You might think that’s a sensationalized headline designed to grab your attention with its shock value, but, unfortunately, it’s not. Something called “iatrogenic disease” is killing and sickening hundreds of thousands of people every year. What is iatrogenic disease? According to Chambers English Dictionary, it means disease or symptoms that are “induced in a patient by the treatment or comments of a physician.” “Iatrogenesis” actually means “brought forth by the healer” in Greek.
Put simply, iatrogenic disease occurs when the treatments or medications given therapeutically for one condition cause you to have other conditions and side effects that are different from what you’re being treated for. Iatrogenic disease can sicken or even kill you. An extreme example would be a patient who’s given penicillin by a doctor for an infection, then goes into anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction to the medication. A more subtle example would be someone who’s given a statin for high cholesterol and then develops muscle weakness as a side effect of taking the drug.
The number of people affected by iatrogenic disease is staggering: A recent Johns Hopkins study found that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 250,000 people every year, with other reports finding the number could be as high as 440,000 deaths per year. (1) Globally, as of 2013, an estimated 20 million negative effects from medical treatment occurred. (2)
THE DARK SIDE OF PRESCRIPTION DRUGS:
A PILL THAT’S HARD TO SWALLOW
One of the biggest causes of iatrogenic disease is overuse, interaction and side effects from prescription and over-the-counter medications. More than 170 million Americans currently take a prescription drug, and it’s no secret that many doctors are quick to pull out the pad and paper and write a script for whatever ails you. But these numbers from a recent Harvard University article are a bitter pill to swallow: (3)
About 128,000 people in the U.S. die annually from the drugs prescribed to them.
Systemic reviews of hospital charts found that even properly prescribed drugs cause about 1.9 million hospitalizations a year.
840,000 hospitalized patients are given drugs that cause serious adverse reactions for a total of 2.74 million serious adverse drug reactions in the U.S. each year.
New prescription drugs have a one in five chance of causing serious reactions after they have been approved.
One of the biggest problems with these drugs is that side effects often don’t happen suddenly, but progress gradually over a number of years. I see it in my office all the time. For example, fatigue is a common side effect of blood pressure medications. I’ll have patients come to me who’ve been taking BP meds for years, are feeling down and tired, but because their symptoms worsened over an extended period of time they don’t put together that the drugs are the source. I always tell them that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer right away. Instead, lung cancer develops over a period of 20 or more years. In the same way, drug toxicity and side effects can be slow to show up and often accumulate over time.
ARE YOU TAKING ONE OF THESE COMMON PRESCRIPTIONS?
With 70% of Americans taking prescription drugs it’s like doctors are playing roulette with people’s health.(4) And, it’s not only not working, it’s failing miserably. Who wants to take a pill for one thing and then end up with unrelated, possibly even worse problems or maybe even dying from the drugs that are supposed to be helping you?
Remember, iatrogenic diseases don’t just happen to those in the hospital or who are very sick. Some of the most commonly prescribed drugs are some of the worst offenders. Are you taking any of the following drugs?
These drugs, designed to lower cholesterol, are one of the most prescribed medications in the country, taken by an estimated 35 million people. (5) Yet, despite what all the ads tell you, they are highly ineffective. Yes, they’re doled out like candy by doctors to almost anyone with high LDL cholesterol, but studies have shown that statins don’t reduce the risk of heart attack or death for a number of people, including healthy women with high cholesterol and men and women over 69 years old with high cholesterol — in fact, 75 percent of people who have heart attacks have normal cholesterol! (7)
Statins also have a very high NTT, or number needed to treat, before one person sees a benefit. Fifty people at high risk of heart disease would need to be treated five years to reduce just one heart attack, meaning statins have an NTT of 50. (7) An effective drug such as an antibiotic for strep throat has a low NTT of one. And, keep in mind, the NTT of 50 is only for those at high risk of heart attack – and most people taking statins aren’t in that group! The only people shown to have benefited from taking statins are those who’ve had heart attacks and middle-aged men with certain risk factors. That’s a pretty small group out of all the people taking these drugs.
Not only are statins often ineffective and unnecessary, they can also be dangerous. Contrary to what you’ve heard, cholesterol is not the enemy. Cholesterol is vital for our survival and involved in the formation of bile acids, cells, hormones, and vitamin D. (8). Blocking its production is bound to cause problems. Only 32 percent of people take statins exactly as prescribed, with many who don’t citing side effects as the reason. (9) Side effects from statins include muscle pain and damage, liver damage, neurological issues such as memory loss and confusion, and increased blood sugar leading to the development of Type 2 diabetes. (10) One well-known study called the Jupiter Trial found that those with risk factors for diabetes who were taking statins had a 28 percent increase in the development of the disease, and for every 134 vascular events or deaths avoided by taking statins, 54 new cases of diabetes were diagnosed. (11)
Do you really want to trade lower cholesterol for diabetes, memory problems or muscle weakness especially knowing that lowering your cholesterol might not make much difference to your heart attack risk? There are more effective means of reducing heart attack risk than taking statins, including lowering inflammation and raising levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. I guarantee you doing these things will not make you forgetful, weak or develop Type 2 diabetes!
Many of us have NSAIDs, or non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) stocked in our cupboard. It’s well-known that these drugs can cause stomach pain and nausea because they affect the production of enzymes that protect the stomach lining. But, NSAIDs have also been linked to more serious problems such as heart failure, heart attacks and strokes, so much so that the FDA strengthened warning labels for these drugs in 2015. The FDA also noted that the widely available over-the-counter drugs ibuprofen and naproxen have similar risks to increasing heart attack and stroke as prescription NSAIDs, and that the risk can occur within a few weeks of starting the drug. (12)
Another recent study found NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, naproxen and Toradol may raise a person’s relative risk of heart failure by nearly 20 percent, with the risk increasing with the amount of NSAIDs taken. (13) While the study found that Celebrex did not increase heart failure risk at commonly used doses, it should be noted that Celebrex is the only COX-2 inhibitor (a type of NSAID) still on the market in the U.S. and has been the subject of many lawsuits. (14) Another COX-2 inhibitor, Vioxx, caused as many as 140,000 heart attacks in the U.S. in the five years it was available and was pulled from the market in 2004. (15)
The American Journal of Managed Care reported that each year more than 100,000 patients are hospitalized for NSAID-related GI complications alone. Moreover, it has been reported that 16,500 persons die annually from these complications. (15a)
Here again, we see the trade-off that’s the hallmark of iatrogenic diseases. Take a pill for pain, increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. Not much of a deal, is it?
It’s hard to turn on the TV without seeing ads for Prilosec, Prevacid and other antacids known as proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs. Eat too much or eat the wrong foods, pop one of these, and you’re good to go, right? Wrong. The problem is PPIs are not supposed to be taken more than two weeks at a time – it’s right on the drugs’ warning labels. Stomach acid is not the enemy – it breaks down our food into absorbable nutrients and protects us against “bad guys” such as microbes and bad bacteria. What happens if you reduce your body’s production of stomach acid? Long-term effects include increased risk of bone fractures and intestinal infections; low levels of magnesium in the blood that can lead to seizures, arrhythmias and muscle spasms; and reduction in the absorption of other important nutrients such as calcium, iron and B12. (16)
If you’re dealing with more than very occasional heartburn, there are root causes that can be addressed and fixed without turning to harmful, long-term PPI use.
More than one in 12 Americans over the age of 12 is taking an antidepressant drug. While these drugs have been shown to benefit some people including the severely depressed, studies show they are ineffective for many who take them and can even worsen symptoms in some. A study out of Yale University showed that antidepressants work no better than a placebo for some people, and that one in four who take an anti-depressant are actually made worse from the drug. (17)
The big problem is there’s no way of knowing who will become worse until after they take the drug. In fact, one of the study’s lead researchers concluded antidepressants should only be taken as a “last resort” and discontinued if there’s no improvement after a few weeks. (18)
Another side effect of commonly used antidepressants is reduced sleep quality and even sleep apnea, due to weight gain from the taking anti-depressants. (18a) .
Unfortunately, many patients who are seeking help from antidepressants actually get worse over time and I often wonder… is it because they are losing out on their sleep? If you are like me, if I don’t get enough sleep, I am sure to be more depressed and anxious the following day.
These side effects usually happen slowly over time making it hard to correlate it back the antidepressants. This leaves people questioning why they can no longer get a good night sleep, are gaining weight and are more depressed or anxious than before starting the medication.
What is a safer way to tackle depression? Research has shown that methods such as physical exercise, improving diet and sleep, and certain supplements can work just as well as antidepressants (19) – and not only do they not cause side effects, they’ll improve your overall health!
Seasonal and other allergies can be a big issue for many people, and the solution is often to turn to allergy medications. But research is showing that a certain class of these medications called “anticholinergic” drugs, which includes the popular drug Benadryl, can be dangerous. Anticholinergic drugs work by blocking acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is important for brain functions including learning and memory. In the short term, taking these drugs can affect your memory, alertness and cognitive function.
But, long-term use can have even more devastating effects, with one recent study finding that increased use of these drugs is associated with an up to 54 percent increased risk of dementia. (20) Another recent study that appeared in the medical journal JAMA Neurology used brain-imaging scans of normal adults to study the effects of anticholinergic medications and found their use led to increased brain atrophy and dysfunction and clinical decline. (21)
Allergies can have many root causes, and for the majority of patients, investigating and treating these causes leads to improvement of their symptoms without the risks to their health that allergy medications can present.
Headaches caused by stress, tension and poor posture are a problem for many people. But, popular headache remedies also can come with a bevy of side effects. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) – a commonly taken drug for headaches — is converted to a byproduct that’s toxic to the liver. Taking more than your body can handle, either all at once or over a period of days, can lead to liver toxicity and damage. (22).
Birth control pills.
For years, birth control pills were praised as a safe way to liberate women from fear of an unplanned pregnancy. However, over the years, those in the medical field began seeing an increase in young, otherwise healthy women with gallbladder disease. What could be behind this? Turns out it was those “safe” birth control pills. According to the National Institutes of Health, birth control pills can increase the risk of gallstones by increasing cholesterol levels in the bile and decreasing gallbladder movements. (23) Ask anyone who’s ever had a gallstone attack, and they’ll tell you how painful it is – which is why many people with gallbladder disease resort to having their gallbladders removed.
Taking the pill also increases your risk of developing a blood clot or having a stroke and can lead to deficiencies in B vitamins and other key nutrients. (24). If you’re taking the pill, it’s important to be aware of these risks and supplement your diet accordingly.
HOW TO STOP THE VICIOUS MEDICATION CYCLE AND TAKE BACK YOUR HEALTH
As these examples show, iatrogenic diseases caused by drugs are a common problem likely affecting either you or someone you know. And, if you don’t address the root causes of why you’re not feeling well, you’ll likely only get worse – leading you to be put on more medications, which cause more symptoms, which leads to more meds. It can be a vicious, never-ending cycle – but it doesn’t have to be.
If you want to reduce the amount of prescription or over-the-counter drugs you are taking, I urge you to find a Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner who can work with you to find and address the root causes that are making you sick, and help you reclaim your health.