Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Beta blockers: good idea or trap?

For a few months in 2007 I worked very hard at bugging doctors to try to figure out what was going wrong. (A year later I tracked it to a problem with cholinesterase inhibitors, but I didn't know that then.) A neurologist I saw once (and only once) as part of this quest expressed that I was just being overly sensitive and suggested I try beta blockers.

When beta 1 receptors bind to epinephrine they make your heart beat harder and faster. This is what gives you that fluttery messed up feeling when you have to do something like get up and perform in front of a group of people. Beta blockers suppress, or at least attenuate, this effect. They're sometimes used (or abused, depending on your viewpoint) to control physiological symptoms of performance anxiety. This was the basis of his suggestion. Sounds like a good thing, right?

The problem is this: most neurons will adjust their gains and receptor densities to maintain a fairly constant level of input. This is a big part what goes on with things like drug tolerance. In this case, it means that while you're on beta blockers your beta receptors proliferate and ramp their gains to max trying desperately to get the signal level they expect. While the beta blocker levels are stable you feel fine, but when it goes down -- oh man...

I really wish they'd warned me about this when they suggested and/or prescribed the &%^$ things, but I learned this the hard way. I had to stop taking them for a while to do a test. The day after I stopped I felt jumpy, my heart rate was running ~130 just sitting still and ~160-180 if I tried to do anything, and I got really bad cardiac arrhythmia (multiple times per minute -- scary). This was not fun and so, so much worse than what had been happening to me before taking the beta blockers.

I tried to go without them after that, figuring these symptoms would fade and that I'd already paid the worst of the withdrawal symptoms waiting for the stupid test to happen. Months later, when these problems were still much worse than they'd been before and weren't getting any better I gave in and started taking them again. (BTW, the lovely interlude with the generic Ethex Toprol XL described in the last post happened at this point in the story.)

A few months after changing my diet to avoid cholinesterase inhibitors, I started having a different problem: the beta blockers were now too strong. The built up SGA had been keeping the epinephrine level artificially high. Once the level dropped enough, the beta blockers were making my blood pressure go so low I couldn't function.

I was already taking the minimum available dosage. Cutting them in half worked for a few weeks, but they couldn't be subdivided further without destroying the time release. (As described in the last post smooth time release is critical for this stuff.) The only option was go cold turkey and be miserably jumpy, heart racy, and arrhythmic until the beta receptors desensitized back to normal.

I couldn't find any useful info anywhere to help me understand how long that might take. The last experience stopping beta blockers was miserable and ultimately failed, but how much of that was caused by the hypersensitive beta receptors and how much by the high SGA levels?

It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared, implying that the SGA levels had been the dominant part of the problem last time. There was a little arryhthmia, but mild, and only for a few days. The jumpiness and heart racing faded slowly over a couple months.

Later, when I got the results back from 23andme, I discovered that I have mutant beta 1 receptors: GG on rs1801252. Only ~4% of the population have this genotype, and it's been associated with "low extroversion." I take that to mean that we suffer the fluttery feeling so bad that we mostly avoid having to be on stage in the first place. This may help explain why the beta blockers were so effective at such low doses.

So, the question is this: should I recommend the use of beta blockers to help counteract the effects of cholinesterase inhibitor sensitivity (CIS) during the detoxification process or not? It helped in the short term, but in the end felt like a trap. Also, I don't know how the mutant receptors play into this. How would this play out in people with CIS but with normal receptors? Sigh, need bigger sample size.

The more troubling thing is that ~millions of people are taking beta blockers for high blood pressure. It seems like everyone I talk to over the age of 60 is either taking them, or their spouses or friends are. Nobody warned them about receptor sensitization and withdrawal effects either. Yikes...

Generic drugs: I'm on to your tricks now

I've been thinking about writing this post for a long time, but was finally kicked into gear by LookyDaddy's recent post referring to the dangers of generic epilepsy drugs.

My first experience with this was about a year ago with Toprol XL. I'd been taking it for months with no problems. Then one refill the pills were clearly different. It turned out that Walgreens was now sourcing generic Toprol XL from a different manufacturer: Ethex instead of Sandoz. They didn't think this was worth mentioning. I only noticed because the size and shape changed.

Right away I started having trouble. During the course of the day I'd go through periods of incredibly low energy and blood pressure -- like, unable to move low -- and periods of jumpy heart racing.

Randy hypothesized that the release rate of the Ethex generic wasn't flat enough. During the low periods it was releasing the drug too fast: beta receptors too blocked, heart going too slow and weak. During the jumpy periods it was releasing too slow: receptors not blocked enough, heart going too fast and hard.

These problems went away within a few hours of getting the name brand. After that, we poked around on the web and found that lots of other people had the same problem with the Ethex generic.

More recently, I started experimenting with bupropion to try to deal with dopamine deficiency. Again they gave me a generic: Teva Budeprion XL. Again there was instability: high dopamine in the morning, sudden crash in the afternoon, ok in the evening after a nap. I thought at first that this was just startup edge effect, but it went on for weeks.

Again, these problems went away right after changing to the name brand. Again, lots of others had similar problems. We learned that two other people we know and care about were also getting screwed up by Teva Budeprion XL and got better when they stopped taking it. Ok, we thought, better put out a warning...

Now, I know this is all anecdotal and there's plenty of people on the net to complain about anything. However, consider this: the time release mechanisms in drugs are considered *inactive ingredients* and are therefore not regulated. They differ between brand name and generic, and even between generics from different manufacturers. The ones that are sophistocated enough to give reasonably flat release profiles are pricey. Generics have low profit margins. Seems like a good target for cost cutting.

Another problem with inactive ingredient substitutions is that they can be a problem for people with sensitivities. The one I have to watch out is potato starch (discussion of use in generics here). Pharmacists don't seem to have access to inactive ingredient information but will supply the phone number of the manufacturer.

I'm sure not all generics are bad, but after getting messed up by the last two in a row I no longer swallow the claim that they're "equivalent." If you're taking a generic, it may perhaps be a good idea to do an experiment:
  • Get one refill, or a partial refill, of the name brand
  • Watch yourself carefully for a few days while still on the generic, then compare how you do with the name brand
  • If you can't notice a difference, go back to the generic with restored peace of mind
  • If you notice a difference for the better, think about how much that quality of life improvement is worth to you compared to the cost differential
I know that for me it's well worth the $15 extra per month to be free of what the Ethex and Teva generics were doing to me.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Comments from Google Site

I have a Google Site at which I am trying to topically arrange info on the cholinesterase inhibitor issue. (Yeah, I know I mention it in almost every blog post -- that's the main thing I'm interested in at the moment.)

Unfortunately it turns out that Google Sites does not support comments from anyone other than owners or collaborators. I found a forum thread that addresses this issue, and it basically says: Blogger is for comments; Sites isn't. Therefore this Blogger post is intended as a place where people can comment on my Sites pages.

Please comment here!