What is a beta blocker and why should you care? Well, because they are among the great pharmaceutical discoveries of the 20th century, and they are useful in so many ways. Perhaps you could benefit from a beta blocker.
What is a beta blocker? It is a chemical that blocks the action of adrenaline on cells in our heart, blood vessels, and nervous system. We’ve all heard of adrenaline, if it the chemical that stimulates the ‘flight or fight’ response when we are excited or in danger. Someone threatens to to hurt you….you make adrenaline. You have a near miss car accident….you release a rush of adrenaline. Or….if you are afraid of spiders and someone puts a tarantula on your lap…..you go crazy with adrenaline. This bolus of adrenaline is released, appropriately enough, by the adrenal gland, a delta-shaped set of organs that sit just above your kidneys. But in addition to the large releases of adrenaline in your body under stress and fear, you also use adrenaline throughout the brain, in micoscopic quantities in nerve cells, to control various neural pathways. So it has a myriad of uses and effects that are either dramatic or subtle.
Now, adrenaline activates this response by attaching to receptors on the surface of responsive cells in the vascular and nervous system. These receptors have various effects on the cells they influence, like one key that fits into locks on doors of different rooms of the house. The same key/chemical can open different doors that share the same lock profile, and thus have different effects. These receptor sub-types were discovered in the research lab, and were labelled scientifically based on their order of discovery…..alpha first and then beta (there are alpha 1 & 2 subtypes, as well as beta 1 & 2….each leading to different effects on cells).
The discovery in 1964 by Sir Jame W Black of propranolol, a drug that revolutionized the treatment of heart disease and angina, was the first in a series of medication produced, each with subtle chemical differences that, in turn, affect the adrenergic receptors in varying ways, leading to treatments for angina, arrhythmia, hypertension, heart failure, glaucoma, and anxiety.
So, you can use beta blockers for all the various conditions mentioned above, but it was the use of propranolol in patients with anxiety and panic attacks from spiders that was discussed in a recent NY Times article that was fascinating. Using beta blockers at the time of exposure to a phobic stimulus, like spiders in a person with arachnaphobia, was found to virtually eliminate the future fear of spiders in these patients. This then led the author to speculate about the manipulation of memories and other theoretical concerns, but being reminded of the benefits of beta blockers is worthwhile, as these are readily available medications that can provide profound benefits across a spectrum of conditions, and perhaps you should think about trying such an approach if you have anxiety that is limiting you.