Urgent new drug warning -- especially for seniors

I've got some bad news today, followed by some even worse news.

First, the bad news: A class of meds, anti-anxiety drugs,  used by millions of people for months or years at a time can dramatically increase the risk of a serious and even deadly infection.

I know what you're thinking. What could possibly be worse than that, right?

Well, there is something worse... much worse... because the people most likely to die of this infection are the very same people who are given these anti-anxiety drugs most often: Seniors.

The anti-anxiety drugs are the benzodiazepines given for everything from anxiety to sleep disorders, and an alarming new study finds they increase the risk of pneumonia by 54 percent and risk of death by up to a third.

That's overall -- but the risk varies from drug to drug. That old standby, valium, may possibly increase the risk of pneumonia by "only" 49 percent -- and believe it or not, that makes it one of the safest drugs in the study.

The sleep drug temazepam (Restoril) is linked to an 87 percent increased risk of the illness. And anti-anxietys drug, like lorazepam (Ativan) are, associated with a stunning 120 percent increase in risk, according to the study.

And there's one drug that outclasses even those when it comes to pneumonia risk. It's not a benzo, but one of the newer "Z-drugs" that act in a similar way. It's a sleep drug called zopiclone -- and researchers say it can actually double the risk of pneumonia.

Zopiclone isn't sold in the United States -- not in that form or under that name. But a drug derived from it is so widely used here that you've almost certainly seen commercials for it. It's called Lunesta.

If pneumonia was the only danger here, it would be enough to reconsider taking these drugs. But it's not -- because benzos and Z-drugs pack plenty of other risks.

Benzos are highly addictive, which is why so many people end up using them long after they no longer need them. And that long-term use comes with long-term risks -- like the risk of dementia, which increases by 60 percent with benzo use.

These drugs can also slow the mind -- and with it, reaction times, which is almost certainly why both benzos and Z-drugs were shown to increase the risk of traffic accidents.

What's critical to know about all these meds isn't just the risks. It's that the drugs themselves are almost always unnecessary.

Sleep disorders, for example, are commonly caused by lifestyle issues, nutritional deficiencies or hormonal imbalances -- and all of these things can be corrected naturally by a holistic doctor.

For short-term help while you work to find and correct the real issue, consider some combination of melatonin, GABA, theanine and Inositol instead of medication.

Anxiety issues can also be treated naturally, without anti-anxiety drugs and in many cases without any treatments at all beyond a stress-relief regimen such as exercise, time with loved ones and even prayer.

In some cases, anxiety can also be caused by hormonal imbalances -- and if that's your story, seek the help of a holistic doctor who can test you for the cause and correct it naturally.

For comprehensive hormone testing in Southern California, make an appointment to see me at the Stengler Center for Integrative Medicine.