By Pina LoGiudice ND, LAc and Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc Co-Medical Directors of Inner Source Health in New York
As anxiety, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, and sleep issues are on the rise, the number of prescriptions written to treat these problems are also sky-rocketing. In many cases, individual changes toward healthier foods and lifestyle, relaxation work, exercise and detoxification can often create healthy improvements in the body that may help a patient reduce or avoid the need for prescription medications.
We will discuss a few supplements below which can be part of a good naturopathic plan to help your body heal itself. These can allow prescription dosages to be lowered, and possibly even become unnecessary.
Please remember that it is always important and safest to talk to your prescribing doctor before stopping any medication, and to work with a naturopathic doctor or other holistic physician who is knowledgeable of using natural medicines with conventional drugs during this healing process.
Anti-Anxiety Alternative: Wu Wei Zi (Schizandra Berries)
Anti-anxiety drugs are among the most commonly prescribed drugs, with over 280 million prescriptions written annually. It has been shown that many of these are over-prescribed. In fact, research published in the April 2011 edition of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed about 25% of people who are given these dangerous medications do not have a proper diagnosis (1).
Other studies show that people who use anti-anxiety medication have a 36% increased mortality risk. That means persons using these drugs are almost 40% more likely to die than people who do not use them (2). While anti-anxiety medications can be lifesaving in urgent situations, in most cases, there are natural alternatives that can help while a person starts to work on the underlying causes of anxiety reactions in the body.
From a naturopathic perspective, these are life stresses (and how we process these), poor sleep, and excess caffeine and sugar intake. Naturopathic nutrient and botanical supplements that can help include GABA, magnesium, lavender preparations and tryptophan.
One favorite calming herb that we use in our clinic is an herbal tea called Wu Wei Zi. It’s a tea that’s been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. It’s made with dried Schizandra berries. In Chinese, “Wu Wei Zi" means "Five Flavored Herb" because the berry tastes sweet, sour, salty, bitter and acidic. It supports the function of the adrenal glands (the glands which release our stress hormones) and keeps them from over-stimulating (3), which can release adrenaline and cause feelings of anxiety (like palpitations, sweating, etc.).
This botanical is one of our top 10 herbs. Not only is it beneficial for anxiety, it also helps fatigue. In that calming spirit, it will boost the immune system, aid in liver function, and improve mental performance and clarity.
To take as a tea, purchase schizandra berries from your local health food store and steep them. For one serving, boil one cup water, then add one tablespoon of berries to the steeper, and drop into the boiling water. Reduce the heat to low and steep the berries for 15 minutes. To add more flavor, you can add lemon or honey, although most of our patients like the taste as it is. You can also buy prepared tea bags for about $7 a box.
Drink this tea once or twice a day and you’ll feel calm and focused. It’s so mild and gentle, you can drink this regularly.
High Blood Pressure Alternative: Rose Hips
Another group of highly prescribed drugs is high blood pressure medication. Over 144 million of these prescriptions are filled every year. High blood pressure has multiple causes. Minerals are important to relax vessels; when these are low, blood pressure can go up. Inadequate sleep, and lack of exercise and movement can also play a role.
We tell our patients to “meditate not medicate,” for the effects of stress on our bodies is a major contributing factor. When we are in a stress response, our vessels naturally tighten up.
One natural supplement that can be a helpful part of getting blood pressure down is rose hip powder. Anti-hypertension drugs, commonly known as “water pills,” act by getting rid of more water and salt through the kidneys and urine. Rose hip powder can act as a natural diuretic, which means it helps get rid of excess fluids, too. Rose hips contain bioflavonoids, which can be protective for blood vessels, have plenty of vitamin C, and can support healthy nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide is needed in the vessels for a relaxation effect. A clinical study in obese individuals showed rose hips were able to significantly reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol (4). Rose hips are even shown to help with osteoarthritis (5).
One good way to take rose hip powder is with some applesauce. Just add three-quarters to a full teaspoon to a serving of applesauce. We will often recommending mixing rose hip powder with other herbs like arjuna, which comes from the arjuna tree, a tree native to India. Arjuna can help dilate the blood vessels, which also helps the pressure come down and allows the heart to beat against less pressure, which keeps it healthy longer because it does not have to work as hard.
Rose hips can be taken twice daily with food. You can take it along with the arjuna bark capsule at a dose of 100 mg twice a day.
Thyroid Disease Alternative: Bladderwrack
Thyroid disease has skyrocketed in the past few years. While no one is sure of the reason, many experts suspect stress, environmental toxins, and increased body inflammation is responsible. More than 80 million prescriptions are given out every year for thyroid disease.
One natural alternative to prescription drugs is called bladderwrack, also known as Fucus Vesiculous. Bladderwrack grows in both the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is nutrient–rich, and contains a fair amount of magnesium, potassium and micronutrients. Micronutrients are often not found in many other foods we normally eat.
One nutrient it has is iodine. Iodine is an essential nutrient for the thyroid gland. Bladderwrack has been used in traditional natural medicine to help support the thyroid for years. This is considered helpful for those that have hypothyroidism, also known as underactive thyroid. In truth, there needs to be studies to confirm this, but anecdotal reports suggest it can be effective.
The best way to take this is in capsule form, and we suggest you take 600 mg twice a day. Have your blood checked, and look for underactive symptoms to improve (symptoms like constipation, feeling cold, dry hair, raised cholesterol, and slow thinking), as well your blood thyroid levels to normalize.
Because bladderwrack is harvested in the ocean, you want make sure you check the labels to make sure it was harvested in clean water and is contaminant-free. People who have overstimulated thyroid conditions should not take bladderwrack.
Natural Sleep Alternative: Glycine
In 2008, over 56 million sleep medications were prescribed in the US, and most experts believe the stress from worldwide economic challenges have only increased these numbers. While these pills can help us fall and stay asleep, it is known that these medications do not allow the body to fall into the deep phases of sleep that allow for the best health benefits sleep can give us. It is also well known that all of these medications have a risk of dependence and withdrawal effects, which can make them hard to stop using.
Most alarming, a large study of 30,000 people published in the February 2012 issue of the British Medical Journal found a 300% increase in death in people who took fewer than 18 sleeping pills a year (less than 2 a month). Higher doses were linked to a greater than 500% increase in death. The authors of this study concluded that these sleeping drugs “may have been associated with 320,000 to 507,000 excess deaths in the USA alone.” (6)
The stakes are high to find a sleep alternative. When working with patients, we find a good naturopathic sleep regimen includes getting to bed on time, dimming the lights and shutting down bright screens (cell phones, tablets, computers, etc..). Sometimes, certain foods like oatmeal or pumpkin seed powder can help (for more sleep foods, click here). Finally, many people need to look more into their emotions to help them process the thoughts that might be running through their heads, keeping them awake. We have excellent results in our clinic helping people sleep without drugs by working on these issues and using the right supplements.
One supplement that can help this process is the amino acid glycine. It is a calming amino acid primarily found in protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy and beans. It collects in the pineal gland of the brain, the master gland that produces the sleep hormone melatonin (7). Glycine helps create positive changes in the brain wave patterns that are associated with deep non-REM sleep. Studies show that it promotes a deeper and faster sleep without causing the foggy morning hangover feeling associated with most drugs and some other natural sleep aids (8).
Glycine is most commonly found in a capsule or powder form. You can take about 1500 mg nightly before bed for a good night’s sleep.
If you are using one of these medications, or are considering a medication, we highly suggest you talk to a naturopathic doctor to help assess food, lifestyle, stressors, environmental toxicities, and other factors that may play a role in your condition.
While medications can help in urgent situations, they often do not help fix the underlying cause of the problem. However, the proper naturopathic changes and supplemental support can help your body heal the problem naturally, instead of covering up symptoms. In most cases, you can often start with natural remedies if you are already on drugs, and then slowly decrease the use of medications as your body gets healthier. Be safe: Remember to work with your prescribing doctor first before stopping or changing any medications.
(1) Pagura, et al. Antidepressant Use in the Absence of Common Mental Disorders in the General PopulationJ Clin Psychiatry 2011;72(4):494–501
(2) Bongiorno PB. Anti-anxiety Drugs: Worth Risking Your Life? Psychology Today July 2011. accessed on 05-28-12 at: http://www.innersourcehealth.com/news_published.aspx?EntryID=435
(3) Panossian AG et al. Effects of heavy physical exercise and adaptogens on nitric oxide content in human saliva. Phytomedicine. 1999 Mar;6(1):17-26.
(4) Andersson U et al. Effects of rose hip intake on risk markers of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease: a randomized, double-blind, cross-over investigation in obese persons. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2012) 66, 585–590.
(5) Winther K, Apel K, Thamsborg G. A powder made from seeds and shells of a rose-hip subspecies (Rosa canina) reduces symptoms of knee and hip osteoarthritis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Scand J Rheumatol 2005;34:302–308.
(6). Kripke DF, Langer RD, Kline LE. Hypnotics' association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study. BMJ Open. 2012 Feb 27;2(1):e000850.
(7) Rededecker P et al. Evidence for microvescular storage and release of glycine in rodent pinealocytes. Neurosci Lett. 2011;299(1-2): 743-751
(8) Bannai M and Kawai N. New therapeutic strategy for amino acid medicine: glycine improves the quality of sleep. J Pharmacol Sci. 2012;118(2):145-8. Epub 2012 Jan 27.