Category Archives: side effects

Two months of experiments with melatonin supplements

In another attempt to kill my insomnia I revisited melatonin supplements a few months ago. I had tried them 15 years ago, once, when I was sleeping three hours a night, whereupon I slept for 24 hours. That kept me off the stuff until a few years ago, when I tried them again, using the dosages listed on the labels — 1.5 mg, 3 mg, etc. I could feel it working and I got sleepier and sleepier and then…nothing.

I get the same effect when I use amber light bulbs and amber glasses, which prevent blue light from turning off your melatonin production at night. Especially if I’m reading, I’ll get sleepy and doze-y for about 30 minutes and…nothing happens and I’m wide awake again. Clearly a crucial step is missing somewhere.

When I discovered that some people out there use up to 40 mg (milligrams) with apparently no ill effects, I tried that. (Since melatonin is a hormone, and a prescription-only substance in some countries, there is some worry about big doses.) I spent a couple of weeks building up to 50 mg a night. It had even less effect than the smaller doses. I didn’t even get sleepy. In fact it was kind of weird how little an effect there was. I did notice a few things:

  • hiccups 4 times in 3 days
  • period extended by two weeks
  • two episodes of dreaming while awake

That last effect was entertaining. Early in the morning, I was half awake and dreaming a series of images displaying in my head like a slide show — click, click, click, very fast: photo-realistic images of things like a space station in a nebula, or people I’d never seen before on a picnic, or machines that don’t exist. In other words, definitely not memories. I forced myself to wake up and discovered that by concentrating I could get the images to start again. Woo hoo! The last one stood out, clear as day — a sunset shot of a grand building, like a Carnegie library, with a row of Model Ts or similar old cars lined up on the street outside, which was built on the top of a small dam or causeway.

This is a lovely example of the difference between physiological doses (the dose the body uses in normal operations) and pharmacological doses (the dose that creates a certain effect, usually much larger) of a substance. If you want to read accounts of people who’ve used melatonin for mind-altering as well as traditional applications, visit the Experience Vault at Erowid.org.

Later I remembered a New Scientist? Discover? article on researchers who pointed out that melatonin is only needed in wee little doses, 300 mcg or so, and that using more might be counterproductive. (Sorry, can’t find it, but I swear I tweeted about it.) So I dug out my melatonin bottle and bit off what I hoped was a third, which would be maybe 500 mcg. It seemed to give me a few hours more sleep that night, but I couldn’t repeat the results.

I continued experimenting with difference doses of timed-release melatonin (TRM), and after several months I’ve noticed a few things. Please note that when I say “worked” here, I mean it gave me a few more hours of sleep.

  • More than 1.5 mg of TRM never worked. I only tried two different doses of non-timed release melatonin, with no effect.
  • At first, in late October and early November, 1.5 mg TRM — and no other dose — gave me four more hours of sleep, but ONLY when I also spent 1.5 hours in daylight before 1:30 pm AND 1.5 hours in front of a light therapy lamp. If I skipped any of those steps, I would not get the effect.
  • Eventually that stopped working. I’m assuming it’s because morning daylight got less and less intense, but I’m not sure.
  • Using doses larger than 1.5 mgs TRM made me feel anxious, panicky and depressed for an hour or so at night. Not fun. This matched personal accounts I’ve found of other experimenters who considered it a sign that the dose they had used was too high.
  • If I tried taking more melatonin again after I woke up after several hours, timed release or otherwise, it wouldn’t do anything.
  • At 7 am, after I used a bright light device for an hour, if I sat in the dark after the device turned off, I would get very sleepy and fall asleep for about 20 minutes (unusual for me). Turning on all the lights in the apartment stopped the effect.
  • My period stopped for 45 days after I started experimenting with the lower dose melatonin. This has only happened once in my life. I was very happy.
  • Doses of 2-7 mg seemed to give me headaches and mild cystic acne after a while. It is possible that the 1.5 mg doses did this, too, after several weeks of use.

I’m concluding from this that my insomnia problem is related to light exposure, but not to melatonin production. Light affects melatonin and the circadian rhythm, and melatonin is part of the circadian rhythm, but the influence of light on the circadian rhythm is NOT entirely due to its effect on melatonin, if you follow me. So I’m going to try to get more light into my day.

SSRI withdrawal, sleep paralysis, and pseudo-alien abduction attempts

Adventures in Nutritional TherapyAs I’ve learned more about prescription meds I have re-evaluated the disastrous health symptoms that led me to switch to a gluten-free diet 14 years ago. At the time I had just stopped Zoloft after 18 months. I knew nothing about SSRI withdrawal except that it could make you feel briefly worse if you didn’t lower the dose carefully, but since I had always been on the smallest dose available, I thought it didn’t apply to me. For more than a decade I assumed that the seizures, insomnia, memory loss, etc. were the culmination of 30 years of malnutrition caused by undiagnosed celiac disease. I still am not entirely clear on what was due to what, but I did learn recently that two bizarre experiences I had during that time are not uncommon in SSRI withdrawal.

The bizarreness: early one morning I had a vivid dream in which I was lying on a bed, unable to move, while a goose slowly approached my head from the left. I knew that I really, really had to wake up because he was going to go for my eyes. With what felt like a Herculean effort I woke up, but I still couldn’t move. I once spent eight hours straight doing yoga at some extreme-yoga conference that a friend tricked me into attending and that I’m still a little bitter about, but that was nothing compared to what it took to get my limbs and lungs to respond.

After a very long 15 seconds? 30 seconds? I got everything moving and I thought, that was odd. However, so much other wacky @&#! was going on — did I mention the time I lay in bed trying to sleep for 45 minutes before I realized that my eyes had been open the entire time? — that this was just another thing.

The next week it happened again. This time the creature approaching the bed was a small dog. Possibly a spaniel. Once again I forced myself to wake up and then had to struggle through invisible cement to get my body to move. At that point it dawned on me that I’d actually wakened before my body had unparalyzed itself from sleep mode. But, again…whatever.

Over the next 13 years I made some interesting discoveries about what I shall now refer to as Paralyzed Abduction by Short Squat Creatures (PASS-C).

“Sleep paralysis” and its accompanying nightmares or hallucinations have been reported for hundreds of years. PASS-C is one subset of the hallucinations, and includes Irish faeries, German elves, and aliens. Another subset involves someone sitting on the chest (SSOC). Some experts believe that alien abduction experiences are misinterpretations of sleep paralysis, as described in this New York Times article. There is something circular in their logic but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

PASS-C accounts — elves, aliens, faeries — are all pretty similar. A short, squat figure approaches you while you’re reclining, you can’t move, they cart you off, they move through walls and windows, they take you to a featureless room or ship or cave and run tests on you. The aliens are the newest addition to the hallucination roster; they didn’t show up until the 1950s. The faeries and elves are much nastier than the Disney versions we’re used to. See Graham Hancock’s Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind. Yes, I read it. I will read anything by Graham Hancock except his fiction.

PASS-C can be induced by tinkering with the body’s level of DMT, an LSD-like substance produced by the pineal gland. Dr. Rick Strassman was investigating the link between DMT and the near-death experience when his DMT-dosed subjects — who were wide awake and conscious, by the way — started reporting the short-guy-approaching-the-bed thing, among other serious weirdness. See his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule. FYI DMT can be concocted from local plant life and has been for thousands of years by shamans and, of course, college students. Recipes can be found online.

Sleep paralysis and alien abduction attempts are common experiences with sleep disorders and SSRI withdrawal. Like DMT, SSRIs affect the pineal gland, which is a big serotonin user. Some speculate that the pineal gland connection is a red herring and that aliens are targeting psych med users for experiments because they are less likely to be believed by anyone.

A few years ago I had two more experiences, nowhere near as alarming or intense. I was going through a sleepless patch. It is possible that it was during the six days I tried Trazodone as a sleep aid, but I can’t remember for sure.

As intriguing as it is to be part of this ancient, sort-of-communal experience, I wish there was a do-not-call list, because it really isn’t fun. Also, I saw The X-Files episode “Duane Barry.” He was a multiple abductee and ended up on the wrong end of a SWAT team. I have enough problems, thank you very much.
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Illustration by MRhea

List of my supplement reactions caused by induced deficiencies

As I’ve mentioned in more than a few posts, reactions to supplements are most often NOT caused by poisoning or developing a so-called “tolerance.” Rather, it’s simply that you’ve lowered one of that nutrient’s cofactors (or competitors) too far and induced deficiency symptoms. You can find lists of these “synergists and antagonists/inhibitors” on Acu-cell.com’s nutrition pages. The site doesn’t supply that info for the B vitamin entries, but B vitamins are mentioned in the cofactor lists of all the other nutrients.

Below is a list of supplement reactions I’ve experienced over the years, with links to related posts where applicable. I did not experience each reaction every time. I have taken many supplements in many courses over the years as I attempted to iron out all the deficiencies caused by 31 years of undiagnosed celiac disease.

I wasted a lot of time figuring all these out because I was laboring under the foolish assumption that my B-complex vitamin was giving me plenty of B vitamins. In fact, B-complex formulations almost always include versions of several vitamins that are in a near-useless form for a significant percentage of people (B1, B2, B6, B12, folic acid). On top of that, there’s the problem that B-complex preparations don’t include anywhere near enough biotin, folate, or B12.

Keeping track of your reactions like this can help you home in on the causes of your health complaints. For example, most of the supplements that worsen my already-bad insomnia are also known to lower both vitamin E and selenium. Perhaps my insomnia is caused by low levels of one or both (they work together). That’s my next experiment.

Nutrient supplement Reaction Induced deficiency cause
B1 (thiamine) low mood, dry skin magnesium
  cracked, dry lips; dry eyes B2
B2 (riboflavin) eye floaters (degrades hyaluronic acid)
B5 (pantothenic acid) insomnia ?
B6 (pyridoxine) headaches B12
B12 (methylcobalamin) fatigue iron
biotin acne B2 or maybe B5
C eye floaters (degrades hyaluronic acid)
calcium asthma-like breathing difficulty, heart laboring vit. K
D3 headaches B1
  asthma-like breathing difficulty vit. K
E headaches, suppressed breathing vit. K? selenium? CoQ10?
folic acid fatigue, spaciness lowered folate, the active form of folic acid, by deactivating methylfolate supplement
methylfolate (a form of folic acid) high histamine C
iron headaches B12
  acne zinc; B2
  vertigo A
  insomnia selenium? E? doesn’t seem to be B2
  worsened hypothyroid symptoms zinc
iodine insomnia selenium? E?
  trouble breathing iron
vit. K insomnia at higher doses E?
magnesium nausea, headaches B12, B6
Omega-3 fatty acids headaches B12? B2?
  insomnia E? (works together with EFAs)

probiotics insomnia selenium? (works together with probiotics: see this article)
selenium high histamine C

There’s no “rum” in “scientific method”

In my continuing exploration of the theory that impaired glucose metabolism is behind my chocolate cravings, I recently began experimenting with vitamins B1 and B2, which are closely associated with glucose metabolism. On the fourth day I experienced such unpleasant symptoms that I suspected I had made a significant miscalculation with the dosages, possibly with hepatic or renal ramifications.

I had pain in my hip joints, lower back, and abdominal and thigh muscles, and my concentration was more impaired than usual. Just driving around running errands for two hours seemed unusually challenging.

With the aid of caffeine-based stimulants, however, I was able to evaluate the situation more clearly. It occurred to me that I was ignoring vital elements in my analysis — namely, that the day before, Easter Sunday, I had significantly altered my normal dietary and physical routines during an afternoon spent with relatives. In addition to imbibing a succession of 8-oz. mojitos, I had interrupted a decade of sedentary habits with the following:

  • 5 minutes attempting to ride a tricycle. This requires a degree of turnout — turning the feet so the toes point out to the sides — that is best left to ballet dancers.
  • 20 minutes riding a Green Machine
  • 1 minute in the yoga position known as Half Lord of the Fishes in attempt to extract shirttail from rear wheel of said Green Machine
  • 15 minutes as bottom layer of human pyramid of three children aged 3 to 8

Careful re-examination of the data allowed me to eliminate vitamins B1 and B2 as causative factors of these unexpected physical and mental reactions and to proceed with confidence with the trial. This episode underscores the need for constant vigilance in monitoring and evaluating potentially unrelated side effects when embarking on a new supplement plan.

On “developing a tolerance” to a supplement

I occasionally encounter people who use the expression “developed a tolerance” to describe that annoying phenomenon in which a supplement works for a while to treat whatever symptoms you’re complaining of, and then stops. Tolerance is more accurately used in the case of prescription drugs or, alas, controlled substances like alcohol or da ganja, and doesn’t really apply to supplements. Although tolerance to drugs and controlled substances builds up for different reasons, they are much different mechanisms than what happens with most supplements such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc.

A common cause of tolerance to a drug is that the drug causes your body to produce less of whatever substance the drug was meant to enhance. This happened to me when I first took clonazepam for insomnia. The drug was originally designed to control seizures, but my doctor at the time prescribed it for my two-hour-a-night sleep problem. For four days I slept NINE HOURS A NIGHT. I’ve never felt so good in my life. Then it stopped working. The doctor said it was a pretty common experience.

Turns out it’s a benzodiazepine (hereafter to be referred to as benzo), a class of drug that affects GABA levels in the brain. GABA is one of the few inhibitory neurotransmitters — it slows everything down, calms an overactive mind, gives you space between your thoughts, plays a big role in sleep. Benzos very quickly convince your body it can produce less GABA, which is why you’re not supposed to take the stuff for more than several weeks. The drug is only active for a few hours, after which you’ve got none of your own GABA to fill in that timing gap, so you take more of the benzo, or take it more often. (Here’s an overview of the different benzo Rx and their relative strengths.)

Many experts feel that supplements of the hormone melatonin have a similar effect. But then you can also find experts who don’t. (FYI in Canada and Europe, hormones are classified as drugs and are not sold over the counter as supplements.)

In the case of supplements that work briefly and then stop, it’s most likely because that supplement helped the uptake of another nutrient (or, more likely, a bunch of them — it’s unlikely that you’re deficient in only one thing) for a while, until it got to the bottom of the barrel.

Every time you take a supplement, a whole bunch of other substances in your body are ushered forth to process it. These are sometimes referred to as cofactors, and each nutrient has its own set, although obviously there’s a lot of overlap. Some of the more famous cofactor relationships are calcium and magnesium, magnesium and vitamin B6, and iron and vitamin C, but it gets even more complicated. Tryptophan needs B6, B2 and iron in order to convert into niacin, and iodine needs enough iron, selenium, and magnesium to do its thang. You can go nuts trying to remember it all.

So either you just happened to take a supplement that was cofactor to something you REALLY needed, or the supplement you took was in fact what you needed, but it used up all its cofactors. The former case is what happened to me with B-complex. The B-complex stopped my leg pain as long as I took it. After two days without it, the pain returned. What finally got rid of it was several months of calcium, which needs the B vitamins for absorption. The B-complex pulled just enough calcium into my bones to make a difference for a few days.

That’s why supplementation is an imperfect, and occasionally downright tedious, way to fix a deficiency — foods have more of the cofactors built in. But our anemic food supply, and the limited number of foods we typically eat, can’t provide enough nutrients to correct a serious deficiency. Or not quickly, anyway.

As a matter of fact, yes I have poisoned myself with supplements

I’ve gone on and on about how many so-called side effects of supplements are actually interactions with other nutrients that are being depleted. After all, it isn’t really likely that you’re deficient in only one nutrient, and they all work together in ways no one on the planet seems to have catalogued entirely. The “nerve damage” so many experts warn against for vitamin B6, for example, is often just a temporary symptom caused by lowered vitamin B12 levels and easily avoided.

However, I have in fact on two occasions taken what turned out to be deleterious doses of a supplement, resulting in one chronic toxicity episode and one acute one.

The first self-induced toxicity incident (SITI) was about three years after I started taking supplements. I had been taking one 10,000 IU vitamin A capsule a day, for reasons I cannot remember, along with all my other stuff. I completely forgot that my Freeda gluten-free multi-vitamin also had 10,000 IU of vitamin A in it, until two years (that’s two years) later when I experienced a week of dull, pounding headaches and bone pain. Finally one day in a shoe store my knees started hurting like a football player’s. That’s when it dawned on me that these were classic fat-soluble vitamin toxicity symptoms.

I stopped both sources of vitamin A and was fine two days later. For a few months I was worried I had damaged my liver but the usual liver panel tests were normal and my acupuncturist Needleman (also a Harvard Medical School MD, thank you very much) said it wasn’t likely. He also said that liver panel tests won’t reveal liver damage until your liver is half destroyed.

Freeda sells its multi-vitamins in several configurations — with iron, without, with A, without, etc. — but even so, I found it too hard to sort out all the interactions and gave up on multi-vitamins entirely soon after this.

(Freeda sells gluten-free and kosher vitamins and was a godsend for celiacs back before gluten-free ingredient labeling, but boy were their customer-service reps grouchy.)

The second, acute SITI was also due to attention lapse. It was two weeks ago. I had a head cold. I took my new fancy super-absorbable vitamin B2 dose in the morning. I promptly forgot about it and took the already daringly-high dose again that afternoon. The next morning I experienced a feeling very similar to margarita over-indulgence, without the associated pleasant memories of margarita-accompanied activities. After four hours I was fine.