might be approved as safe, such as the antihistamine Benadryl, which people often use for sleep. Tylenol PM is Tylenol with Benadryl. But the long-term way people often use the drugs has not been tested. The pills also are hard to come off of once your body has acclimated to them, including the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin — sometimes used as a sleep aid — which is in the hardest category of drugs to stop taking.
“Those things were never meant to be used long-term, and what we know now is there are deleterious consequences of using those drugs long-term, especially with cognitive decline, so they’re questioning things like Alzheimer’s or neurodegenerative conditions,” Mutti says.
So is there hope for coming off a sleep aid? Yes. Mutti tests her client’s hormones, melatonin and cortisol and tries to get as much information as possible about their imbalances. Then she looks at how that client’s particular sleep aid works and finds a nutrient or herb that works similarly.
“That thing you’re replacing, you wean off of that,” she says. “There are also nutrients you can use to help the discontinuation of side effects of that process. Especially with things like Klonopin, it takes awhile. Go very slowly and add in other nutrients so receptors are supported in a weaker but similar way.”
And the good news? Your pre-sleep medicine body can return. And many issues, such as insomnia, can be healed, Mutti says.
“That’s the thing really missing in medicine — people aren’t taught they can heal,” she says. “They’re taught they’re broken and need a medication to be well. I do value these medicines, but there’s a role for them. They’re recommended a drug and then it stops working and they’re recommended higher doses and more drugs, and the part that unfortunately is missing is what’s going to be healing?”
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