Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Soapbox: Take This...and Call Me in the Morning

It's a strange world we live in. Pharmaceuticals seem to have become larger-than-life cure-alls that we all must take. Since prescription drugs have been allowed TV advertising space, we are bombarded daily with "ask your doctor for this drug" ads. It doesn't matter if you have something as simple as *ahem* constipation, you must have a drug for it. They use words like "chronic" to convince you that if you have something happen more than a couple of times, well, you should be on a drug for that.

My husband's uncle has some new and rather serious health problems. When I first met him, just a year ago, he was on hardly any medication. In his early 70s, he seemed to be getting around quite well. Now, he is on 15 medications. Some new drug they gave him had several side effects. I guess the doctors didn't want to take him off the drug, so they started layering up other drugs to fight the side effects of the first one. Throw a few leeches on him, while you're at it, doc...

While I'm not making light of our uncle's health problems, I am making light of the industry. How can I not? They frighten us with these ads, or they promise robust health from a little pill. It's all about marketing. As always, the risks are in small print or are spoken about rapidly (and vaguely) over images of butterflies, people riding bikes in the sun, or couples dancing. It's enough to make me sick!

I have been put on some medications in the past two years to lower my cholesterol. Mind you, my cholesterol numbers would have been considered fine a few years ago, but Big Pharma and the Machine lobbied to reduce the cholesterol numbers and ratios, as well as the "optimal" blood pressure readings. The result? More customers for them. Every cholesterol-lowering med I took gave me the very serious side effect of pancreatitis. I would immediately stop the drug and notify my cardiologist, of course. Never mind the money that I and my insurance carrier had just paid for the little bottles of poison. Now I worry that my pancreas may have sustained some damage as a result. There is no way to know right now. Have to wait and see.

The best things I did for my health didn't come in bottles (mostly).
  1. Lost weight. 60 lbs. I used a commercial diet plan to do so, because I needed very strict control and something that was easy to stick with. It worked.
  2. Exercised. This one hasn't been so easy in the last 6 months because of back problems, but I'm working on that. Starting physical therapy soon.
  3. Ate healthier. More plants and protein, less starches.
  4. Took a supplement that is the dehydrated juice (and some pulp) of fruits and vegetables. The only "fractionated, isolated" vitamin I take is vitamin D. My sisters both have severe vitamin D deficiencies that have caused them to have to take shots and prescription vitamin D strengths, so I see it as an ounce of prevention.
The thing that got me on my soapbox about all of this is one of those single-page informative articles in a Reader's Digest I picked up. I don't normally read that magazine, but they had an article about improving your sleep (without drugs) that I wanted to read. The article described the health benefits of a "new" compound scientists have discovered - resveratrol. (Mind you, it isn't new to me. I attended some health conferences a few years ago and learned about this compound and its beneficial properties). It is found in the skins of certain berries (blueberries, pomegranate seeds, red grapes...) and is produced by the plant to fight off bacteria and fungi. In humans, it seems to have an anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-aging effect. Other than eating the fruits, you can drink red wine and receive a healthy boost of the substance. Since I can't drink red wine (due to migraines), I get my dose from blueberries and red grapes as well as from the above mentioned juice supplements.

What did the article specifically say? "Nutritional supplements have not been shown to have any effect." They don't cite any studies that refuted the supplements, of course. There are many supplements out there of varied types and strengths. They also didn't say anything about how much red wine or grapes or berries would be beneficial. They did say that Big Pharma has a pill in development right now that could be to market in as little as 5 years!

So we're going to be taking a pill based on science that will probably have some serious side effects when we could just enjoy nature's bounty and get a better benefit. Hmm....

Hippocrates said, "Let food be thy medicine." Indeed.

With all of that being said, I want to also say that some medications do make our lives better. I consider my anti-depressants to be life-saving medications. I could have easily become a statistic without them. Other medications help me deal with the detritus of modern life (something for acid reflux, for example, because of my busy life, stress, and rushed eating habits, I'm sure). And my pain medication helps roll back the clock on my spinal problems.

Right now, for example, I'm taking a rather strong painkiller every evening. It is extended release, so it keeps the pain away for a good long time. Since starting on it, I've been able to reduce - almost completely - the need for fast-acting painkillers. But I have a real love-hate relationship with all of these meds. They all have a risk of dependency and can cause big problems. They have some nasty side effects; the trick is to find the one you can tolerate the best and go with that. My body often becomes allergic to a medication after I've been on it for awhile. It's like my body says, "Enough! Leave me alone already!"

This little dose, though, has made a significant change in my life. Despite the night sweats, despite the irregularity, despite the irritability, despite the dry mouth, I am better. Yesterday I didn't even blog because I felt like I haven't felt in years. I tackled my closet. You can actually walk in to my walk-in closet again. I tackled some tasks in the garage. I cleaned the kitchen (twice, thanks to my "kids" who should be cleaning up after themselves). I went shopping. I actually sat down and had the financial health talk with my husband (which we've been meaning to do). I did all of the laundry. At around noon, I realized that I had been up since 6 a.m. and had been going pretty much non-stop. I was stunned.

So I grappled with, "What do I do about this?"

I asked because I'd been thinking of going off the meds due to the side effects. I talked to my best friend, who lives in Asheville, N.C., and who is a lab tech. She is also a no-nonsense woman from the South who, like me, believes in food. I put the question to her. What do I do, when the medication is delivering near-miraculous improvement but with a heavy dose of side effects?

She said, "Well, what the hell did they do before all these medications? Eat some prunes and drink lots of water. Kick the covers off (and hey, are you sure it's the medication? You're no spring chicken, you know). Use that irritability to get those kids moving."

Damn smart woman, she is. She pointed out the obvious to me. Let the drug do its job, but treat it with caution and use nature to fight the side effects.

In summary, I suppose I'm saying that many of these drugs have their place and have made life better. Others are made simply to treat problems associated with modern life and poor nutrition. How many people are hoping that medicine finally finds an anti-fat pill when in fact diet and exercise have more far-reaching benefits than just a lower number on the scale?

We have created Big Pharma and now they are a gigantic, bloated entity that wants to take us farther from what nature intended and farther toward an imperfect chemical soup to treat the normal and abnormal effects of life concurrently.

Don't eat the apple; take this array of vitamins instead. We think we've isolated what makes an apple good for you. Oh, and now you'll need to add some fiber, so stir this into your stew. Got gas now? Take this pill. Oops, did that stop the train? Take this one - or this one if your train is chronically stuck at the station. Did that give you a runaway train? Take this. Got a headache from the other pills? Take this.

Where does it end, I want to know?



Max-e said...

Hi Momma, this is an interesting post. You are so right about the all these drugs on the market, some have there place others are questionable. Just read the direction slips to see the horrible side effects. The sleeping tablets I was given after my by-pass surgery actually caused respiratory problems - they were allso more like a stimulant than a sleeping tablet for me.
When my daughter was 10 the doctor prescribed one anti biotic after aonther for what seemed to be a chronic chest and sinus problem.
I eventually got a printout of the drugs that had been prescribed and was horrified. We changed doctors and within days found out she had a gluten allergy.
What has revolutionised my eating habits is a book by Sally Creed, a Cape Town nutritionist called "Let Food be Your Medicine".
I think the reduction in my cholesterol level has been a combination of drugs and diet.
I am on Crestor for cholesterol, and it does not appear to have had any side effects - after your experience I think I will read the D slip, which to my shame I have not yet done.

Josie said...

Omigoodness, what a great post. It is something I struggle with as well. Food is medicine, no doubt about that. In North America, especially, we have forgotten how to eat nutritiously. So then we get sick and take pills. The pharmaceutical companies in America are huge.

I discovered quite by accident that eating a few grapes, with a small slice of aged cheddar cheese before I got to sleep really helps me sleep. Now I know why! Who knew!

I work in a hospital setting, and I know that diseases like tuberculosis, etc., have been cured by medications. But these are extreme diseases and medications help, and especially for folks who have depression as well. You are a walking miracle because of your medications. I think the answer is to learn to walk the fine line between necessary and extreme. And that is something about which we have to educate ourselves. It's up to us to do the research.

Great post!

KathyLikesPink said...

You're spot on. Those drug ads drive me crazy! People are self-diagnosing and then asking the doctor for a specific drug. And those magazine ads for the drugs, followed by 3 pages of tine fine print with all the things that can go wrong. Scary.

CrazyCath said...

Hi Momma - I couldn't agree more. I think that a lot of natural remedies are overlooked, and I don't necessarily mean the ones in the herbalist (although they have their benefits too). I mean the healthy, nutritional diet as you say. And lifestyle.

And I like that you have offered a very balanced viewpoint. Some medicines ARE needed. I need mine - but I do wonder sometimes if I need ALL of them.

Thanks for a great and thought provoking post.

Baroness von Bloggenschtern said...

Well said. Where DOES it all end?

Momma said...

Thanks, all, for your comments.

There is definitely a fine line we have to walk, and often it is up to us to find and walk that line. As Dr. Smug at JHU recently said to me, "We're doctors. We write prescriptions. It's what we do." (I won't get into the whole thing about him. It's in my posts from late March). I always thought of doctors as wanting to treat and cure illness. That doesn't always mean more medication.

Peace - D

kimmy said...

Thanks for the comment on my blog the other day! It is always nice to "see a new face".

Have a great Monday!


david mcmahon said...

So I've always wondered - what EXACTLY is the oath of Hippocrates - ^&*(()(&#@ !!!!!!

Coal Miner's Granddaughter said...

I, too, get tired of all the pharmaceutical ads on TV and in magazines. It drives me crazy that we're supposed to ask our doctors about a medication we saw on TV that never stated what it's used for! Every damned time I go to my doctor, there are the pharmaceutical reps, ubiquitous black suitcases full of samples in tow. I just want to smack them. I hate that instead of allowing our children to simply be children, we're diagnosing them as ADHD and medicating them so they'll be quiet and not bothersome.

I don't know, hon. I don't know if it'll ever end. Great post!

Maggie May said...

You have "hit the nail on the head" with this post!
I really think we are being over medicated just for profit!
Difficult to strike the balance though. Some medications are life savers. Guess we have to recognize the difference between neglecting to take medication & not overly getting hooked on stuff we don't need!

Momma said...

Kimmy - Thanks, and I hope to see you around here more often.

CMGD - Oh, I'm with you on the ADHD thing. They just kept trying to get me to put my son on medication. I didn't think it would be good for him to be medicated growing up. His biggest problem was that he was bored. He was so far ahead of his peers, intellectually, that he was grindingly bored. We later found out that he has Asperger's Syndrome. Not ADHD.

David - Love seeing you pop in on my blog. And I'm sure Hippocrates had some great oaths when he dropped a stone tablet on his toes!

Maggie - That's the key, my dear. Strike a balance and be an informed consumer. It's hard to do, but we must try.

Peace - D

Ornery's Wife said...

Came from David McMahon's blog.

Just wanted to say I agree wholeheartedly with your post. There is no end, and will be no end until we take matters of health into our own hands. The days of blind trust when we go to our physician should be long gone.

I heard not long ago that they have actually discovered a natural cure for cancer that takes care of almost every variety. The pharma-suits have not been able to duplicate this natural substance into a synthetic one for marketing, so we continue to die of this insidious disease. Very sad.

Great post!

Jennifer H said...

I know I'm coming late into this discussion, but you've made so many excellent points in this post.

Have you heard the news lately about how our water supply is being contaminated with pharmaceuticals, since that's one thing that our water treatment facilities are unable to remove from the water?

My father has heart issues and diabetes, and he takes so many medications every day. Yes, they keep him alive, but all of the side effects are crazy.

Thanks for writing this.

aims said...

I take multiple painkillers for my chronic back pain. And I hate it! And most of all - they don't help! I'm still in pain. So much now that my doctor said he couldn't help me any further and I needed to go to a pain clinic. This is where they take you off of your pain meds and give you a spinal block. Hmmm...

Any chance of you emailing me the name of that wonder drug you're taking for your back? I'd certainly appreciate it! I'm at my wits end!

Daryl E said...

Oh momma! I feel your pain, literally. Getting older sucks. Having to rely on meds to feel better sucks. But, as my late father would say, the alternative sucks more.

Momma said...

ornery's wife - Welcome to my blog! I'm glad you stopped by. There are many naturally occuring substances that aren't that profitable, so they aren't sanctioned by the medical community. For example, my husband takes Red Yeast Rice (a Chinese compound) to combat his high cholesterol. It works and doesn't damage his liver. We get it at GNC.

Jennifer H - The whole thing about the water supply scares me. Who knows how much this is affecting our kids? Maybe it isn't a coincidence that girls are blossoming at a younger age?

aims - I sent you a message on your blog.

Daryl E - I know you do feel my pain. Back problems are the worst. They affect every aspect of your life. I'm just happy to be getting around better the last few days.

Peace - D

Catmoves said...

Hi Momma. Found you through David's blog.
You are so right about the drug companies and their incessant advertising.
I understand that drugs are not allowed to advertised in Canada. And that drugs are a lot cheaper there. Hmmmmm.
Wrote to my Senators and Representative about ending the drug ads in this country. They will all "get back" to me. That was a year and a half ago. But at least they thanked me for writing.