There is nothing “side” about side effects—they are the direct result of the drugs.
— Christiane Northrup, M.D.
Updated July 2016
In Western Medicine, drugs are created to treat symptoms as opposed to the root cause of the condition. If you only suppress your symptoms, instead of also addressing the cause, your body will often protest by developing so-called “side effects” to medication—or even by developing another dis-ease. This is how our bodies talk to us. But, there is nothing “side” about side effects—they are the direct result of the drugs.
Many of the most popular drugs being prescribed for millions have significant side effects that just don’t outweigh the risks. There are four drugs, which are frequently prescribed to women, that fall into this category—and which I personally would not take.
Statins for Heart Health
Statin drugs are prescribed to lower cholesterol. And the myth is that lowering cholesterol is the key to preventing heart disease. But the latest research has shown that things are far more complex than that. The truth is that statins deplete the body’s CoEnzyme Q10 (CoQ10)—a vital nutrient for producing energy in the cells.1 Of all the organs, the heart requires the most energy and CoQ10 to function properly. So why take a medication for heart health that depletes a vital nutrient shown to support the heart—as well as every cell in your body?
Importance of CoQ10
Low levels of CoQ10 have also been linked to depression and dementia, as well as muscle weakness, fatigue, pain, and nerve damage—all of which are also known side effects of statins.2 And because your body makes less CoQ10 as you age, taking any medication that lowers CoQ10 is not advisable. Further, fat—and fat in the form of cholesterol—has been vilified as the enemy of a health heart. Actually, sugar is the real culprit, not fat, because sugar causes inflammation. And this inflammation taxes the cardiovascular system and the entire body.
How to Protect Your Heart
If you want to protect your heart, start by reducing inflammation. This means a healthy diet and supplements that are high in antioxidants. Taking vitamin E has been shown to keep blood platelets slippery (so fewer blood clots) and reduce inflammation.3 (See The Wisdom of Menopause for a complete list of heart-healthy supplements and foods.)
Heart health also has an emotional component. If you want to truly heal your heart—or protect it at midlife—you need courage to look closely at any source of emotional pain, and then heal this brokenness with compassion, faith in the Divine, and emotional release. You were meant to have an open heart—to give and receive love, and to live joyfully.
Bisphosphonate Drugs for Bone Loss
Your body is constantly renewing itself. Older or damaged cells are eliminated by the body, so that newer, healthier cells can take their place. Your bones go through this cycle, too. If you have decreased bone mass, that means that your body is breaking down bone faster than it is creating new bone.
Treating Lower Bone Density with Bisphosphonates
The most popular treatment for lower bone density is a bisphosphonate, such as Actonel, Boniva, or Fosomax. These medications prevent bone breakdown and therefore bone loss. Although this sounds like a good idea, these drugs interfere with the natural cycle of breakdown and restoration.4 The result is older, porous, brittle bone—and brittle bone means an increased likelihood of fractures.5
Side Effects of Bisphosphonates
Bisphosphonates have significant side effects, too, including back pain, joint pain, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, and constipation.6 And some women have suffered osteonecrosis of the jaw—death of bone tissue—a condition that is not treatable7 We’re also seeing atypical fractures of the femur that don’t heal! All because of dense bone that doesn’t remodel and allow in a good blood supply. Many dentists are also seeing an increasing need for root canal surgery because of these drugs.
About 50 percent of women prescribed a biphosphonate will stop treatment because of these side effects.
Even with these side effects, bisphosphonates may offer some benefit for women over 70 who already have osteoporosis. But I want you to protect your bones much earlier than that! And that means promoting bone health naturally.
Promote Bone Health Naturally
Be sure to get plenty of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. (Studies suggest that to keep your vitamin D levels in the optimal range requires 5,000 IU/day!)
I also suggest eating an alkaline diet, getting plenty of weight-bearing exercise, and considering bioidentical hormones or plant hormones (phytoestrogens) that have estrogenic effects.
Premarin, Prempro, and All Other Synthetic Hormones
I’ve been talking about bioidentical hormones for nearly three decades. And it still surprises me when women — and doctors — don’t know the difference between bioidentical hormones and synthetic ones.
Bioidentical hormones are created to be an exact match in molecular structure to a woman’s body. That is what makes them “bioidentical.”
In contrast, non-bioidentical (synthetic) estrogen, such as the estrogen in Premarin, is bioidentical only if your native food is hay. That’s because it is made from the urine of pregnant horses. Hence the name Pre (pregnant) Mar (mares) in (urine).
Progestin is a synthetic form of progesterone that is derived from bioidentical progesterone. The reason for this is that you can’t patent a bioidentical hormone that naturally occurs in nature. And so—to make progesterone marketable—it was changed into a compound not native to the female human body.
For about two decades, Premarin (just estrogen) and Prempro (Premarin plus Provera, a synthetic form of progesterone) were the gold standard for many doctors. And the one-pill-fits-all-women approach was the only option women were given. Then, in 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative Studies showed that women who supplemented with synthetic estrogen or Progestin had more incidences of breast cancer, heart attack, stroke, and blood clots than those who were given a placebo. Once thought to confer heart health and other benefits, women suddenly became wary of these drugs. 9
The best approach for hormone therapy is one that is unique to you. Women can have their levels of estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, testosterone, and other hormones tested. Or simply pay attention to how you feel — which I find is a far more accurate way to assess hormone balance than testing your levels. The results (and how you feel) allow you and your doctor to customize a treatment plan that is right for you.
Start with the lowest dose possible and see how you do.
Better yet, change your diet to a low sugar, organic food approach. Add a natural herbal remedy such as Pueraria mirifica, maca, black cohosh, ground golden flaxseed, or chasteberry. And if that doesn’t work, then try the bioidenticals.
Remember that hormone therapy can take a few trials and errors. It’s a work in progress — just like you are at menopause.
You aren’t destined to wind up on various preventative medications. My mom is in her 90s and she isn’t on any medication! Neither is my doctor friend Gladys who likes to say “93 and prescription free.” Before you take any medications regularly, make sure you are informed about all the risks and benefits. Does the drug cause nutritional deficiencies? Are you increasing your risk of cancer or heart disease? If so, seek out some alternatives that won’t put your health at risk.
What You Need To Know About “Safe Drugs” — The Numbers!
Every drug that you are prescribed or can purchase over-the-counter goes through randomized controlled trials to determine its benefits. The measurement used to determine treatment benefits is called the number needed to treat, or NNT.
Number Needed to Treat (NNT)
The number needed to treat refers to the number of patients who need to be treated in order to prevent one bad outcome, such as heart attack or stroke. So, if a drug has an NNT of 10, it means you have to treat 10 people with the drug to prevent one person from having a bad outcome. The ideal NNT is 1. This means that every patient who is treated will benefit. But, this is hardly ever the case with drugs. In fact, the NNT for many drugs is often very high.
Number Needed to Harm (NNH)
Another number you need to know is the NNH — or number needed to harm. This indicates how many patients need to be exposed to a risk factor for it to cause harm to one patient who would not otherwise have been harmed. The lower the NNH, the worse the risk factor.
Studies reported by The NNT.com on statins given over a five-year period to people with no known heart disease is a good example of why you need to be aware of the NNT and NNH for any drug. Over 5 years, the NNT for statins showed that no patients had their lives saved. In addition, only one patient in 104 had a heart attack prevented, and only 1 in 154 had a stroke prevented. However, these same studies showed that 1 in 100 were harmed because they developed diabetes as a direct result of stains, and 1 in 10 developed muscle damage as a direct result!
The report on statins also summarizes that the risk of harm may still be underestimated and that diet and lifestyle interventions are substantially more powerful than medication in protecting your heart and preventing heart attacks and stokes– something I have been saying for decades!
You can also look to NNT for some popular non-drug therapies. For example, The NNT.com reports that 95% patients with infectious diarrhea who were given probiotics had the duration of their diarrhea decreased by 25 hours where the duration of the control group was between 2-7 days. Probiotics also decreased the proportion of patients with diarrhea lasting longer than 4 days from 45% to 19%. This means there is an NNT of 4. Finally, there were no adverse effects reported. So a NNH of 0!
For more information on NNT, you can go to the NNT.com therapy review page and look up therapy reviews by specialty. Use this to help you determine whether a drug is right for you.
One More Drug I Won’t Take — Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid
It is estimated that over 15 million Americans use proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs, to treat heartburn, acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or peptic ulcers. PPIs, including Prilosec, Prevacid and Nexium, are often prescribed as a first line of treatment because they reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces.
PPIs are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world – and some of the most dangerous because most people have no idea how many vital roles stomach acid plays in our bodies. And the Catch-22 of these drugs is that when you stop taking them, the amount of acid your stomach releases surges, causing your symptoms to worsen.
Here’s why I won’t take PPIs:
- Increases Your Risk of Bacterial Overgrowth. Your stomach acid is what keeps harmful bacteria, such as H Pylori and many others, in check.
- Impairs Your Ability to Absorb Nutrients. You need stomach acid to absorb nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin B12, from food.
- Causes Magnesium Deficiency. With a calcium imbalance, some people experience magnesium deficiency along with leg cramps, and muscle weakness.
- Puts You at Risk for Osteoporosis. Some studies show that long-term PPI use can put you at risk for osteoporosis.
- Weakens Your Immune System. Your bowel wall contains nearly two-thirds of your body’s immune defenses. You need a healthy bowel with enough acid to keep harmful microorganism and toxins from reaching other organs in your body. If you constantly take PPIs, you are changing the ecology of your gut. This can ultimately affect your immunity, putting you at risk for diseases such as cancer and dementia.
My Tips for Eliminating Heartburn, GERD and Other Acid-related Problems
Making lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, cutting back on alcohol and caffeine, and eliminating food triggers, can go a long way towards healing acid-related problems.
Here are my 5 tips:
1. Try an Elimination Diet
Food triggers – such as gluten, corn, soy and others –may be the cause of your discomfort. Try eliminating suspected food triggers, as well as alcohol and caffeine, for 30 days. Be sure to eliminate all forms of sugar! Include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and high-quality protein sources. Also be sure to drink lots of fresh water. Add foods back one at a time to determine if a suspected food is the cause of your problem.
2. Take a Hydrochloric Acid Supplement
Most acid-related symptoms are caused by too little acid, not too much. Try adding a hydrochloric acid (HCL) supplement. You can get these in health food stores. You can also try digestive enzymes. Look for a ph-balanced full spectrum formula such as Wobenzym. Finally, try adding a good-quality sea salt.
3. Add a Probiotic
Probiotics can help restore your gut if you have been taking PPIs. Once your gut is restored, it will be able to destroy harmful bacteria, such as H Pylori.
4. Get Off the Antacids
I also do not recommend long term use of antacids such as TUMS, Mylanta or Pepto–Bismol or H2 receptor blockers, such as Zantac, Pepcid, and Tagamet! If you need to take one, make sure it does not contain aluminum as these can cause constipation, and may reduce phosphate levels, which can result in fatigue and loss of appetite (not to mention that aluminum consumption may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.)
Some antacids contain magnesium hydroxide, which can cause diarrhea. Antacids made from calcium carbonate (like Tums) can cause acid rebound over time and may also contribute to kidney problems.
5. Listen to Your Gut
Your gut health and your emotions are so closely linked. Listen and learn what your gut is trying to tell you. Butterflies or nausea are often your inner wisdom speaking to you. Keep a journal of your symptoms to help you determine what factors may be associated with your symptoms. And remember, while no drug is 100 percent safe, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take one if you need it. But you should continually weigh the risks and benefits.
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- Stampfer, M.J., et al. (1993). Vitamin E consumption and the risk of coronary artery disease in women. New Engl J Med, 328 20), 1444-1449.
- Odvina, C.V., et al. (2004). Severely suppressed bone turnover: A potential complication of alendronate therapy. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 90, 1294-1301.
- Parker-Pope, T. (July, 15 2008) Drugs to buil bones may weaken them. New York Times, available online www.nytimes.com/2008/07/15/health/15well.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss National Osteoporosis Foundation, http://nof.org/articles/22
- Ruggiero, S.L. et al. (2004). Ostenecrosisof the jaws associated witht the use of bisphosphonates: A review of 63 cases. J Oral Maxillofacial Surg. 62, 527-534.
- Neviaser, A.S., et al. (2008). Low-energy femoral shaft fractures associated with alendronate use. J Orthop Trauma, 22, 346-350.
- Writing Group for the Women’s Health Initiative Investigators (2002). Risks and benefits of estrogen plus progestin in healthy postmenopausal women: Principal result from the Women’s Health Initiative randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 288, 327-333.