Avoid Benadryl for Sleep
I got a phone call from a friend yesterday. It turns out she has been taking Benadryl to help sleep through the night for several years and stumbled across a recent study linking anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl to an increased risk of dementia.
While problems with short-term memory, reasoning, and confusion are known side effects of anticholinergic drugs, most clinicians consider these cognitive side effects to be reversible on discontinuation of therapy. A new study indicates that may not be the case.
In a report just published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found convincing evidence that frequent and long-term use of anticholinergic drugs increase the risk of dementia. This makes sense because anticholinergic drugs block the action of acetylcholine, an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. Acetylcholine plays a role in a wide variety of neurological functions, including learning and memory.
These anticholinergic drugs, which include some antihistamines (including Benadryl), tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are widely used in older adults. This is not to say these drugs should never be used, but the study does suggest doctors and patients need to be more cautious.
A new University of Washington study, in collaboration with the Group Health Research Institute, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Pennsylvania, looked at 3434 men and women, aged 65 and older and tracked their prescription and OTC records over 7 years. The researchers found that people who used anticholinergic drugs were more likely to develop dementia than those who did not use them.
In the study, 23% of all of the subjects developed dementia, and 19% were considered to have possible or probable Alzheimer’s. Of those who showed signs of dementia, 79% ultimately went on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Among people with the highest and longest exposure, the risk of Alzheimer’s was 77% higher than those who never took anticholinergics during the study period.
The researchers concluded the risk was clearly associated with exposure to anticholinergic drugs, and it correlated strongly with cumulative dose. Taking an anticholinergic daily for the equivalent of three years or more was associated with a 54% higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for three months or less.
Unfortunately, many people assume that because a drug is over-the-counter it is safe. Please remember that over-the-counter medications are intended to treat short-term illnesses and symptoms. Before taking over-the-counter medications it is recommended you consult with your doctor or pharmacist and consider your health conditions and current medications.
If you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, I recommend you work with a Functional Medicine practitioner to identify the root cause. Chronic stressors can be an underlying cause of sleep problems. These could include relationship stress, caffeine, chronic illness, infections, blood sugar imbalances, and hormonal imbalances. One thing that all stress has in common whether it’s internal stress or external stress is the increase of cortisol and adrenaline. Having your cortisol and adrenaline out of balance puts a great deal of stress on your adrenal glands. Your cortisol rhythm at night is intimately tied in with your melatonin levels (melatonin is your night time hormone that keeps you asleep) and the more you push your cortisol and adrenaline out of balance your melatonin will also be negatively impacted and so will your sleep. More research is coming out daily on the anticancer effects of melatonin so optimizing your sleep will help lower your risk of cancer.
Here are some tips for improving sleep:
- Get some exercise every day. Additionally, the right kind of exercise can increase human growth hormone which blunts cortisol and increases the repair of your body.
- Try relaxing teas like chamomile or other teas that contain L-theanine which have a relaxing effect.
- Try a hot bath containing Epsom salt which is high in magnesium and is absorbed into the skin providing many health benefits including relaxation.
- Use “white noise.” I personally use an air filter, but you can also download free phone apps.
- For many people Melatonin is a great choice. I usually recommend either a sustained release product or an immediate release product 30 minutes before bed and keep a sublingual form by your bed. The sublingual is fast acting so it is great if you wake up during the night. From my experience, if melatonin does not work it is usually a poor quality product, while if it makes sleep issues worse it may indicate an underlying hormonal imbalance is present. (Remember all the hormones in the body are interrelated).
- I recommend you get your news on the internet or watch the local news during the day to avoid negative stories before bed.
- Don’t neglect meditation and prayer before bed, especially focusing on gratitude and all you have to be thankful for as this can boost neurotransmitters and hormones that greatly improve sleep.
Here are links to the natural products mentioned above:
- Melatonin 6 Hour Time Release by Life Extension
- Melatonin 3mg by Pure Encapsulations
- Melatonin Liquid by Pure Encapsulations
- Botanicalm PM by Ortho Molecular
Make sure to check out our in-depth articles on preventing and healing chronic diseases utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.
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Wishing you good health!
Mike Woodley, R.Ph, FAARM, FMNM
- Gray SL, et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2015; 175(3): 401-407