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The brain chemical hypocretin, a neurotransmitter that helps keep you awake, is most widely known for its role in the sleeping disorder known as narcolepsy.
Narcoleptics, who uncontrollably fall asleep during the day and have much higher rates of depression than the general population, are unable to produce hypocretin. This not only interferes with their sleep-wake cycle, but also may also disrupt their emotional state – a new finding that has implications for everyone.
Hypocretin May Regulate Your Levels of Happiness
A new study, which used epilepsy patients who had special electrodes implanted in their brains that could monitor hypocretin levels, found that levels of the neurotransmitter soared during positive emotions, anger, social interactions and upon awakening.1
Hypocretin has been previously associated with reward-seeking behaviors, and the researchers suggested it may have a very specific role in human arousal and happiness as well. The study’s lead author, Dr. Jerome Siegel, told the New York Times:2
“This [study] shows that hypocretin is related to a particular kind of arousal … There is an arousal system in the brain whose function is keeping you awake for pleasure, to get rewards. It is related to positive effects, and in its absence you have a deficit in pleasure seeking.”
This explains why people with narcolepsy, who are lacking hypocretin, also commonly suffer from depression. Interestingly, it also suggests there may be other arousal systems in your brain, driven by different brain chemicals, that may be in charge of regulating other specific emotions.
A Warning About Hypocretin-Blocking Sleeping Pills
If an important new biological pathway is discovered you can bet your bottom dollar that the drug companies will not be far behind to manipulate that pathway in some way that will not correct the problem, but merely relieve the symptoms and make them a boatload of money. And that is precisely what has happened.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has accepted a new drug application for Suvorexant, a new insomnia medication made by Merck.3 This is the same company that brought you Vioxx, which killed 60,000 before being pulled from the market.
The new drug works by targeting hypocretin, temporarily blocking it to help you fall asleep, or, as the New York Times put it, “essentially causing narcolepsy for a night.”4
The concern is that if reduced hypocretin may be responsible for causing depression in narcoleptics, could it also cause depression, or interfere with mood, in healthy people using the hypocretin-blocking drug Suvorexant? So far Merck claims no connection has been found, but there is likely reason for caution:5
“The initial reports are rosy,” Dr. Siegel told the New York Times, “But they come from a drug company with an enormous investment. And there is a long list of drugs acting on the brain whose severe problems were only identified after millions of people were taking them.”
More Proof Lack of "Sleep" Leads to Weight Gain
Research has only scratched the surface of the far-reaching implications of a disrupted sleep-wake cycle. But in addition to impacting your emotions, it’s known that a lack of sleep causes changes in the hunger and satiety hormones ghrelin and leptin – changes that impact your food intake and ultimately your weight.
The latest research showed the effects of sleeping just five hours a night for five days. The study participants actually burned more energy than those who slept longer, but they had less restraint when it came to mealtime. The sleep-deprived subjects ended up eating more, so that despite their increased energy burning they gained nearly two pounds, on average, during the five-day study.6
“Our findings suggest that increased food intake during insufficient sleep is a physiological adaptation to provide energy needed to sustain additional wakefulness; yet when food is easily accessible, intake surpasses that needed … These findings provide evidence that sleep plays a key role in energy metabolism. Importantly, they demonstrate physiological and behavioral mechanisms by which insufficient sleep may contribute to overweight and obesity.”
The good news is that the opposite also held true: when participants started getting more sleep, they subsequently started to eat less and lose weight.
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