Americans might be the most medicated people in the world thanks to aggressive drug-maker marketing and favorable regulation. But drugs can be over-prescribed, conditions over-diagnosed, and less expensive non-drug treatments slighted. Here are common dangers to watch for in your and your family’s medication use.
Too long on temporary meds
Many of us have taken an occasional benzodiazepine such as Valium, Xanax, or Ativan on a turbulent airplane flight or for a root canal. But slipping into daily use—though easy to do—is a mistake, and after one month’s use, you could find yourself addicted. (Most people already know this about opioids.) Not only do the drugs lose effectiveness quickly, but with daily use, you’ll likely be faced with withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop, such as personality changes, emotional instability, flu-like symptoms, and memory and sleep problems.
Some of the same dangers can occur with using sleeping pills daily, including withdrawal symptoms such as rebound insomnia and anxiety when you try to stop. Moreover, 8 out of 10 users have a hangover effect the day after using a sleeping pill, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Some sleeping pills have been linked to “sleep-driving,” and other dangerous blackout behaviors. Moreover, falls on the drugs are so common that the Mayo Clinic announced it was phasing out use of the popular sleeping pill Ambien.
Antidepressants, used by millions, also shouldn’t be used long-term. Medical sources recommend use for only 6 to 9 months and, at most, for two years. Yet even though effectiveness has only been studied for the first 6 to 12 weeks of use, according to Science Alert, 14 percent of users have taken the drugs for 10 years or more. I have interviewed patients who have been on SSRI antidepressants like Prozac or Paxil for more than 20 years.
The concept of depression as a chronic brain condition requiring life-long treatment only dates back to 1980; before the “psych drug” revolution, most depression was regarded as having a clear cause and an ending.
Long-term use of antidepressants isn’t harmless, Dr. Tony Kendrick, a professor of primary care at the University of Southampton, told Sky News. Such use may pose an “increased risk of stroke or seizures or effect on the kidneys.” Patients, while on the drugs, may suffer weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and emotional numbness, but more concerning are withdrawal symptoms after prolonged use. These symptoms—including anxiety, pain, palpitations, and insomnia—make many patients afraid to quit. The discontinuation syndrome may be worse than the depression itself.
SSRI antidepressants can also diminish bone mass density and increase osteoporosis risks, said Dr. James M. Ellison.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prilosec were only approved for up to eight weeks’ use for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), but many people remain on them for years. Long-term use of PPIs “increases the risk of fractures, gastric polyps, low magnesium levels in the blood, Clostridium difficile infections, and anemia,” wrote researchers in a 2019 Journal of Clinical Medicine Research article. Other research cites chronic kidney disease, vitamin B12 deficiency, and even dementia as possible side effects.
PPIs are overused, according to many doctors, and even given for infants’ spit-ups. And, like many drugs that shouldn’t be used long-term, unpleasant withdrawal effects can occur upon quitting.
Children on psychiatric drugs
Epoch Times readers are no doubt familiar with the mushrooming diagnosis of “ADHD” in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an astounding 1 out of 20 children in the United States takes ADHD meds, including more than 10,000 children who are only 2 or 3 years old! Children also are given drugs for conditions that weren’t historically considered pediatric conditions, such as bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and “mixed manias.”
But psychiatric drugs are only half the story. According to The Wall Street Journal, statins, diabetes pills, and sleeping pills—once considered “adult” medications—are now commonly prescribed in childhood. For example, prescriptions for high blood pressure drugs in children are up as much as 17 percent, statins are up 50 percent, and GERD medications are up an astonishing 147 percent.
Children on so many drugs may not have normal childhoods and may be condemned to life-long medication.
Elderly on ‘polypharmacy’
Because of the many chronic diseases that can come with aging—hypertension, diabetes mellitus, arthritis, renal and heart disease—the elderly are often prescribed many drugs at once, a practice called polypharmacy. In addition to the expense, there are other reasons to question the practice. Metabolic changes and reduced drug clearance in the elderly mean that adverse reactions to the drugs are more likely. And side effects from the drugs—such as decreased alertness, confusion, falls, depression, and even visual or auditory hallucinations—can be wrongly interpreted as aging or dementia when they aren’t. Dr. Harry Haroutunian, author of “Not As Prescribed,” has flagged the overmedication of the elderly and says, “I have seen my patients blossom when taken off harmful drugs and drug combinations.”
Medicating the side effects of medication
Polypharmacy often starts with a “prescribing cascade” which occurs, according to Public Citizen, “when an adverse drug reaction is misinterpreted as a new medical condition [and] another drug is then prescribed.”
“Instead of lowering the dose of the offending drug or replacing it with a safer alternative, the physician adds a second drug to the regimen to ‘treat’ the adverse drug reaction caused by the first drug,” according to Public Citizen. It recommends that you “assume that any new symptom you develop after starting a new drug might be caused by the drug” instead of a new health problem.
Gabor Keitner, professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, told The Wall Street Journal, “I think we are overmedicating people,” and that drug cocktails with so many side effects are “leading us down a path that may not be good for patients or the profession.”
‘Why should i take this?’
Too often patients receive a prescription from a doctor without asking, “Why do I need this medicine; what does it treat?” or “How long do I take it?” or “Could it interact with other medications I take or might take in the future or with foods?” Another great question they should ask but rarely do is, “Are there any natural treatments or lifestyle changes I could try before using this drug?”
It’s understandable that people are reluctant to ask questions of busy doctors. Often we’re relieved we got an appointment at all. We don’t want to look like we doubt their judgment or seem pesky. Moreover, pharmacists will answer many medications questions in person and over the phone, and prescriptions come with information sheets.
Still, as a patient, you have a right to know and understand your doctor’s care plan for you and to double-check its appropriateness. No doctor, for example, would mind a patient asking, “Did you notice I am allergic to—” or “Will this drug interact with—” when he or she is prescribing a new medication.
Just because a drug is sold without a prescription doesn’t mean it’s without risks. For example, “tens of thousands of people become ill every year from taking too much acetaminophen [Tylenol],” says Harvard Health Publishing, and a “smaller number of cases” result in death. Even a drug as familiar as acetaminophen doesn’t reveal all of its side effects quickly. It took decades to discover “prenatal exposure to acetaminophen is associated with neurodevelopmental and behavioral disorders” in infants, as noted in a research review published in the Journal of Endodontics.
Nor is aspirin totally innocuous. In adults, aspirin can irritate the stomach lining and trigger ulcers and bleeding, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. The use of aspirin in children or teenagers can be dangerous because of its links with Reye’s syndrome, a rare condition marked by swelling of the liver and brain. Warnings on the medication bottles and online will help you stay safe.
We shouldn’t be overly fearful about prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but neither should we be overly trusting and take them without regard. It never hurts to explore the many natural treatments that exist for anxiety, sleep problems, depression, GERD, and other conditions.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.