I remember when I first heard Lily Allen’s “Everyone’s at It” above. The tune itself demotes the freak nature of someone feeling like everyone around them is on drugs (legal or not, ingesting anything has effects on you). As Dr. Marcola indicates in this article, “Psychotropic Drug Use Associated with Increased Risk for Car Crashes“:
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.1 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.2 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.3
- Stillbirth, birth defects, brittle bones and strokes have also been connected to antidepressant use.
Sleep drugs (insomnia drugs such as 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.4
“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.
- 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.
- 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 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.5
Drugs should typically be your last choice, due to the very seriousness of what you are ingesting. It shouldn’t be considered the first choice given the horrible effects these drugs have.
Once you get on these drugs, they have been known to have a certain hold on you and your life, like with what happened with Jesse Jacobs, who died in jail because he was refused his Xanax prescription:
The parents of Jesse Jacobs want answers after their 32-year-old son died in police custody in March following his Xanax prescription being withheld from him, About magazine reports.
There is no disagreement that Jacobs was denied Xanax, which he’d been taking for over a decade to treat a severe anxiety disorder, but Galveston police officials claim the young man died of “natural causes.”
After checking himself in to Galveston County Jail to serve a 30-day sentence for driving while intoxicated, Jacobs began suffering seizures after his fourth day in custody. On his seventh day in jail, he was found unresponsive and taken to the University of Texas-Medical Branch in Galveston, where he later died. How he was initially discovered as unresponsive is unclear as police officials have different versions, including reports that medical personnel found him in his cell and that he collapsed when he was being administered medication.
“Normally what happens if they are under a doctor’s care, we have our doctors on site elevate the inmate and make decisions on the medications they are going to administer,” Galveston’s Chief Deputy of Corrections Mary Johnson told About. “I do know some psych drugs and stuff they don’t allow, some they won’t prescribe.” The Galveston County Jail was cited six years ago for “Not dispensing medications as ordered by a doctor.”
As Ally Nugent writes in response to this for The Advocate:
My name is Ally. I suffer from post-acute withdrawal syndrome, a syndrome that can result if a patient discontinues a benzodiazepine too quickly. When reading the word withdrawal, the first thing that might come to mind is addiction. However, I was never a benzodiazepine addict. I took my dose each day, as directed. But the direction stopped there. I was never informed that if I stopped taking a prescribed medication too rapidly the consequence could be death or potentially, PAWS, a torturous and chronic state of gamma-aminobutyric acid underactivity resulting in hyperexcitabilty of the nervous system. Even now, as I sit in the grip of PAWS, suffering from an exhaustive list of debilitating symptoms (including but not limited to: hallucinations, body tremors, derealization, intrusive thoughts, nerve pain, nausea, headaches, and tinnitus), I still can’t comprehend how this could be true. And yet each day I’m forced to recognize that it is true for me, was true for Jesse Jacobs, and is also true for many others.
I know because I encounter them every day when I visit my support groups. When I first experienced the effects of rapid cessation, I found there was little recognition to be gained from psychiatry. Once patients experience the adverse effects of these drugs, there is no legal recourse, medical liability, or national platform to speak on our behalf. Many former patients like me, searching for answers, exhaust all means of medical intervention available, often to no end. With a lack of recognition and no real medical response to be gained, most find a home in online support groups. There I met peers who understood my experience and offered community when the symptoms made every other means inaccessible; it is difficult to march in Pride parades when you can’t walk or bear the uproar of an air conditioner, let alone the clamor of a crowd. As I continued to take refuge in these safe spaces, I discovered many of us had a lot more in common than we realized. Many were lesbian and gay. Many were activists. Many had experienced poverty.
Initially, this surprised me and made me feel more connected. But in light of recent deaths that have made headlines (Jesse Jacobs, Sean Levert, etc.) our likeness is less comforting. A quick glimpse into the history of psychiatry’s interaction with minorities makes the narratives we share less shocking. We must not forget that psychiatry has historically pathologized citizens who deviate from the cultural norm. While it may not actively continue this practice to the same degree today, the ghost of the past lingers on in psychiatry’s continued failure to recognize the humanity in emotional responses to extraordinary adversity — evident in its swift diagnoses of those of us who face it. Different forms of institutional oppression ensure that some of us won’t have access to mental health care, but when we do, the discrimination, poverty, and elevated levels of hatred that we often encounter increase the likelihood that we will be diagnosed with a variety of mood disorders. These disorders are then treated with psychoactive drugs, often as the first and cheapest mode of treatment.
So what should you do to, say, treat depression naturally?
According to Dr. Lissa Rankin for Psychology Today:
- Consider why you might feel depressed. Sometimes depression is a symptom of something circumstantial in your life, rather than biochemical imbalances. Does your job require you to sell out your integrity every day? Have you been unable to admit that you need to end your marriage? Are you feeling spiritually disconnected or sexually restless? Are you suffering from creative blocks? Is your body failing you? Are you facing financial ruin? Be honest with yourself about what might be off-kilter in your life, and make an effort to get to the root of why you might be feeling depressed.
- Move your body. Exercise releases happy-making endorphins, which act like natural anti-depressants. Runner’s high, anyone.
- Never skip a meal. Keeping your blood sugar stable reduces mood swings.
- Eat a serotonin-enhancing diet. Many anti-depressants like Prozac act by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin by receptors in the brain, thereby increasing serotonin levels. But you can increase your brain’s serotonin levels by eating foods that boost your serotonin levels naturally.Serotonin-enhancing foods include:
– Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies, which are even higher in omega-3 fatty acids than other fish)
– Healthy fats like coconut oil or a high protein diet, especially proteins high in tryptophan, like free range turkey
- Avoid caffeine, which reduces serotonin levels. If you need an energy boost, supplement with L-Tyrosine (500 – 1000 mg).
- Expose yourself to sunlight, which can boost mood and increase Vitamin D levels. If you live somewhere that gets little sun, invest in a therapeutic light box.
- Try mood-enhancing supplements: (DISCLAIMER: Although you can get these supplements over the counter, I always recommend doing this under the care of a physician, since supplements can have side effects and risks and can interact with other medications.)
- Meditate or try guided imagery.Meditation‘s effects on mood are well documented. Settling your mind can lift your mood, in addition to a whole host of other health benefits.
- Get your hormones balanced. If your thyroid, adrenal or sex hormones are out of whack, your mood can get all wonky.
- Make efforts to bolster your mental health by being more authentic in all aspects of yourlife.Too often, we walk around wearing masks, pretending to be something we’re not. We fake it at the schoolyard, in the boardroom, in the bedroom, at church — and then we wonder why we wind up depressed. Consider signing up for this e-course about getting in touch with your authentic self (link is external). Practice letting your freak flag fly and watch how your mood lifts.
- Talk it out. See a therapist, psychiatrist, or life coach (link is external) and express how you feel. Sometimes just finding someone you trust who will help you work through your feelings can make all the difference in the world.