Over the past few months, you may have noticed a spate of new warnings about commonly used prescription drugs, and even non-prescription drugs. Just last week, the FDA issued urgent precautions about the serious risks of non-aspirin NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which worldwide are probably the most overused medications of all. Go into any drugstore and you can choose from several brands of the two over-the-counter NSAIDs, ibuprofen and naproxen.
Or your doctor may have written you a prescription for the NSAIDs celoxib (Celebrex), etodolac (Lodine), meloxicam (Mobic), or any of a dozen others. When she gave you the rx, she probably warned you about the most common side effect of all NSAIDS, an upset stomach. NSAIDS (including aspirin, which is, if you didn’t know, an NSAID itself ) are the number one cause of intestinal bleeding.
But now with the fresh FDA warning your doc needs to warn you about the seriously increased risk of heart attack or stroke with non-aspirin NSAIDS. Not wanting to overwhelm you, she probably didn’t mention they’re also are a common cause of kidney failure. And if you’re struggling to get pregnant, NSAIDs lower egg production and progesterone levels.
Risky drugs are common
Also appearing in news easily available to physicians, though less so to the general public:
- Nutritional deficiencies and heart disease risks using widely prescribed proton pump inhibitors (Pepcid, Nexium, etc.).
- Behavioral changes including aggression with statins (Lipitor, Crestor, etc.).
- Increased bone fracture risk with SSRI antidepressants (Prozac, Lexapro, etc.).
- Even sudden death (Z-Pak).
- Or how about the new widely touted weight med Saxenda, whose side effects include thyroid cancer and life-threatening inflammation of the pancreas?
If you’re a typical American, you entered the world of prescription drugs as a child, likely for some utterly unnecessary antibiotic. In your teens, you may have been handed birth control pills, an antidepressant, or an ADD med to improve your grades. You might look back on your 20s as relatively prescription drug-free, but perhaps you were prescribed something for allergies, mood, migraine, or irritable bowel. By your 50s or 60s, you could be up to a dozen individual pills a day, with inhalers, eye drops, medicated skin patches, and steroid creams thrown in for good measure.
All are powerful drugs, and each and every one is linked to a smorgasbord of side effects, Just once in your life open the Torah-length drug package insert and spend an evening reading the whole thing, beginning to end.
Also, there’s the fact that nobody is really certain what happens when you take two, three, or four prescription drugs simultaneously. Although the new electronic medical systems send out potential drug interaction alerts to both physicians and pharmacists, each of us is biochemically unique and serious drug reactions/interactions usually come straight out of the blue.
Let’s consider how most prescription drugs work
Understanding how rx drugs function is essential as we consider the undeniably safer route of alternative therapies, from exercise, vitamins, nutritional supplements, and herbs to acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, meditation, yoga, and nutritional and functional medicine.
Most prescription drugs block or inhibit some usual and customary biochemical process in your body. You’ve probably noticed the warlike “anti,” “block,” and “inhibit” themes in drug names: beta and calcium channel-blockers and ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure; antibiotics (anti=against, bios=life) that kill both harmful and helpful bacteria; proton pump inhibitors; anti-inflammatories; serotonin reuptake inhibitors; birth control pills that block ovulation. Even the mouthful “HMG-CoA reductase inhibition” is how statins lower cholesterol.
The problem with this pharmaceutical modus operandi (and everyone in conventional medicine knows this, but prefers not to think about it) is that when you block a physiologic process at point A, you invariably get downstream effects from points B to Z. If the action at Point A does something useful, and you can live without noticing the B through Z side effects, then Big Pharma has multibillion dollar drug in its patent vault.
Being only human (according to the Supreme Court at any rate), Big Pharma does try to cover up what they know about the B through Z chaos their drug may be causing. Only after side effects are reported much later (heart attack risks with NSAIDs, for example, decades after the drugs’ release on the market) is the public finally warned.
The main difference between the warlike language of pharmaceutical treatments and those of alternative therapies is this: virtually all alternative therapies work by enhancing the self-healing capacities of your body.
Three aspects of illness and rx drugs
Consider three aspects of illness and prescription meds generally agreed upon by both patients and their physicians:
- We develop most of our chronic health issues via a combination of genetic risk and unhealthful lifestyle.
- We’re stuck with our genes and in our current healthcare approach we rely on poly-pharmacy to treat the consequences of unhealthful lifestyles.
- If instead we focused on making ourselves very healthy (good nutrition, exercise, stress reduction) and used alternative therapies to enhance our self-healing capacity, we’d need far less (if any) medication. Very few conventional physicians would argue this point. On a related note, this must-read article from The Atlantic discusses the general acceptance of alternative modalities by the mainstream health care system.
Less medication, by the way, might consist of lower doses of your current drug, discontinuing some of your medication mainstays, or switching to milder natural treatments like herbs or homeopathics.
So here’s what you can do the next time you’re handed a prescription by me, or whoever your doctor happens to be. Ask us the perfectly reasonable question “Do I really need this?” If the answer is yes, ask why, for how long, and, most important, “what can I do to get off this med entirely?”
Don’t be too hasty accepting “Just take it for the rest of your life” from any of us, especially if anyone calls it harmless. You’re encouraged to blurt out, “Hey doc, this stuff is never harmless.”
David Edelberg, MD