Chances are you know an addict. The person may not be addicted to an illegal substance like heroin or cocaine. In fact, it’s far more likely that you know someone who is addicted to a perfectly legal prescription medication — and probably doesn’t even know it.
You may find this shocking — I know I do — but the truth is, although most of us associate drug abuse with illegal substances, the majority of addicts today are simply people who have become dependent on medications like tranquilizers, antidepressants, stimulants, or sleep aids. It’s a rare day when I don’t see a patient who is asking for something a little stronger, because the original prescription just isn’t working any longer. I hear this many times from patients who insist, “But the other doctor told me to take it. How could it be bad?”
Warning Signs of Drug Dependency
- Needing to increase the dosage of a medication, particularly a pain reliever, to achieve the same effect
- Missing work, neglecting responsibilities, or having legal difficulties
- Avoiding people or situations that may interfere with taking drugs
- Rationalizing the drug problem or denying it completely
How Getting Hooked Happens
Addiction rates in this country are at an all-time high, largely because the pharmaceutical industry has helped create millions of substance-dependent individuals who physically and/or psychologically rely on medication. For example, patients who are dealing with pain, emotional difficulties, and/or sleep problems may experience not just relief from symptoms but a comforting “high” as well. Achieving the high, however, often becomes more difficult when drug tolerance sets in and requires increasing amounts of the medication.
In other instances, quitting a drug is next to impossible without professional help. Certain antidepressants and antianxiety medications can cause serious withdrawal symptoms that sometimes require hospitalization.
Let me make one thing very clear: If this topic is uncomfortable because it applies to you or someone you care about, please do not feel ashamed or guilty.
Addiction to or dependence on prescription medication is not your fault, and you should not feel like you’re a bad person or you’ve failed somehow. Many doctors do not have the time to discuss all the ins and outs of specific medications with each patient. Nor do they always ask if a patient has addiction issues before writing a prescription. And in all fairness, oftentimes patients don’t have an addiction problem before starting certain drugs.
But clever direct-to-consumer advertising, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) permitted in 2000, has created millions of consumers/patients who are convinced the solution to their problems is inside a prescription drug bottle. Unfortunately, as I’ve said here many times, the vast majority of prescription drugs treat the symptoms, not the real problem. And the drugs often have serious side effects, including things like memory loss, weakness, dizziness, nausea, weight gain, vision and hearing difficulties, nutrient depletion, and much more.
If you feel you may be having a problem with one or more of your medications, please don’t blame yourself, but do read on. There are many helpful options available.
What Addiction Means
There are various definitions of addiction, which usually include these elements:
- An uncontrollable desire for the pleasant effects of a substance, despite adverse consequences
- An overwhelming need to avoid the painful effects of withdrawal
- A psychological dependence that creates the feeling of panic or desperation when the substance is not available
Addiction is extremely common today, and frequently used drugs (including caffeine [the most popular drug in the world], alcohol, and tobacco) play only a small role. Gambling, fast food, the Internet, shopping, video games, indoor tanning, exercise, or devices like the Blackberry (or “Crackberry,” as one patient calls it) have all proven to raise the levels of endorphins or other feel-good chemicals released by the brain. So even though there are no drugs or other substances involved, addiction can happen.
When Prescriptions Go Wrong
One of the trickiest addictions to identify and treat involves prescription medication. As a patient I’ll call Bert discovered, just because a doctor gives you a prescription doesn’t mean the substance is harmless or nonaddictive.
And it may take some time for the drug to become a problem. Initially, patients may find relief from symptoms with the prescribed dosage. But since the actual cause of the ailment is not being addressed, the symptoms don’t really go away. So just as a light drinker with a sleep problem may find that it takes an ever-increasing amount of alcohol to get to sleep, people taking pain or sleep medication often develop a tolerance to the drugs and end up needing far more than the recommended dose.
Increasing dosage to overcome tolerance is bad enough. But there’s another situation that’s even worse — mixing medications with alcohol or other drugs. There’s no way to tell what will happen if you take a Valium with cold or flu medication and then down a drink or two. Add to it the fact that each of us metabolizes differently, so a combination that is harmless for one person may prove lethal for another, as the glaring tabloid headlines often remind us. The problem is especially serious for the elderly, who often see multiple doctors and have to manage five, ten, or more prescriptions and the side effects that go with them.
How to Handle Substance Abuse
So what should you do if you suspect you or someone you know has a drug-dependency problem? First, I suggest speaking with the prescribing doctor. If the individual is taking a highly addictive medication, such as Vicodin, Valium, or another (benzodiazepine, for example), ask the doctor about safer alternatives. If you would like to quit taking a drug, your physician should be able to help through a process called titration, which steadily decreases the dose until it’s safe to quit completely. Stopping any drug suddenly — a process sometimes called cold turkey — is not recommended.
Meanwhile, you can build the foundation for improved health with the following steps:
Add a multivitamin: Take a quality multivitamin daily, if you don’t do so already, because many drugs deplete the body of essential nutrients.
Upgrade your diet: Be sure to eat nutritious whole foods, focusing on vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and whole grains. Choose organic food whenever possible.
Drink more water: Drink at least eight glasses of fresh, filtered water daily.
Get adequate sleep: Make certain you’re getting sufficient deep, restful sleep each night. There are many effective combination remedies for insomnia, including herbs such as valerian, hops, and passionflower, as well as natural sleep aids, such as melatonin (I recommend 2 mg for women, 3 for men, before bedtime).
Take brain-supportive supplements: Consider taking supplements that support healthy brain neurotransmitter production or that relieve stress.
Look into the following:
- Magnesium (400 mg daily)
- 5-HTP (100 to 400 mg daily)
- 7-Keto (100 mg twice daily)
- Tyrosine (500 mg up to three times daily)
- L-theanine (200 mg once daily)
- DL-phenylalanine (750 mg twice daily, preferably at breakfast and lunch) — individuals with a rare disorder known as phenylketonuria (PKU) should not use phenylalanine
- Purified fish oil containing about twice as much DHA as EPA (1,000 mg twice daily)
- B complex (search for a balanced formula containing at least 50 mg of the “major” Bs)
Join a support group: Find a support group for people with similar issues. Twelve-step programs have expanded beyond Alcoholics Anonymous and now include groups targeting a wide range of addictions, including narcotics, overeating, gambling, sex, shopping, Internet, gaming, and other problem behaviors.
Addiction is often considered a personal failing, when it is anything but. If you feel you may be suffering from a drug or substance dependency, please don’t let embarrassment get in the way of treatment. These issues do not go away and tend to get worse if nothing is done. If you’re at a loss about how to proceed, ask your physician or pastor for recommendations. Addictions can be conquered and your health restored but only if you take the first step of asking for help.