By Dr. Joseph Mercola
Psychotropic medications often used to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia are mind-altering drugs. That is, they impact your brain function and your psychomotor abilities – like your ability to drive a car. You wouldn’t drive after consuming other mind-altering substances, like too much alcohol, yet presumably millions of people are driving everyday after taking varying dosages of psychotropic drugs.
Drugs prescribed for anxiety and insomnia known as benzodiazepines (Valium, etc.) have long been linked to an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, and now a new study has added even more widely consumed drugs into the mix – and shown they may seriously raise your crash risk, posing a risk to both the driver taking the drugs as well as their passengers and anyone who crosses their path.
Antidepressants, Insomnia Drugs, Antipsychotics Raise Car Accident Risk
People involved in car accidents are more likely to have taken psychotropic drugs for a period of days, weeks or months, according to a study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. Benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and newer insomnia drugs known as Z-drugs (including Sonata, Ambien, Imovane and Lunesta) all significantly raised car accident risk.
The results were so striking that researchers suggested physicians may want to warn their patients not to drive while taking such drugs, and, as you might suspect, in many cases the higher the dose, the higher the risk became.
“This study contributes additional evidence… that psychotropic medications can constitute a considerable degree of danger to traffic safety… These findings underscore that subjects taking psychotropic medications should pay increased attention to their driving performance in order to prevent the occurrence of MVAs [motor vehicle accidents]…Doctors and pharmacists should choose safer treatments, provide their patients with accurate information and consider advising them not to drive while taking certain psychotropic medications.”
Other Serious Risks Abound
The decision to take any type of psychotropic medication should not be taken lightly, as they come with a slew of dangerous and potentially lethal side effects.
Benzodiazepines (Ativan, Xanax, Valium)
These drugs exert a calming effect by boosting the action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the same way as opioids (heroin) and some cannabinoids (cannabis) do. This in turn activates the gratification hormone, dopamine, in your brain. Since the identical brain “reward pathways” are used by both types of drugs, they can be equally addictive.
Older adults have a much more difficult time eliminating benzodiazepines and similar drugs from their bloodstreams. Over time, these drugs can accumulate in your body, which will increase your risk of an accidental overdose (and perhaps further impair your driving ability). Common side effects of this class of drugs, regardless of age, include:
- Unsteady gait, and falling
- Hip fractures
- Drug induced or drug-worsened impairment of thinking, memory loss
- Cancer and premature death
Antidepressant use has been linked to thicker arteries, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. Aside from potentially lethal cardiac events, other serious side effects include:
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings and violent behavior: The primary side effect that you should be concerned about is that antidepressants can actually increase your risk of suicide.
- Diabetes: Your risk for type 2 diabetes is two to three times higher if you take antidepressants. All types of antidepressants, including tricyclic and SSRIs, increase type 2 diabetes risk.
- Problems with your immune system: Antidepressants cause serotonin to remain in your nerve junctions longer, interfering with immune cell signaling and T-cell growth.
- Stillbirth, birth defects, brittle bones and strokes have also been connected to antidepressant use.
Sleep Drugs (Sonata, Ambien, Imovane and Lunesta)
Research shows these drugs are linked to a nearly four-fold increase in the risk of premature death, along with increased cancer risks. Plus, they are notorious for being addictive, which means that once you want to stop taking them, you’ll likely suffer withdrawal symptoms that could be far worse than the initial insomnia. Some, including Ambien, may also become less effective when taken for longer than two weeks.
Ambien may also make you want to eat while you’re asleep – and the sleep eating can include bizarre foods such as buttered cigarettes, salt sandwiches and raw bacon. Other bizarre side effects reported from various sleeping pills include:
- Sleep walking and even sleep driving
- Confusion and disorientation
- Complete amnesia from events, even those that took place during the day
Psychiatric Disorders Often Have An Underlying Cause
These powerful psychotropic, mind-altering drugs in no way, shape or form even begin to address the underlying cause of the mental conditions they are designed to treat. Unfortunately, psychiatric conditions are primarily believed to be the result of chemical dysfunction in your brain, or in some cases hereditary and therefore out of your control. Many fail to realize that:
- Your lifestyle can override genetic predispositions
- Your lifestyle can be a major underlying cause of that chemical imbalance or dysfunction
If you or your child is suffering from an emotional or mental challenge, please seek help, but do so from someone who does not regard psychotropic drugs as a first, or only, line of defense. Despite what the slick advertisements say, psychotropic drugs have no known measurable biological imbalances to correct – unlike other drugs that can measurably alter levels of blood sugar, cholesterol and so on. How can you medicate something that is not physically there?
The answer is, of course, you can’t – and doing so is a dangerous game.
Psychotropic drugs can actually interfere with your neurotransmitters in such a way as to upset the delicate processes within your brain needed to maintain homeostasis, leading to side effects that may resemble mental illness! Psychiatric disorders are very real, and they need real treatment, but it’s important to understand that drugs often fail miserably in making people feel better.
Studies continue to show, for instance, that antidepressant drugs are no more effective than a placebo, and in some case less effective. A study published in the January 2010 issue of JAMA concluded there is little evidence that SSRIs (a popular group of antidepressants that includes Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft) have any benefit to people with mild to moderate depression.
“The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo… may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms.”
The situation is similar with sleeping pills. An analysis of studies financed by the National Institutes of Health found that sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata reduced the average time to go to sleep by just under 13 minutes compared with fake pills, while increasing total sleep time by just over 11 minutes – but, the participants believed they had slept longer, by up to one hour, when taking the pills.
When people wake up after taking sleeping pills, they may, in fact, simply forget that they had been unable to sleep! And taking sleeping pills is well known to impair your function the following day. So unlike getting a restful night’s sleep, which will leave you alert and refreshed, getting slightly more sleep (or what you think is more sleep) by taking a sleeping pill is not the same thing.
It can actually lead to a sleeping pill “hangover” that may cause confusion, sleepiness and increases in falls and, as noted, automobile accidents. So what we’re often seeing with the use of psychotropic medications is people pinning their hopes for relief from depression, anxiety or insomnia on drugs that may not work at all… and carry serious, potentially life-threatening, side effects.
Is There Another Way To Find Relief?
It is easy to become seduced into thinking a pill might relieve your mental or emotional pain, especially when it comes with the endorsement of your physician. Feeling depressed or anxious is never pleasant, and you naturally want to escape it as quickly as possible.
But remember, drugs should typically be your last choice.
Mental illness is devastating. It takes a toll on the healthiest of families and can destroy lifelong friendships. Few things are harder in life than watching someone you love lose their sense of joy, hope, and purpose in life, and wonder if they will ever find it again. And to not have anything within your power that can change things for them. You wonder if you will ever have your loved one “back” again.
Oftentimes you cannot change your circumstances. You can, however, change your response to them. I encourage you to be balanced in your life. Don’t ignore your body’s warning signs that something needs to change. Sometimes people are so busy taking care of everybody else that they lose sight of themselves.
There are times when a prescription drug may help restore balance to your body. But it’s unclear whether it is the drug providing benefits, or the unbelievable power of your mind that is convinced it is going to work. If you have been personally affected by mental illness, my heart goes out to you. A broken body can be easier to fix than a broken mind. It is my hope that you don’t feel judged here, but rather empowered to explore the safe and effective ways to address these conditions that do not involve unsafe drugs, including:
Dramatically decrease your consumption of sugar (particularly fructose), grains, and processed foods. (In addition to being high in sugar and grains, processed foods also contain a variety of additives that can affect your brain function and mental state, especially MSG, and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.)
There’s a great book on this subject, The Sugar Blues, written by William Dufty more than 30 years ago, that delves into the topic of sugar and mental health in great detail.
Increase consumption of fermented foods, such as fermented vegetables and kefir, to promote healthy gut flora. Mounting evidence tells us that having a healthy gut is profoundly important for both physical and mental health, and the latter can be severely impacted by an imbalance of intestinal bacteria.
Get adequate vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to depression and affects one in four people.
Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is very important for your mood and mental health. The best way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunshine or a safe tanning bed if you don’t have regular access to the sun.
Get plenty of animal-based omega-3 fats. Many people don’t realize that their brain is 60 percent fat, but not just any fat. It is DHA, an animal based omega-3 fat that, along with EPA, is crucial for good brain function and mental health. Unfortunately, most people don’t get enough from diet alone. Make sure you take a high-quality omega-3 fat, such as krill oil.
Dr. Stoll, a Harvard psychiatrist, was one of the early leaders in compiling the evidence supporting the use of animal based omega-3 fats for the treatment of depression. He wrote an excellent book that details his experience in this area called The Omega-3 Connection.
Evaluate your salt intake. Sodium deficiency actually creates symptoms that are very much like those of depression. Make sure you do NOT use processed salt (regular table salt), however. You’ll want to use an all-natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt, which contains more than 80 different micronutrients.
Get adequate daily exercise, which is one of the most effective strategies for preventing and overcoming depression. Studies on exercise as a treatment for depression have shown there is a strong correlation between improved mood and aerobic capacity. So there’s a growing acceptance that the mind-body connection is very real, and that maintaining good physical health can significantly lower your risk of developing depression in the first place.
Get adequate amounts of sleep. You can have the best diet and exercise program possible but if you aren’t sleeping well you can easily become depressed. Sleep and depression are so intimately linked that a sleep disorder is actually part of the definition of the symptom complex that gives the label depression.
If you struggle with insomnia, I suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep. Whether you are not able to fall asleep, wake up too often, or don’t feel well rested when you wake up in the morning, these guidelines will provide you with various useful techniques to improve sleep problems.
I strongly believe that energy psychology is one of the most powerful tools for resolving emotional issues – specifically a technique called the Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT. A number of studies now confirm clinical results. For example, a study involving 30 moderately to severely depressed college students showed significantly less depression than the control group when evaluated three weeks after receiving a total of four 90-minute EFT sessions.
Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician, board-certified in family medicine. He has written two New York Times bestsellers and shared his expertise on ABC News, NBC’s The Today Show, CNN, CBS, Fox News, and in TIME and Forbes magazines.