Are prescribed medications harmful like some preservatives?

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A patient recently asked “Are prescribed medications harmful like some preservatives? I am thinking about stopping prescription medications as they were man-made and our bodies will find them as unnatural as food additives and preservatives.” As many of you are aware, I am a physician and am committed to teaching the tenets of healthy eating so we may avoid disease and pursue good health. I am not opposed to medications when prescribed correctly. Should we be avoid medications that are appropriately prescribed by our doctors? Absolutely not! Yes, many medications are man-made and are unnatural for our bodies, however they are rigorously tested and passed by the FDA to be used as medications if they are effective for the condition they are treating and the side effect profile is acceptable. Generally, the longer a medication has been on the market and the more it has been prescribed the greater information about side effects are known and as a physician my comfort level prescribing them increases. The newer the drug on the market, the more skeptical I am as I want to avoid harming my patients.

Advances in medications have improved our treatment options for many diseases resulting in cures and improvements in many medical conditions. The lack of antibiotics less 75 years ago led to many deaths that are easily treated today. Prior to World War II simple skin and lung infections were fatal, but with the accidental discovery of Penicillin in 1928 by bacteriologist Alexander Fleming simple infections were cured. Dr. Fleming went on to receive the Nobel Prize. In 1942 during World War II the US government began supporting the production of penicillin for distribution to the troops in the Armed Forces. Many American lives were saved thanks to the availability of Penicillin. It’s amazing that we have only had antibiotics to treat infections for 73 years. Even today Penicillin and Amoxicillin remain effective in treating many infections including strep throat preventing rheumatic fever and consequent heart damage.

Should we question our treatments? We as patients (even doctors are patients) should always question the need for any treatment including prescribed medications and we should always be educated and informed of the risks and benefits of any treatment. Can we avoid prescription medication? It is true that we may be able to avoid being on some prescription medications by adopting a more natural diet combined with exercise and in some cases weight loss. The health benefits of diet, exercise and weight loss are profound in treating patients with high blood pressure and/or type 2 diabetes.

The evidence to support the improvement of type 2 diabetes by exercising alone is significant. Following a fitness program does help lessen the need for prescription medication. See the evidence at PubMed:

The evidence also shows a similar benefit of reducing high blood pressure by regular exercise and even better reduction of blood pressure with intermittent bursts of high intensity exercise.

So it is correct to assume that I want you all to do everything you can to be healthy and reduce your need for prescription medications. My patient is correct in thinking that medications are unnatural and that our bodies have not evolved to handle them, but they are well tested and needed to improve specific conditions. Medications have been developed to eradicate diseases and improve health conditions; such as antibiotics for pneumonia and strep throat, insulin to treat Type 1 diabetes, antidepressants to treat severely depressed patients, medications to reverse erectile dysfunction and antihypertensive medications to reduce high blood pressure.

On the other hand food additives and preservatives are not added to treat diseases, they are added for convenience of extending the shelf life of many foods. BHA and BHT (see my post on “The Fuel you didn’t know you were eating”) are examples of coal tar derived chemicals that are added to most cereals to extend their shelf life. Partially hydrogenated fats better known as Trans Fats are added to make products more solid (see my post “Like Butter? Great!”). See what fats truly are the bad fats. If you eat deli meats you may want to think about the evidence that it may be unhealthy (see my post “Eating fresh at the deli? Think again!” Okay just read “all the posts”, but “Get started slow!

Action Item:

  1. Always ask your doctor to educate you on the need for a prescription medication and understand the risks and benefits.
  2. Ask what you can do to help lessen the need for prescribed medication?
  3. Try to eat as fresh natural foods as much as possible.

Happy healthy eating!
Brian Goertz MD