By Dr. Mercola
About 22 million Americans are on long-term treatment with beta-blockers, a class of drugs frequently prescribed to manage high blood pressure and as cardioprotection after a heart attack.
Having difficulty falling or staying asleep, or insomnia, is one of the most common side effects of beta-blockers, as they suppress nighttime melatonin secretion. Melatonin is a hormone your body produces at night, and one of its primary roles is to help you sleep.
This may also explain why they are also associated with an increased risk of diabetes, as this is another well-known complication of beta-blockers and sleep impairment has been strongly correlated with insulin disturbances.
So, researchers decided to see what would happen if they supplemented people on beta-blockers with melatonin each night to help them sleep…
Melatonin Improved Sleep for People With High Blood Pressure
Hypertensive patients being treated with beta-blockers were given either 2.5 mg of melatonin or a placebo supplement nightly for three weeks. Researchers assessed their sleep patterns during two four-day sleep lab sessions – one before the supplements were given and one after.
The melatonin group not only saw their melatonin levels rise, but they also enjoyed a 37-minute increase in their amount of sleep, along with an 8 percent improvement in sleep efficiency (meaning they spent more time asleep while they were in bed), and a 41-minute increase in "stage 2" sleep, which is the longest sleep stage during the night.1
Plus, those taking melatonin fell asleep 14 minutes faster than the placebo group. The study's lead author added:2
"Melatonin reduced their time awake from about 20 percent to just 12 percent, almost halving their wake time during the night."
Why Not Just Take Sleeping Pills?
Insomnia takes a heavy toll on your quality of life. Sleep deprivation is linked to chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, as well as obesity.
It can also make you moody and unable to concentrate and put you at serious risk of a traffic accident. Insomnia has even been blamed for causing 274,000 workplace accidents and errors every year, at a cost of $31 billion!3 So there's no arguing with the fact that quality sleep is important.
That said, you may want to think twice before filling a prescription for sleeping pills, as they not only fail to address the underlying reasons why you can't sleep, but research shows they're linked to a nearly four-fold increase in the risk of death, along with increased cancer risks.
Research involving data from more than 10,500 people who received drugs for poor sleep (hypnotics) showed that "as predicted.
Patients prescribed any hypnotic had substantially elevated hazards of dying compared to those prescribed no hypnotics" and the association held true even when patients with poor health were taken into account – and even if the patients took fewer than 18 pills in a year.4
The study suggested that those who take such medications are not only at higher risk for certain cancers, but are nearly four times more likely to die than people who don't take them.
Sleeping pills linked to these risks included benzodiazepines (such as temazepam), non-benzodiazepines (such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata), barbiturates, and sedative antihistamines.
There are other downfalls, too, like their well-known tendency to impair your function the following day. This is sometimes described as a sleeping pill "hangover" that may cause confusion, sleepiness and increases in falls and automobile accidents.
Also, treating sleeping troubles with drugs is a risky bet because they can be addictive, which means that once you want to stop taking them, you'll likely suffer withdrawal symptoms that could be worse than your initial insomnia.
It's worth noting that those in the melatonin study developed no tolerance and had no rebound sleep disturbances when the melatonin was withdrawn. They did, however, have a positive "carryover effect" of improved sleep even after they stopped taking the melatonin.
Melatonin Might Help Protect Against Alzheimer's Disease
Here's another "side benefit" of melatonin: researchers recently revealed that combining daily exercise with the daily intake of melatonin appeared to have a synergistic effect against brain deterioration in mice with Alzheimer's disease mutations.5 Improvements in behavior, learning and memory were noted. This could also be related to the diabetes issue as Alzheimer's has been called diabetes type 3 by many researchers.
"…melatonin plus physical exercise may exert complementary, additive, or even synergistic effects against a range of disturbances present in AD [Alzheimer's disease]," the researchers said.
Normally, your brain produces melatonin in a daily rhythm that peaks at night, around 9 or 10 p.m. This makes you sleepy, and it is these regularly occurring secretions that help regulate your sleep cycle. If you're not getting enough sleep, there's a good chance your melatonin production is not up to par either, and this could have far-reaching impacts on your health, even accelerating the aging process of your brain.
Past research has shown artificially aged mice treated with melatonin had reduced oxidative stress and markers of cerebral aging and neurodegeneration, indicating the melatonin offered both neuroprotective and anti-aging effects.6 Melatonin actually has antioxidant properties that may help explain its important anti-aging role, as it helps to suppress harmful free radicals in your body and even slows the production of estrogen, which can activate certain cancers.
Melatonin's immediate precursor is the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is a major player in uplifting your mood. And, like serotonin, melatonin plays important roles in your physical and mental health. Studies have shown that insufficient melatonin production can set you up for:
Decreased immune function Accelerated cancer cell proliferation and tumor growth (including leukemia) Blood pressure instability Decreased free radical scavenging Increased plaques in the brain, like those seen with Alzheimer's disease Increased risk of osteoporosis Diabetic microangiopathy (capillary damage) Depression and/or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
How to Optimize Your Melatonin Production Naturally
Melatonin production is stimulated by darkness and suppressed by light, which is why your levels should be highest just prior to bedtime. This perfectly orchestrated system allows you to fall asleep when the sun sets and awaken refreshed with the sunrise, while also providing potential anti-aging and disease-fighting benefits.
Your body produces optimal levels of melatonin under two conditions: one, enough darkness at night that activates your pineal gland, but just as importantly, exposure to brilliant light, ideally sunshine, during the day. It is the combination that actually causes your body to produce healthy levels of melatonin.
Therefore, if you are having trouble sleeping, a signal that your melatonin production is off, I suggest you make sure you're sleeping in total darkness (use blackout drapes and a sleep mask) and also turning lights down prior to bedtime.
Even very small amounts of light, such as the glow from a clock radio or streetlights shining through your bedroom window, can disrupt your melatonin production. TVs and computers emit significant blue light, which will tend to decrease your melatonin if you work past dark, so ideally you'd want to turn these items off once the sun goes down.
For use in the evening, you can purchase "low blue lights," which emit an amber light instead of the blue that suppresses melatonin production. Therefore, these bulbs are ideal for areas such as your bedroom, bathroom, or living room in the evening. Dr. Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist, author, teacher, and a leader in integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams, takes a small amount of melatonin each night even though he does not have any sleep problems. He takes it because – like most people living in developed countries – he believes he's overexposed to light at night, which contributes to melatonin deficiency.
Additionally, the quality of light you're exposed to during the day also matters when it comes to maintaining a healthy rhythm. While most of us are over-exposed to light in the evenings, most of us are also under-exposed to optimal light during the day!
Most incandescent and fluorescent lights emit very poor-quality light. What your body needs for optimal functioning is the full-spectrum light you get outdoors, but most of us do not spend much time outside to take advantage of this healthy light. Nor do most people who work outside their home for a living have the opportunity to enjoy the optimal time for sunlight exposure when vitamin D-producing UVB rays are present, which is roughly two hours on either side of solar noon, approximately 10-2 pm. One thing that may ameliorate this lack of high-quality sunlight during the day is using full-spectrum light bulbs in your home and office.
If you're having even slight trouble sleeping, I suggest you review my 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep for even more helpful guidance on how to improve your sleep-wake cycle and get restful sleep.
If you've made the necessary changes to your sleep routine and find you're still having trouble sleeping, a high-quality melatonin supplement may be helpful. For instance, the amount of melatonin you create and release every night varies depending on your age. Children usually have much higher levels of melatonin than adults, and as you grow older your levels typically continue to decrease.
Researchers believe this may explain why many older adults occasionally experience disrupted sleep patterns. With less melatonin in their blood, the stimulus to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake feeling rested can potentially be compromised, which is why some older adults may benefit from extra melatonin – likewise if you perform night shift work, travel often and experience jet lag, or otherwise suffer from occasional sleeplessness due to stress or unexplained reasons.
If You're Having Trouble Sleeping Due to Taking Beta-Blockers for High Blood Pressure…
Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a very serious health concern that can lead to cardiovascular disease and increased risk for stroke. It's estimated that high blood pressure affects 90 percent of Americans at one time or another. Like statin drugs, blood pressure drugs are pervasive, with one in three Americans taking them. Of those, an estimated 25 percent are falsely diagnosed! They have what we call "white coat hypertension," meaning they suffer temporary anxiety when at the doctor's office, and as a result, their blood pressure goes up. However, they don't truly suffer from hypertension. If you're given a drug to treat a condition you don't have, it can only cause you harm...
Beta-blockers actually prevent your heart muscle from fully contracting by blocking the beta receptor's response to catecholamines (stress hormones), and they are not always selective enough to target only heart muscle receptors; often, your brain's beta receptors are blocked by this drug, resulting in a depressive state where the natural "highs" of life are blunted, and while the blood pressure may drop precipitously, so does the quality of your life. While life-saving in times of crisis, it is well known that even the clinical research indicates that beta-blockers significantly raise the risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as heart attack and cardiac mortality itself.7
I believe very few people really need them. In fact, it is likely that they contribute to the weakening of the heart muscle's ability to contract fully over time, which further depresses the circulation and oxygenation of the entire body – ironically, even that of the heart itself.
Natural strategies are absolutely crucial to address the underlying cause of high blood pressure, which almost always involve endothelial dysfunction, or, the inability of the lining of the blood vessels and arteries to fully dilate. This may be caused by a number of factors, but generally follows from injury to the endothelium induced by chemicals (e.g. smoking), stress (e.g. chronic elevated adrenaline) and nutrient deficiencies (e.g. lack of adequate folate) and incompatibilities (e.g. excess fructose).
No matter the cause, make sure you're getting plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega 3-fats, such as krill oil. Research suggests that as little as 500 mg may lower your total cholesterol and triglycerides, and will likely increase your HDL cholesterol. You'll also want to dramatically reduce grains and sugars in your daily diet, especially fructose, replacing it with healthful fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, organic pastured eggs, and grass-fed meats.
Getting the right amount of regular exercise is another key factor.
If you are currently taking any medications to control your blood pressure, please understand that these drugs are not placebos and most work very effectively to lower your blood pressure. But they don't do it in a way that addresses the cause. So if you stop them, there is a chance your blood pressure will rise very high, and sometimes high enough to cause a stroke. So only begin to wean off of your blood pressure medications while under careful professional supervision.
For more information relating to hypertension, from how to reduce your blood pressure by effectively addressing stress… exercising… normalizing your weight… and which foods to eat and which to eliminate, and much more, please see: