The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called insufficient sleep a public health epidemic. And yet, many of the commonly prescribed medications are not helping most patients. In this interview, John Neustadt, ND, explains why an integrative approach to treating insomnia provides a much more effective alternative to commonly used sleep medications.
Approximate listening time: 30 minutes
About the Expert
John Neustadt, ND, received his naturopathic doctorate from Bastyr University. He was founder and medical director of Montana Integrative Medicine and founder and president of Nutritional Biochemistry, Inc. (NBI) and NBI Pharmaceuticals. He’s a medical expert for TAP Integrative, a nonprofit organization educating doctors about integrative medicine. He has published more than 100 research reviews and was recognized by Elsevier as a Top Ten Cited Author for his work.
Neustadt’s books include A Revolution in Health through Nutritional Biochemistry and the textbook Foundations and Applications of Medical Biochemistry in Clinical Practice. Neustadt is an editor of the textbook Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine (2d Edition). He was the first naturopathic doctor ever voted Best Doctor among all physicians in his area.
Neustadt received 15 Orphan Drug Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration for the use of natural products for the potential treatment of rare diseases.
About the Sponsor
Nutritional Biochemistry, Inc. (NBI) formulates and manufactures products that give results. Started by John Neustadt, ND, in 2006 when he couldn’t find formulas he needed to help his patients and family, NBI products solve 2 problems he was having. Existing products didn’t contain the dose or combination of nutrients used in clinical trials and actually shown to work. Equally frustrating, other companies would cite studies on their websites, but then use lower amounts of nutrients than what was used in the study, or use entirely different nutrients that weren’t supported by the research.
Neustadt’s latest creation is Sleep Relief. NBI’s Sleep Relief is a breakthrough in sleep technology. Its bi-phasic, time-release technology delivers NBI’s proprietary formula with clinically validated nutrients in two stages—a quick-release first stage and a slow-release second stage to help you gently fall asleep, stay asleep and wake refreshed and ready for your day. NBI's Osteo-K delivers the clinical dose of nutrients shown in more than 25 clinical trials to grow stronger bones and reduce fractures more than 80%.
NBI is and always has been a family-owned company. We don’t manufacture anything we wouldn’t take ourselves or give to our own family. No matter what we do, our promise to physicians using our products is to help their patients, and to customers purchasing directly from NBI, is uncompromising quality.
NBI is a name you can trust. But don’t take our word for it. Spend some time on our website, learn about our products, and educate yourself on the hundreds of research citations and studies that they’re based on.
Karolyn Gazella: Hello. I'm Karolyn Gazella, publisher of the Natural Medicine Journal. Thank you so much for joining me. Today, our topic is the integrative approach to insomnia. During this interview, we will learn that insomnia is a significant problem for many patients that can have far reaching physical, mental and emotional health ramifications. We will also learn how to successfully treat this condition by using a combination of diet, lifestyle recommendations, and dietary supplements.
My expert guest today is Dr. John Neustadt. Dr. Neustadt received his naturopathic doctorate from Bastyr University and he was the founder and medical director of Montana Integrative Health.
Before we begin, I'd like to thank the sponsor of this topic who is Nutritional Biochemistry Incorporated, or NBI, manufacturers of high-quality dietary supplements for health care professionals.
Dr. Neustadt, thank you so much for joining me today.
John Neustadt, ND: Thank you for having me on.
Gazella: Well, so the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention calls lack of sleep a public health epidemic. Now, that seems pretty significant so today we're going to talk specifically about insomnia. How common is insomnia in particular?
Neustadt: Well, the CDC is absolutely correct. It is a public health epidemic. Up to 80% of people struggle at some point with what's considered transient insomnia, less than two weeks of duration and insomnia effects 10 to 15 percent of the general population.
In primary care settings, it's estimated that up to almost 70 percent of primary care patients have insomnia so it is incredibly common.
Gazella: Oh, yeah that is. So how does lack of sleep impact a patient's overall health from like a physical, mental, emotional standpoint?
Neustadt: It has devastating impacts. There are two ways to think of it. One is short-term impacts and the other are the long-term impacts. So, short term it can impact decreased job performance, impact social and family life by creating greater fatigue. I mean, just you're more tired during the day. Decreased mood and depression, increases in anxiety and stress. Decreased vigor and just not being able to cope with the demands of daily life and be able to complete tasks. That's only short term. Devastating just in the short term.
But in the long term, it can be a killer. There, if people are sleeping an average of less than six hours per night, it can increase the ... or decrease the quality of life at the same magnitude of a similar condition such as congestive heart failure and major depressive disorder. It's an early symptom for Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease and Huntington's Disease and there's a sweet spot for sleeping of about eight hours. That research shows is the healthiest, and if you're sleeping less than six, or longer than nine hours, it increases your risk for diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and death and, in fact, for metabolic syndrome, there's a 45 percent increase in risk compared to people who are sleeping seven to eight hours a night.
Gazella: Wow, so yeah, so this is a very important topic for clinicians to have on their radar. So, when you're evaluating a patient with a sleep disorder such as insomnia, how do you approach the work up?
Neustadt: Well, insomnia's really a qualitative diagnosis. It's how are they ... how do they feel that they're sleeping? How do they feel that it's impacting their health? Now the DSM official diagnosis, there is a quantitative or a couple of quantitative aspects to that and that is it's occurring at least three nights per week, and present for at least three months. So understand the difference between transient insomnia, less than two weeks, versus the diagnosis, official diagnosis, needs to be going on for greater than three months.
So there's a huge discrepancy there and in time periods and clinically it's important to be aware of that because these detrimental and dangerous effects of insomnia and sleep deprivation definitely are occurring in shorter than three months period of time. They're happening pretty quickly if someone's not getting enough sleep and even over a few days the short term consequences.
And so what I ask people about is how many hours, on average, do they think they're sleeping a night? Do they have any difficulty with falling asleep or staying asleep called sleep phase delay or sleep phase advance? Are they waking refreshed in the morning? What's going on with them psychosocially? Are there any stresses going on at work or in relationships or financially that's increasing their anxiety and could be impacting their sleep? Are they are risk for any hormonal abnormalities or imbalances because the research is clear that low estrogen, low or high testosterone, elevated TSH, those are all things that can create insomnia. Abnormal progesterone, as well.
And then looking at medications because there are some medications that can impact sleep, as well.
Gazella: Yeah, let's talk about the medications that can impact sleep. What are some of those medications that can impact sleep?
Neustadt: Well, prednisone, that can cause hyper-arousal, or can cause somebody to not sleep, not be able to fall asleep, or have fragmented sleep. Beta-blockers, very common heart medications, can decrease melatonin production. So we know what the mechanism of action ... their interaction of sleep is they decrease melatonin and can cause poor sleep.
Some antidepressants, actually, can cause poor sleep. Antidepressants can, depending on the antidepressants, can either cause somebody to not be able to sleep enough or can cause hypersomnolence, somebody to be sleeping too much. So looking at those, looking up ... it's very easy to look up whatever medication they're taking quickly and see, besides the ones that I mentioned, could it be potentially interfering and impacting with their sleep.
Gazella: So I've been hearing about hyperarousal, or the hyperarousal hypothesis, which I find quite fascinating. What is the hyperarousal hypothesis and how can it affect what is recommended to patients?
Neustadt: Great question. So the hyperarousal hypothesis I like to refer to as "wired-but-tired." And it occurs to people typically who are under a lot of stress, they have elevated cortisol, and when they end up trying to fall asleep they just can't turn their mind off, or even if their mind isn't racing, they just can't calm down. Their body can't relax and settle into sleep. They're staring at the ceiling, it can cause fragmented sleep. And that wired-but-tired, again, typically occurs in people who are under chronic stress.
Gazella: Yeah. And you know the other day when you and I were talking as it related to the hyperarousal hypothesis, you were telling me about something else that was new to me and it was called social jet lag. Talk a little bit about social jet lag and the research associated with social jet lag.
Neustadt: I'm so happy you brought this up because I love this as well. Fitbit, that maker of the wearable tracking devices, and tracking people's sleep as well, they had access, because of their users, to over six billion data points of sleep. And they looked at those. And they looked at the data and determined that the biggest predictor of healthy sleep, restful sleep, is going to bed at about the same time every night. Basically training our body that it's bedtime, getting that routine.
Social jet lag occurs when people are going to bed at about the same time every night during the week but then the weekend comes. Friday night they go out, hang out with friends, stay out late. Saturday night maybe do the same thing, and then Sunday comes around and they try to go to bed again at their weekday, or their work week time, and they can't fall asleep. And essentially what they've done is it's as if they've flown to another time zone and their body thinks that it's not time to go to sleep yet. And they've induced their own jet lag called social jet lag.
And so one of the things that Fitbit found, and I think one of the most impactful things, is showing that getting that regular bedtime, being in that routine, going to bed at about the same time every night is one of the best things people can do for improving their sleep.
Gazella: And even on the weekend, and I'll tell, you, when you put this on my radar I, of course, had to do a little research and there's a lot of studies on this that actually show that the physical effects that you talked about with sleep deprivation earlier also occur with this social jet lag. So I think it's really important for clinicians to be aware of that. So thank you for bringing this to my attention.
So now doctors often prescribe benzodiazepine or benzodiazepine-like drugs to help patients sleep. What are some of the potential risks of these particular medications?
Neustadt: Well, the potential risks are very well documented and they increase risk for falling, dizziness, light-headedness, those risks are increased in people who are 60 years or older because their ability to metabolize the drug tends to decrease. And so because it increases the risk for falls and dizziness and light-headedness, it then increases the risk for fall-related injuries, such as osteoporotic fractures, such as concussions, such as death, even. But even beyond those risks associated with increased risks for falling, the research has shown that cancer risk is actually increased in people who take over about 132 doses of benzodiazepine a year. So that's even ... that's less than half of a year worth.
And in fact some of these risks are increased with very small and limited exposure. So you know from half a dose to 18 doses per year, the hazard risk for death is increased 3.6 times. 18 to 132 doses, the hazard risk for death increased 4.43 times in a study that looked at this. And for greater than 132 doses, it increases 5.32 times. That's 532 percent greater than somebody not taking these medications for death. And the research has shown to actually get one benefit, the number needed to treat, to have one patient benefit is 13 patients. But the number to treat to create harm is only 6 patients.
Gazella: Yeah, that's problematic. So what about the newer class of medications, like the orexin receptor antagonist Belsomra?
Neustadt: Belsomra came on the market in 2015, it's a schedule 4 drug and it's a CNS depressant. So, like other CNS depressants, like benzodiazepine, it can have similar adverse effects. Some of the benzodiazepine drugs like Lunesta or Ambien can also cause, like Belsomra, can cause daytime impairment including impaired driving skills, risk of falling asleep while driving, abnormal thinking and behavioral changes are part of the adverse events spectrum, including amnesia, anxiety, hallucinations, other neuropsychiatric symptoms, even complex behaviors like sleep-driving. I mean, you're driving while not fully awake, after taking the hypnotic. Or other complex behaviors have been documented, like preparing and eating food, making phone calls, or even having sex, without remembering it.
And so the drug has some serious risks, including worsening of depression and suicidal ideation, and the benefits of that, it can increase ... or the benefits of the medication, because all medication, it's a risk-reward calculation ... it can decrease sleep latency, that is, the amount of time to fall asleep by about eight to 10 minutes and increase sleep duration by 17 to 20 minutes.
So at the most beneficial end of that, maybe it's 30 extra minutes of sleep. But you get all of those risks associated with it.
Gazella: And are patients getting good sleep when they're on these prescription and over-counter medications? Are they getting good quality sleep?
Neustadt: Well, you raise a great point. That's one of the problems with all of these medications is they tend to increase sleep duration, sleep quantity, but they're not increasing sleep quality. They're not getting patients into that deep, restorative phrases of sleep, the slow-wave sleep, phase 3 and into phase 4, to get that good, restorative sleep.
So the quantity of the sleep may be increased but the quality has not been shown to be increased.
Gazella: So you've made a pretty compelling case that a more integrated, holistic approach is needed. And integrative practitioners often recommend melatonin for insomnia with their patients. Can you talk a little bit about melatonin and why for some patients, many even many patients, it may not be enough?
Neustadt: Melatonin is one of the first things I find that people with whom I speak, they've tried. They've reached for that. If they're going to try a natural product, they've reached for the melatonin, you know, first, almost universally.
The challenge with melatonin is that it's got a very short half life, 40 to 50 minutes. And so while melatonin is considered a circadian modulator, meaning it helps the body recognize day from night, and it is a natural hormone, a natural product that our body uses to help us fall asleep, it's not really used for sleep maintenance. And so when somebody takes melatonin to help them fall asleep, because it's got such a short half life, well 50 percent of the melatonin is eliminated from the body in less than an hour, so let's just be generous and say an hour for easy calculations. So common doses out there is a 3 mg dose. So in an hour, they've got a one and a half milligrams left. An hour later they've got .75 milligrams left. And on down.
And so 3, 4 hours later, essentially most of that melatonin is out of their body and they wake up again. I hear so often people who take melatonin, they end up waking up in the middle of the night, still. And so what do they do? Well, they might need more melatonin. And so they keep taking higher and higher doses until they're sleeping through the night and then they wake up feeling drugged in the morning. Groggy, hungover and it takes them hours to actually feel fully awake.
So the natural rhythm of melatonin in our body is that the rise in melatonin occurs around 10 PM and then it peaks at about 2 AM in the morning, and it declines at approximately 6 AM, it's declined back to baseline. And that makes sense because that's sort of the rhythm of when we start to fall asleep and when our body then starts to wake up. Of course melatonin is balanced with other hormones as well that the body is producing during sleep, but the immediate release of melatonin that people are taking is not mimicking the body's cycle of melatonin production during the night. And it's also not a complete solution because it's not dealing with the other phases of sleep, we're looking at the other hormones in sleep, GABA for example. Or the other variables that can impact sleep such as poor blood sugar. When blood sugar can drop, hormones are secreted like cortisol and epinephrine to increase the body's blood sugar and we wake up.
And so that's why melatonin for a lot of people doesn't work, because it's just not a complete enough solution.
Gazella: I think that's a really good point, that it's not a complete solution for many people and that's why you use such an integrative approach. So I'd like to really dig into your integrative approach, I'd like to talk about dietary supplements, diet, and other lifestyle factors. So as long as we're talking about melatonin, let's keep on that subject and talk about dietary supplements. Are there specific dietary supplements that you use in your clinical practice specifically for insomnia?
Neustadt: There are and it depends typically on the clinical picture. So for example if somebody has muscle aches or tight muscles that's keeping them from sleeping, magnesium can help, that can be a gentle muscle relaxant. If there's some anxiety that may keep them from sleep, well, glycine is an amino acid that's also an inhibitory neurotransmitter, that can be helpful. GABA also an inhibitory neurotransmitter used in the body available as a dietary supplement. That can be helpful. Botanical extracts such as alphianine increases alpha-wave production in the brain which is associated with calming, alert calmness. Then there are some sedative botanicals that can be helpful such as hops or skullcap, also called Scutellaria. And others.
So that's part of it and for potential, looking at decreasing the response to stress, I like using, if they're under a lot of stress, some adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, or jujube, magnolia bark extract. If there is vaso ... if there's an issue with hot flashes and perimenopause, pine back extract. There's a clinical trial on that showing that it improved sleep quality and sleep quantity.
And so I typically, you know, this monotherapy approach of one symptom, 1 pill, it really doesn't work when we're looking at complex pathologies like insomnia or many other chronic issues. And so I tend to like products that combine those different nutrients shown in clinical trials to work that target the underlying pathology, the underlying biochemical pathways at work and sleep and affected by insomnia in a time release or a biphasic time release delivery system because it more closely mimics the body's natural rhythm of the 2 major categories of your sleep. One is helping somebody fall asleep, you know how do we do that, and the other, over ... you know, the subsequent 6, 7 hours later after they've fallen asleep, how do we help them stay asleep?
And so that's how I conceptualize it and that's the overall approach with dietary supplements when they're indicated.
Gazella: So before I move on to diet, I know that you helped formulate and create a specific sleep supplement. I want you to tell me the name of that supplement but I also want you to tell me why you created it, because let's face it, there are a lot of sleep supplements in the market. So why did you want to create the supplement that you created?
Neustadt: So the name of the product is NBI's, my company, NBI's Sleep Relief is the name of the product. And I created it for a couple reasons.
One, just like all the products that I've created in NBI and formulated, I couldn't find the combination of nutrients or the dose and form of nutrients in a product shown in clinical trials to actually work. And I personally suffered from insomnia for years and years. And I tried a lot of different things. It wasn't helping me. I'd work with a lot of my patients trying to different things, having to dispense different bottles of products, in addition of course to working with diet and lifestyle and other psychosocial factors involved. And I couldn't find something that worked consistently.
And so I started digging into the sleep research, the pathophysiology of sleep, the clinical trials, what are the underlying mechanisms affecting sleep. And after over a year of research and formulating and working, trying over a dozen different combinations and doses, that's when I created Sleep Relief.
Gazella: Okay perfect, Sleep Relief. So now let's talk a little bit about diet. What are some of the things that you recommend to your patients when it comes to sleep, associated with diet that may not be on the radar of some practitioners?
Neustadt: So one of the big things that I see over and over is a lot of people have, may have acid reflux and they don't know about it. And because maybe it's not ... maybe they have a cough when they lay down, maybe they are just not aware that that's going on. And so evaluating for that because that can wake people up.
The other thing that I find with diet that's very important, and with acid reflux, you know, that can be diet related. There are 5 most common foods that can contribute to that and interrupt sleep, that's raw garlic and onion, chocolate, coffee, and citrus. Although other things can do it for other people. An infection can do that, H. Pylori can cause that as well. And then if they have a hernia, a hiatal hernia, that can cause it as well. So looking at that, looking at those underlying potential causes if that is involved.
The other thing is poor blood sugar control which I already mentioned. And one of the things I like to ask that can indicate if they might have poor blood sugar control is if they get that afternoon, postprandial tiredness. You know, about 3, 4 o'clock in the afternoon, a couple hours after lunch do they just get that energy slump. And that can be an indication that they're having a little bit of blood sugar control issues. Or are they waking up at the same time every night. Both of those questions can give clues.
And if that does seem to be involved, one thing that I love to try with patients ... it doesn't work very often but when it does, it's really a home run, and that is ask them to eat 8 to 10 grams of protein before bed. Protein's one of the best ways to regulate blood sugar. And so if they do that and it stabilizes their blood sugar and they then are sleeping through the night, well, again, it's a home run. I mean, there are no pills, no powders, it's just natural doing it with food and it also opens the door for even more discussions with helping them understand how they can improve their diet during the day to help, to eat, to promote ... to help them understand how they can eat, changes they can make to eat, the promote their health for the rest of their life.
Gazella: Yeah, those are some great suggestions when it comes to diet. Now let's talk a little bit about lifestyle. What are some things that may not be on the radar of some practitioners when it comes to lifestyle aspects?
Neustadt: So we talked about going to sleep at about the same time every night, that's really important. The other thing is ... and most practitioners, or hopefully all of them have heard of sleep hygiene. The research shows that about the 69 to 70 degrees for most people is the ideal temperature for sleep. Some people who, if they're in a relationship with their partner, they may like different temperatures may be most comfortable for them.
So there are wonderful things out there now, it's call the ChiliPad, that you can get, it's a pad you can put on your bed, where you can control the temperature on each side of the bed. So that can be really helpful.
Stress of course is a big issue in our society, a lot of people are under chronic stress, so anything that we can do to help people decrease their stress or better deal with stress is really important. And a fantastic study came out recently that showed that a lot of the impact of stress is not the actual event happening to us, it's how we view it. So if people view stress as a good thing, meaning "I gotta learn something from it and what can I take from this," the health impacts from stress are mitigated. If somebody sees a stressful event and they're internalizing it and they're not seeing it as a growth opportunity, then it magnifies the negative stress impacts.
So, A) getting them to just understand that mindset is really important, just when it comes to stress happening, and then what can they do to have more control over those events that may be causing them stress to decrease that stress. And that could mean creating healthy boundaries for themselves. That could mean doing any yoga or mind-body techniques. You know there's lots of things that we can offer to patients that can be incredibly, incredibly helpful.
Gazella: Yeah, I would agree. And now your approach focuses on diet, lifestyle, and dietary supplements. How important is it to focus on all 3? So some practitioners might be really focused on the person's diet, or some might be looking at their stress level, and some might be focused on just melatonin. Why is it so important to look at this from an integrative standpoint?
Neustadt: Well I think if we want to do the best job we possibly can for our patients and give them the best results, looking at it through a more integrative approach is important. And I like the approach of trying dietary supplements to give people benefit quickly. So if somebody is sleep deprived, it's gonna increase their tendency to reach for those comfort foods. I think we've probably all experienced that. And especially because what happens with insomnia and sleep deprivation, it decreases mood. It can cause depression. And sugary foods, for example, when we reach for those, it can increase our serotonin production and temporarily lift mood. But it causes this rollercoaster of insulin and blood sugar that's hard to get off of.
So just getting people sleep can help improve their mood. So I like the dietary supplement approach for triage to get them feeling better so they can make healthier decisions, have a more present mindset, be more proactive instead of reactive, while I'm working with them also on improving their diet. Transitioning to a healthier way of eating, which, the research has shown, unambiguously is the Mediterranean pattern of eating. And also stress reduction and exercise and those things as well.
Gazella: Yeah, I mean that all makes a lot of sense. And this is a very important topic and I want to thank you, Dr. Neustadt for a very interesting conversation and once again, I'd also thank today's sponsor, Nutritional Biochemistry Incorporated, or NBI. Thanks again, Dr. Neustadt, for joining me.
Neustadt: Thank you for the opportunity.
Gazella: Have a great day.
Neustadt: Thank you.
Gazella: I'd like to remind readers of the Natural Medicine Journal that we now offer free continuing education credits for naturopathic physicians. Our list of podcasts and research guides that have free CE credits is growing. For more information, just click the Continuing Education tab at the top of our Natural Medicine Journal website.