In 1976 CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals Henry Gadsden told Fortune magazine that his dream was to make drugs for healthy people- that he wanted to sell drugs like chewing gum. To Gadsden, it was a shame that the pharmaceutical companies market was limited to only those who suffered from a disease or illness- Gadsden wanted more (1, 2)
Fast-forward to today. “Big Pharma” has more power than ever and is rapidly expanding their market. For example, the new cholesterol guidelines state that LDL cholesterol should be below 100 if you are at moderate to high risk of heart disease. With the lowering of what we consider “normal” LDL cholesterol from 130 to 100, millions of Americans may now be told by their doctors that they too need a statin drug.
Even in 2001, statistics estimated that 55% of women and 37% of men in the US take one or more prescription medication (3). Those numbers have surely gone up since that time. Of course, it’s no secret that America is getting more and more unhealthy, which would surely merit more medication… But is medicine really the answer we’re looking for? Like I described in a previous post, modern medicine is very good at keeping you alive when your life is in immediate danger, but has a particularly bad track-record when it comes to getting people healthier in the long term. At the risk of sounding like a hippy, I take several issues with the world of pharmacology and medicine as a whole:
1. The reality is that most drugs are not researched enough prior to going on the market, and may in fact be dangerous. So many times we have heard of drugs being pulled off the market because they didn’t realize until now that drug x actually causes cancer/stroke/heart attacks/death. This always made me wonder just how much they actually researched drug x prior to its launch. According to the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research director, Dr. Janet Woodcock “The sad truth is that, even after all the clinical development that occurs with every drug and even after drugs have been approved for a time, we only have a crude idea of what they do in people.” A great deal is learned about drugs after they have been used (or as I see it, tested) by millions of consumers, and that new information may or may not ever make it into the Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR), which is what most doctors use as a reference(4). Overall, 51% f approved drugs have serious side effects not detected prior to approval (5).
2. Most drugs are known to cause a variety of side-effects, and to top it all off, many of them may not be recognized by your doctor (4). This is usually either because the side effect isn’t well known or documented yet, or it may be a known side-effect that has yet to make it into the PDR. If you believe one of your prescription drugs is to blame for a new symptom you are experiencing, talk to your doctor about trying a different medication, or better yet- trying a natural alternative. If your doctor belittles your concern, insist that they take it seriously and work with you. The only person who will advocate for your health is you– it is up to you to make sure that all of your concerns are addressed, no matter how small it may seem to them.
3. A serious (and all too common) problem that occurs when side effects are not recognized is the so-called “prescribing cascade”. This is when a side effect is misinterpreted as a new medical condition that merits another prescription drug… And so the vicious cycle is started. As a chiropractic intern, I can tell you that not only does the body not heal itself as well or as quickly when heavily medicated, but it’s darn near impossible for the doctor to figure out which symptoms are really you rather than your drugs.
4. The system is crooked, and I would personally rather not give them my money. K.L. Carlson, a former pharmaceutical rep, does a lovely job of describing just how crooked the system is in her book “Diary of a legal drug dealer”. The pharmaceutical companies will do anything to sell their drugs; including marketing drugs for something they are not approved to treat (For example, the recent GlaxcoSmithKline story) or pressuring and bribing doctors to sell more of their drug. They say actions speak louder than words, and in 2005 the top ten drug companies spent a whopping $84 Billion in marketing, but only $42 Billion in research (2). I think that clearly demonstrates where their priorities lie.
5. Natural alternatives such as a healthy diet, supplements, herbs, chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy, and many more are often safe and effective. For example, I personally used to take three (yes, three) prescription medications for my
seasonal year-round allergies. And even with all that, I still had allergy symptoms and got two or three sinus infections every year. It wasn’t until I cut dairy completely out of my diet and started getting regular chiropractic adjustments that I was able to stop taking all three medications and completely alleviate my allergy symptoms. In the two years I have been dairy-free I have only suffered one sinus infection, from which I managed to bounce back remarkably fast.
(2) Diary of a Legal Drug Dealer By K.L. Carlson
(3) Bowman, L “51% of U.S. adults take 2 pills or more a day, survey reports” Scripps Howard News Service, San Diego Union-Tribune Jan 17, 2001
(4) What you Must Know about Statin Drugs and Their Natural Alternatives by Jay S Cohen, M.D.
(5) Moore, T.J. “Time to act on drug safety” JAMA 1998; 279(19):1571-1573