In a perfect world, nobody would need to take drugs, but as we all know, life often has other plans. There are pains to be relieved, conditions to be managed, lives to be saved, and often, drugs fit the bill. Trouble is, most people are taking way too many of ‘em.
Contrary to what you might think, I’m not against medications, but I am against their overuse – and we are a nation of over-users. Lots of people think pills are harmless: they may do some good, and well, the doc said to take an Advil and call him in the morning, so why not? I’ll tell you why not. Drugs, be they prescription or over-the-counter, unbalance the system by design. They inhibit certain natural physiological processes that have a positive side as well, so that taking them frequently over time is likely to result in unintended adverse consequences. Just to take one example, over-doing it on aspirin is linked with increased hearing loss risk. Also, remember that drugs, more often than not, treat symptoms, or just mask them, rather than getting at the root cause of what’s ailing you.
Another reason not to love drugs: many of the most common meds are not all that effective, failing to treat the most significant symptoms while piling up side effects (and possible organ or tissue damage) along the way. So, while there may be a place for medications in your life, whenever possible, try not to make them your default setting. Instead, learn to treat your body better with a healthy diet, moderate exercise, quality sleep, and stress reduction – and leave drugs as a last resort instead of the first line of defense.
What follows are a few of the most commonly over-prescribed meds that I urge everyone to cut way back on. Better yet, if you’ve been on them for a while, get rid of them altogether, under a doctor’s supervision. And then a few healthier options to try instead:
1) SLEEP AND ANXIETY MEDICATIONS
The names you know: the benzodiazepines, aka ‘benzos’ like Xanax, Klonopin, Ambien, and Ativan.
Efficacy: Yes, they will help you fall asleep, usually within 30 minutes, but most increase total sleep time only by about 20 to 30 minutes per pill, so, in my opinion, the risks far outweigh the benefits.
Side Effects: Risk of dependency, increased risk of dementia, memory loss, mood changes, erratic behavior, confusion, drowsiness, loss of coordination, sleepwalking, sleep-eating, and even sleep-driving.
Getting off them: As they all can be quite addictive, getting off them can be difficult, and if done too quickly, dangerous, so be sure to taper off slowly, under a doctor’s supervision.
What to try instead: Nutritional or mineral or herbal supplements with calming, and sleep-enhancing effects, without the pharmaceutical downsides. Making the sleepy-time list: magnesium (300-600 mg.); the amino acids L theanine (100-500 mg), taurine, GABA and 5 HTP (50-100 mg.); CDB and herbals like lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower, magnolia and valerian root. Over the course of a few days, test drive one option at a time, a half-hour or hour before bedtime and see which one works best for you.
For women, the next course of action would be to work with a doctor on checking levels for the hormones pregnenolone and progesterone. If levels are low, supplementing these hormones can often help with sleep. Sleep is very complicated, and what works for one person may not work for another, so you may need to experiment a bit to find which non-drug options work best for you.
For more ideas on how to do sleep well: Check out 8 Key Times to Prepare Your Mind and Body to Sleep Like a Baby
2) ACID REFLUX MEDICATIONS
The names you know: Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), such as Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec, Protonix, and Aciphex, and H2 antagonists, such as Zantac, Pepcid, and Tagamet.
Efficacy: These meds target the symptoms but don’t address the underlying cause of the problem.
Side effects: Prolonged use can cause microbiome imbalances and increased risk for pneumonia (a risk that rises the more you take); malabsorption of nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and B12, leading to vitamin deficiencies; increased risk of bone fractures; and kidney and liver problems.
Getting off them: Most people develop a dependency and can find it tough to stop because, when they do, they experience a rebound effect, where the body creates more acid (hypersecretion), which can cause reflux. So, taper off slowly.
What to try instead: Prevent reflux in the first place by avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and foods that irritate your system. Take the supplements DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) and mastic gum, and drink aloe vera juice. Some people find relief in actually ingesting acid in the form of HCL tablets — the aging body produces less acid which can trigger a range of gut symptoms.
For tips to beat acid reflux in a healthy way, check out 20 Ways to Curb Acid Reflux Without PPIs
3) CHOLESTEROL MEDICATIONS
The names you know: Statins like Lipitor, Mevacor, Pravachol, Crestor, and Zocor
Efficacy: They do lower cholesterol, but there are questions as to whether low cholesterol is truly a relevant goal as cholesterol is essential to life, and only becomes a problem when it’s damaged by oxidation and inflammation. Look at the website TheNNT.com (NNT stands for “number needed to treat”). The site, started by a group of physicians, and grounded in high-quality studies, reveals the efficacy, or lack thereof, of a bunch of meds, including statins. Search different medications and you’ll see how few people are really helped by the standard meds. Statins, for instance, offer no statistically significant increase in life span, and only 1 in 217 people taking them avoids a nonfatal heart attack—whereas everyone taking them runs the risk of serious side effects.
There is definitely a place for Statins in the treatment of heart disease, but these drugs are handed out like candy and I believe, should be used much more judiciously. Avoid them if you can, and if not, go for the absolute lowest dose possible, and be sure to take a high quality CoQ10 supplement as well to counteract some of the drugs’ deleterious effects on muscles and brain function.
Side effects: Muscle pain, headaches, increased risk of developing diabetes, potential memory loss.
Getting off them: Speak to your doctor before stopping as abruptly quitting can have extremely dangerous effects.
What to try instead: Reduce – and ideally eliminate – sugar and junk food; increase exercise.
To learn more about how statins can mess with your system, check out How the Side Effects of Many Drugs are Wrongly Assumed to be the Consequences of Aging
The names you know: Advil, Motrin, Aleve, Celebrex, Naprosyn
Efficacy: These drugs are effective for pain relief and acute inflammation but are meant for short-term use only. Many people use them for long stretches and have the side effects to show for it.
Side effects: Long-term use can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke; may cause all sorts of gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, leaky gut, and microbiome imbalances. They can also trigger kidney trouble, liver inflammation, anemia, rashes, and allergic reactions.
Getting off them: You can safely stop them anytime, although if you are psychologically hooked, you may want to taper off over time with these as well.
What to try instead: Taming inflammation with CBD, curcumin, fish oil, bodywork, acupuncture, physical therapy, exercise.
To get smarter about the behaviors, foods and habits that tamp down inflammation, check out 17 Ways to Tame Inflammation.
When it comes to severe depression, antidepressants can be effective and are likely necessary. But for mild depression, studies show that these drugs are no better than a placebo. For moderate depression, they’re somewhat effective, but research suggests that exercise is even more effective.
If you’re in the latter two groups (mild or moderate depression) and you want to take yourself off the meds, please do so under the close supervision of a doctor and taper slowly. Many people experience a dramatic rebound effect coming off SSRI antidepressants (Prozac, Lexapro, Paxil, and others). They stop taking the meds and feel really terrible, then think they must have been more depressed than they realized, so they go back on. But the effect is just temporary. The body just needs time to level off. That’s why it’s important to have the help of a doctor to guide you through the process.
Obviously, antibiotics can be life-saving, but they’re also massively overused, which can lead to antibiotic resistance. Remember also that most run-of-the-mill ills like sore throats and sinus infections are viral in origin and antibiotics only work against bacteria, one more reason not to take them unless it’s absolutely necessary. Antibiotics also kill off many types of good bacteria in the gut as well, which can wreak havoc on your microbiome, sometimes with long-term health consequences.