Tag Archives: insomnia

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.

Two months using an Earthing sheet

Updated 09/04/12: Martin Zucker, a co-author of the book mentioned here, has offered a suggestion for improving my experience with the Earthing appliances. See comments.

For about two months I’ve been using an Earthing sheet, which was invented by Clinton Ober to lower the electrical current on the body to what it would be if you were standing barefoot on the ground. Ober’s theory is that since we evolved that way, our bodies are optimized at that current, and messing with it can cause health problems. What with all the power lines, cell phone towers, wi-fi, appliances and electronics we use now, we’re exposed to much more current than we were 40 years ago.

Using a splitter and a voltmeter from the hardware store you can compare your body’s voltage with and without contact on the Earthing sheet, which is a cotton sheet interlaced with metal wires that plugs into the grounded port of an outlet, or, ideally, to a rod you stick outside in the dirt. Blogger Amanda has a video demonstrating this. Her body voltage is 17 times lower when in contact with the sheet.

After perusing various discussion forums, I found about five people who had used it for insomnia with some success. I bought a sheet and, for day use, an arm band. The order came with two copies of Ober’s book, which I hadn’t read before. In my humble opinion, his PR team shot themselves in the foot (feet?) by giving it the title Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever?, but it’s actually well written, articulate, and well edited.

My experience over the first five nights was pretty common similar to what several of those insomniac experimenters noted — weird tingling sensations in my limbs that felt like arterial spasms, increased insomnia, and a really weird three-minute anxiety attack that might have been more of a semi-lucid nightmare. There was also the dream in which Ian Anthony Dale, wearing old-fashioned sleeve protectors and sitting at an antique wooden desk, told me to go to Utah.

As for the arm band, I discovered that if I used it more than two hours during the day I became very irritable and annoyed, so I gave that up completely.

Except for all that, after five days I experienced…nothing.

However, I continue to use it, mostly out of curiosity and because I like the idea. In a few weeks I shall proceed to part 2 of the experiment, when I will stop using the sheet and see what happens.

For a much cheaper version of the experiment, you can sit or stand with your bare feet on the ground — dirt, grass, sand, or unsealed cement. Much of my so-called yard actually sits on a huge plastic liner, which negates the effect. It seems to be referred to as “barefooting,” which for me brings to mind a moronic 60s song. From my brief review of YouTube videos on the subject, it looks like most people try it for at least 30 minutes a day for several weeks.

You can also find do-it-yourself instructions for making Earthing, aka “grounding,” sheets on the internet. Ober made his Earthing prototypes by crisscrossing conducting tape over wool blankets. A particular type of conducting tape is required, though, so watch out for that detail.

50,000 IU doses of vitamin D might not be such a great idea

A commenter (Blake) on a recent post directed my attention to Dr. Stasha Gominak’s series of videos on her work treating sleep disorders with vitamin D. The videos run more than an hour, but here’s a summary of some of her points. One of her points — of course, not covered on the summary — is that those whopping 50,000 IU vitamin D pills that some doctors give to their patients to take once a week are not as effective as taking it daily in smaller amounts.

I’m not sure if she was referring to the fact that the majority of those 50,000 pills used to be in the D2 form, which is not as effective, or to a claim I’ve read elsewhere that past a certain dose, the larger the dose, the less effectively it is absorbed, so that one day of 50,000 IU actually provides less vitamin D than ten days of 5,000 IU. Of course now I can find no such citation. Aren’t I helpful?

Another reason to replete with smaller, daily doses is to lower the risk of catastrophic interactions. If you’re low in vitamin D, you’re probably low in other nutrients, and taking a whole lot of one nutrient can wipe out its cofactors, and depending on the extent of your deficiency of that cofactor, the deficiency symptoms can be pretty bad. In my case, I had unknowingly been suffering from reallllly low vitamin K levels, and the mega-whoppa-D3 dose shot it to hell. I had an asthma-like attack that was very scary. I thought about going to the ER but luckily it tapered off quickly enough and my doctor was able to get me an appointment with a pulmonary specialist within a few days.

The specialist said it was just a one-off asthma attack caused by a hitherto-unknown vitamin D allergy. I knew that vitamin D interacted with vitamin A, so I asked him if asthma was linked to vitamin A deficiency. Why I bothered, I do not know: some delusional fit of psychotic optimism hit me. He went to his computer, looked up vitamin A in the clinic’s database, which from what I could see was no better than any consumer medical database you can find online, and said that vitamin A deficiency is only a problem in orphans in India, where it causes blindness. Ah, I said. Okay then. Later I somehow stumbled onto this 1975 Japanese study and started to figure it out.

In an older person or smaller person or someone much sicker, that reaction could’ve been disastrous and even more terrifying than it was for me. By sticking with a smaller dose, my reactions would, I assume, have been smaller and hopefully more manageable.

I did appreciate Dr. Gominak’s comment that “We blame people who can’t sleep,” which I have found to be very, very true. Humans are idiots, have you noticed? I have to say, though, that I am annoyed by her claim that she is the first to recognize the link between vitamin D and sleep. Perhaps she’s just not being specific enough, or is referring only to the world of neurologists, but my osteopath mentioned it a lot earlier than 2009.

Scientific American article series on self-experimenters

While investigating insomnia I came across this 2008 series of Scientific American articles on eight people who’ve been experimenting on themselves to investigate a variety of hypotheses. The subjects include a cybernetics professor who’s wired his nervous system to a computer, the playwright who made the movie “Super Size Me,” and a cardiologist who tried an obscure drug to stop his alcohol binging.

The fella after my own heart is Seth Roberts, who after ten years of experimenting, finally resolved his insomnia by moving breakfast back a few hours. He also curbed his overeating by ingesting several tablespoons of vegetable oil a day and as a result lost a significant amount of weight. Then he wrote a diet book about it and gained a significant amount of attention.

One expert’s response to it:

“Experimenters who test ideas on themselves may be biased to produce the result they expect to see,” says David Katz, an internist and associate professor adjunct at Yale School of Public Health.

…which jibes with my experience with the so-called expert (SCE) in Chronic Fatigue at the Cleveland Clinic. I had gone to check once and for all that I do not qualify for the diagnosis (I don’t, thank God) and when I mentioned that I had occasionally gotten tantalizing increases in energy from large doses of zinc, after years and years of trying everything, the SCE said it was in my mind: I wanted it to work and it did. When I pointed out that 80% of the things I tried didn’t work, he changed the subject. Then he offered me an antidepressant.

Roberts, a professor at UC Berkeley, has his own website where he’s posted the reports he wrote on his own experiments, should you happen to need a good example of scientific method usage.

Rx, OTC, diet-, and needle-based ways to treat hypothyroidism

It took me two years from the time I first suspected I had thyroid problems to get treated for it. I was very tired, had a weird, periodic hum in my body as if the ship’s engine on “Star Trek” was running in the background, was unbelievably cold outside in the winter, and my hair felt like it had an electric current running through it. But my test results from my traditional doctors, who were only looking at TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), always came back normal. When I read that ideally other markers should be looked at as well (e.g. T3, T4, etc.) I asked for those tests, but they, too, came back normal.

In the meantime, after going gluten-free, I had decided I was going to REALLY get healthy. I started eating fish several times a week and every morning I would drink juiced greens, including Swiss chard, mustard greens, and two types of kale.

I was rewarded with a worsening of my thyroid-esque symptoms (and with elevated mercury levels, but that’s another story). During yet another bout of research, probably at about.thyroid.com, I discovered that cruciferous vegetables — such as greens, cauliflower and broccoli — when ingested raw are capable of tanking the thyroid, either by lowering iodine levels or by affecting hormone production directly.

I also learned at around the same time that a New England Journal of Medicine article had declared that another, wider set of lab ranges were more accurate for diagnosing and treating hypothyroidism.

So I stopped the goitrogens immediately and felt better soon after, but the issues remained. I had at this point already given up on traditional doctors so went straight to the two alternative medicine practices I had visited earlier. The doctor I saw at the first one told me that food had no effect on the thyroid and to “put those papers away” (the copies of the research papers on goitrogens) and that “you need to educate yourself,” in a tone reserved for the types of people who believe you can get pregnant by swimming in a public pool. Then he listened to a list of my symptoms and pronounced me hypothyroid.

The alterna-doc at the second group had also heard about the NEJM changes but had never heard of the effect of those vegetables on the thyroid. She started me on 1/4 grain of Armour thyroid, which is derived from pig thyroid and has been around since the 1920s (I think). After a month or so my mood, temperature, memory, fatigue, and skin were much improved.

However, I discovered that if I took iron, which I needed for fatigue, it brought back the hypothyroid symptoms, even if I took it at the requisite four-hour interval from the Armour. Without the iron, I was exhausted. Eventually I discovered that I could avoid this effect by taking 50 mg of zinc.

Wonderful as it was, that dose of Armour did not resolve everything. When I tried to increase the dose I got heart palpitations, a weird vibration in my thyroid, insomnia, and jitteriness. Most glorious of all, a hair would start to grow out of the middle of my forehead. This is when I discovered that you can whip your thyroid all you want, but if your adrenals are shot, you won’t get very far.

The alterna-doc gave me hydrocortisone (Cortef) for about six months in an attempt to boost the function of the adrenals, but I noticed no effect at all. My cravings-driven chocolate intake also probably thwarted anything positive we could do for them.

After 18 months I got tired of taking Armour every day and asked Needleman the acupuncturist to treat me with acupuncture. That involved nine weeks of about 15 treatments, 60% of which was covered by my insurance. (This has since dropped to almost no coverage.) At the end of the nine weeks, my test levels (by the new ranges) were normal, so I dropped the Rx and never felt those symptoms again.

My thyroid numbers are still obscenely robust, or so I’m told, and yet I still cannot eat goitrogens, such as pears, buckwheat, or broccoli, without feeling symptoms. That makes me think that my remaining complaints — stubbornly low iron, fatigue, insomnia, hair thinning, and brain fog — might still be associated with thyroid function. (They are also associated with adrenal function.)

Two doctors who’ve written books on iodine (Brownstein and Abrahams) believe that under some low-iodine circumstances, the thyroid can display my type of complaints without betraying anything in the usual lab tests. In other words, it might have been bludgeoned into submission with an Rx but isn’t necessarily healthy.