Drugs comprise the major treatment modality of scientific medicine. According to data from the CDC, nearly half of Americans take at least one prescription drug regularly for chronic health problems. (1) Sadly, many people don’t realize that the drugs they’re taking could be making their condition worse.
Most drugs don’t cure illness. They just suppress symptoms. Unfortunately, drugs also suppress functions.
The Problem with Prescription Drugs
For example, many people take ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to cope with arthritis and inflammatory conditions. While NSAIDs are effective in reducing pain and inflammation in the short-term, they are also known to reduce blood flow to cartilage. Since blood carries all of the nutrients and immune substance necessary for tissue repair, NSAIDs can actually worsen the original problem when taken chronically.
The second problem is that, by definition, drugs correct a specific imbalance by causing at least one other and often several other imbalances. When a drug is introduced into the body to address a malfunction in one biochemical pathway, that drug inevitably interacts with many other pathways.
The mapping of these pathways in recent genetic research underscores the danger of pharmaceutical drugs. The diagram below shows the interactions among a small set of cellular proteins found in a fruit fly. Proteins encased in ovals are grouped according to specific pathway functions. Connecting lines indicate protein-protein interactions. Protein interconnections among the different pathways reveal how interfering with one protein may produce profound “side effects” upon other related pathways. (2)
Complicating the phenomenon of so-called “side effects” is that biological systems are redundant. The same protein molecule may be used in several different systems of the body, but it has a completely different function in each of them.
Histamine is a perfect example of this. Histamine is a chemical that initiates the cell’s stress response. When histamine is present in the bloodstream of the arms and legs, it starts a local inflammatory reaction in those tissues. But if histamine is present in the blood vessels of the brain, it enhances the growth and function of specialized neurons there.
One of the most amazing features of the body’s signaling system is its specificity. When you have a poison oak rash on your arm, histamine is released in that specific area only to activate an inflammatory response to the allergen. Likewise, if you’re under significant stress, histamine is released only in the brain to enhance the function of neurons.
It affects histamine receptors wherever they are located throughout the whole body. So, while the antihistamine will curb the blood vessels’ inflammatory response and reduce the allergic symptoms of the rash, it will also enter the brain and affect nerve function—which causes drowsiness.
The recent hormone replacement therapy (HRT) debacle is a tragic example of the inherent risks of pharmaceutical drugs. Estrogen is best known for its function on the female reproductive system. However, more recent studies have shown that estrogen also plays an important role in the normal function of blood vessels, the heart and the brain. That’s why synthetic estrogen hormones that were prescribed to alleviate menopausal symptoms ended up causing cardiovascular disease and neural dysfunctions such as strokes.
Another Problem with Prescription Drugs: Money and Conflicts of Interest
Massive conflicts of interest frequently exist between researchers, doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. and abroad. Studies funded by pharmaceutical companies are more likely to show positive results for the drug, and the veracity of clinical trials (which are the basis of approval of new drugs by the FDA) has been questioned because of three major flaws: (3)
- Conflicts of interest on the part of researchers and investigators
- Inappropriate involvement of research sponsors (drug companies) in study design and management
- Publication bias in disseminating results (if a study has negative results, the drug company doesn’t publish it)
When researchers fail to disclose their financial conflicts of interest, it can lead to catastrophic results. For example, consider Dr. Joseph Biederman, a world-renowned child psychiatrist at Harvard. Dr. Biederman accepted at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007, but did not disclose any of this income to Harvard University officials. Dr. Biederman’s work directly contributed to a dramatic increase in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder and a concurrent rise in the use of powerful antipsychotic medicines in children. This is highly problematic when you consider that children are susceptible to weight gain and metabolic problems caused by the antipsychotic drugs used to treat pediatric bipolar disorder, and when you consider evidence suggesting that these drugs may cause permanent changes to the structure and function of the brain. (4, 5)
The research of Dr. Biederman’s group, which has served as the basis for the rise in bipolar diagnoses and antipsychotic use in children, has been widely criticized by other psychiatrists and researchers. More broadly, psychiatrists have said that revelations of undisclosed payments from drug makers to leading researchers are especially damaging for psychiatry.
“The price we pay for these kinds of revelations is credibility, and we just can’t afford to lose any more of that in this field,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which finances psychiatric studies. “In the area of child psychiatry in particular, we know much less than we should, and we desperately need research that is not influenced by industry money.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The Number of Americans Who Take Prescription Drugs
As I mentioned above, nearly half of Americans take prescription drugs regularly. (1) In fact, according to the CDC:
- More than 48 percent of those surveyed used at least one prescription drug within the last 30 days
- Twenty-four percent used three or more
- Nearly 13 percent used a whopping five or more
Drug therapy is involved in nearly 74 percent of physician office visits and in more than 80 percent of visits to hospital emergency departments.
Many of the most commonly prescribed drugs (like statins and proton pump inhibitors or PPIs, for example) reveal a weakness of the mainstream medical model: its tendency to treat the symptom or effect of an illness rather than the cause. Unfortunately for patients, doing this can actually make things worse, not better. Functional Medicine, by contrast, addresses the root cause of an illness instead of simply suppressing symptoms with drugs. You can find out more about this medical paradigm in my article “What Is Functional Medicine?”
Major changes are definitely needed in the way we manage health in this country, but luckily, we don’t have to wait around for that to happen. As individuals, we can take responsibility for our own health using diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes, and we can take action to reduce stress and promote emotional and psychological well-being. And, when we’re struggling to make those changes or address underlying health conditions, we can seek the support of a trained health coach or Functional Medicine practitioner.