Medication Overtreatment is Deadly

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April 3, 2015
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

In an ideal world, medications would only be prescribed to cure an illness, or as a last resort to treat or manage a chronic condition.

But unfortunately, that’s not the case these days. Many doctors just love whipping out the prescription pad. Diabetes? There are pills for that. High cholesterol? There are pills for that, too!

Never mind that nutritional supplements, natural therapies, and lifestyle changes have much better success rates at treating or curing these conditions. Moreover, this hyper-prescribing of medications for diabetes and high cholesterol, in particular, is leading to an interesting “side effect”—over-treatment.

Taking medication unnecessarily can lead to a host of problems far more complicated than the initial problem. It’s a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease.

The truth about treating diabetes

Doctors usually gauge the success of diabetes treatment by measuring A1c.

Glucose attaches itself to hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen. Red blood cells are constantly turning over in the body, but typically, they live for about three months. The A1c test reflects the average of a patient’s blood glucose levels over those three months.

The measurement is given as a percentage. (Normal is 5.7 percent or lower.) Many doctors will try to achieve “tight control,” in patients. This means getting glucose levels as close to normal as possible, with A1c levels less than 7 percent. Doing so can help prevent diabetic complications involving the eyes, nerves, and kidneys.

But recent research has just shown that tight control can dramatically raise the risk of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

In this Yale University study, researchers looked at the prevalence of diabetes over-treatment and its consequences in older patients over age 65. They focused on hypoglycemia that occurs from over-treatment with insulin and the popular class of drugs called sulfonylureas. The researchers found that “a substantial proportion” of the nearly 1,300 patients in the study were over-treated with these drugs.

Low blood sugar may not seem like a big deal, but it can produce a whole lot of unpleasant symptoms. These include confusion, dizziness, shakiness, headaches, racing heart, pale skin, anxiety, and weakness. If untreated, it could cause unconsciousness or coma.

Sulfonylureas are also known to raise the risk of heart disease. In fact, a study published last year followed 4,902 diabetic women without any heart problems for 11 years. The researchers concluded that the longer they used a sulfonylurea, the greater their risk of developing coronary heart disease.

The drawbacks associated with traditional diabetes treatment far outweigh the benefits. Most of the time, they’re not worth the risk.

Especially when there are so many effective, non-drug approaches.

My goal is to get my patients off their diabetes meds and onto a healthy lifestyle program that includes diet, exercise, and blood sugar-balancing supplements. Some of the best include berberine, chromium, vanadium, and Gymnema sylvestre. These nutrients are not only as or more effective than prescription drugs, they have far fewer side effects.

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But that’s only half of the over-medicating story.

The big cholesterol myth

High cholesterol is another highly over-treated issue in this country. In fact, people who have no business being on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs still are! And that’s not going to change any time soon.

In 2013, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology issued new cholesterol guidelines. These revised recommendations made even those people who have no history of heart disease eligible for statin treatment.

Statins have only been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack in patients who are men, over 65, and already have cardiovascular disease or a history of heart attack.

For this small population, statin therapy may be appropriate. But for everyone else, statins are useless at best, harmful at worst.  Most of these low-risk people were prescribed statins simply because their LDL cholesterol was a little high—and that’s it!

According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the number of adults in the US on statins could grow from 43.2 million to 56 million. And most of this increase would occur among adults without cardiovascular disease.

Of course, experts say the reasoning behind these new guidelines is to better prevent heart disease and heart attacks. But at what risk?

Statins drains our reserves of the important nutrient coenzyme Q10. This results in fatigue and muscle weakness—two of the biggest complaints you hear about among statin users.

But that’s not all. Statins also significantly increase your risk of cognitive problems, memory loss, cataracts, sexual dysfunction, and diabetes…which, in turn, raises your risk of heart disease!

Fortunately, if you’re on statins for no other reason than high cholesterol, you can lower your levels without drugs. It’s really as simple as diet and regular exercise. (For cholesterol reduction, aerobic seems to be best.)

Components in plant-based foods, called phytosterols, have the ability to lower cholesterol naturally. They work by inhibiting the body’s ability to absorb dietary cholesterol.

All you need to do to boost your phytosterol intake is include the following foods in your daily diet: olive oil, sunflower and sesame seeds, cashews, almonds, pecans, and kidney beans. You can also find plant sterols in supplement form.

At the same time, eliminate trans fats, sugar, processed food, and refined carbohydrates from your diet. Also add healthy, unsaturated fats such as omega-3 essential fatty acid, from supplements as well as wild-caught salmon.

The bottom line is that drugs can be beneficial in certain circumstances. But you should always opt for the natural approach for dealing with chronic conditions first. Usually, you’ll get the results you want without having to worry about additional health problems in the long run.

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