A dear friend called me worried the other day, wondering if she was at risk for having a heart attack because she took ibuprofen once or twice a month for migraines. She was asking because the media had reported on a recent study warning that people who took ibuprofen (and other similar nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications) have a heightened risk for experiencing a cardiovascular event.
When I deciphered the study, I explained to her that taking this medication once in a while was likely fine—but taking it daily was another matter.
Here's what you should know about long-term medication.
First, know that no medication comes without a warning label. Your body is a landscape of nature that is not meant to be dealing with the foreign chemicals that make up many drugs. That being said, there are times when the body needs help, and medicine in all its forms has brilliantly created remedies that can assist us in healing and getting on with our lives. And a resilient body can, for the most part, handle these intermittent medications. But taking a medication for a long period of time can come with consequences and you'll want to think about the risk-to-benefit ratio. For instance, the risk of taking a blood pressure medication is usually lower than the risk of not taking it, but for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), that may not be the case.
No matter what you're taking, when it's synthesized, it's not something your body recognizes as its own. And the longer your body is exposed to a foreign substance that has some toxic properties, the more stress it puts on your systems, which is why it's ideal to use medications for short periods and in low doses.
Always be mindful about your medication use.
It's also ideal to find a way, if possible, to get off long-term medications. Now, I do not mean getting off your blood pressure medication when your blood pressure is still high. I mean starting a meditation practice, eating healthy, exercising and sleeping more to see if you can get your blood pressure to lessen on its own. If it continues to be low for a long period of time, you start tapering the dose of the medication with your doctor until you may not need it anymore.
It's also possible that you're taking medications that you don't really need. Remember that (when it comes to inflammation, for example) you have the choice to adopt an anti-inflammatory lifestyle (through meditation, healthy eating, better sleep, improved mindset or mood, and so forth). You also have the choice to try some more natural remedies for inflammation like turmeric that do not have a big side-effect profile like NSAIDS or other pharmaceutical drugs.
It's all about empowering yourself as a patient.
Although it doesn't always feel like it, you have more power than you realize in controlling your town health destiny. So take a look at your medications—always talking to your doctor before making any changes—and ask yourself these six questions:
1. Am I experiencing any side effects?
Examples may be headaches, fatigue, dizziness, stomach problems (including heart burn or constipation), dry eyes, itchy skin, sleepiness, insomnia, numbness, achy muscles, palpitations, or shortness of breath. You may be suffering from one of these side effects without realizing one of your mediations is to blame!
2. What lifestyle changes could I make?
Lifestyle changes almost always involve changing your diet and moving your body. They can also include building a meditation practice, doing some stress management, improving your mindset and mood, improving your sleep, and spending time in nature. Oftentimes I find that lifestyle changes make enough of a difference that I can assist my patients in weening off their medications.
3. Have I re-evaluated my medication needs in the last year?
You may want to look at whether or not you still need a particular medication and try to better understand what it's actually doing for you. The more knowledge you have about what you're putting in your body, the better, so consider having a discussion with your doctor about it.
4. Does my medication put me at risk for any vitamin deficiencies?
Many medications can deplete your body of the resources you need. It's a good idea to have your vitamin and mineral levels checked, including vitamins D, B12, folic acid, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, and calcium. You can take supplements along with your diet when necessary if you are low or even low normal (confer with your doctor to make sure there are no interactions), and definitely consider taking a probiotic or adding foods to your diet that will improve the healthy bacteria in your gut.
5. Am I taking medication that is "as needed" too regularly?
Ask yourself: If made some changes would I still need to take this medicine so frequently? An example of such a medication would be a painkiller or sleep aid. These types of medications can often be replaced with more natural remedies or lifestyle changes.
6. Have I become dependent on my medication?
Once again, these usually include drugs that you don't need to take for lifesaving reasons, but you take them to give you more comfort from pain or unease. Examples include sleep aids, anti-inflammatories or painkillers, anxiety medication, or heartburn pills. If this is the care, you'll want to look at other, more holistic options to treat yourself so that you can overcome your ailments and not be dependent on anything to feel well.
Dr. Eva Selhub is an expert in the fields of stress, resilience and mind-body medicine. She studied medicine at Boston University and is board certified in Internal Medicine. She has been a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School, a clinical associate at Massachusetts General Hospital, and was medical director and senior physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She now runs a private practice as a comprehensive medical specialist and transformation consultant and is the author of Your Health Destiny: How to Unlock Your Natural Ability to Overcome Illness, Feel Better, and Live Longer.