Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Side Effects of the Magic Pill Mentality

Why change your lifestyle when you can take a pill and continue to live the same way?

Changing your lifestyle takes effort and motivation to break out of comfortable habits and courage to dive into new ones. For many with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc., taking a pill is a more attractive option. Can you blame them?

In many cases, medications can normalize the symptoms of whatever the health problem is - a simple "magic pill" corrects a problem that a faulty lifestyle and other factors (genetics?) created. However, even if the magic pill corrects the health measure from a black and white perspective, the pill taker is likely still not healthy. Just as important to health is that medications come with their own baggage - long lists of side effects.

An excellent example of the drawbacks of the "Magic Pill Mentality" can be seen with type 2 diabetics.

Diabetes Medications

Researchers studying the relationship of heart disease and glycosylated hemoglobin (a long-term measure of blood glucose) came to the following conclusion [1]:

The glucose-lowering drugs used in trials have adverse cardiovascular effects, which would attenuate macrovascular benefits of improved glycemic control.

In other words, drugs controlling blood glucose may cause as many cardiovascular problems as they solve. They also create a host of other problems not related to the cardiovascular system. The list below discusses some of the most common side effects faced by those taking some of the most common diabetes medications: sulphonylureas (SUs), metformin, and insulin.

  • Weight gain. Over a 10-year span, diabetics taking SUs and insulin gain an average of five and nine pounds more than diabetics following a very basic nutrition plan [2].
  • Hypoglycemia. The same research found diabetics taking SUs and insulin to have eight and 18-times greater risks for getting low blood glucose [2]. Low blood glucose can lead to irritability, confusion, gait trouble, passing out, seizures, and death (rarely). 
  • Gastrointestinal issues. People taking metformin reported a much higher rate of diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and flatulence than people taking a placebo pill or a diet and exercise program [3]. 
  • Increased reliance on medications. Over a four-month period, 42% of diabetics in their mid 60s who continued their normal lifestyles had to increase medication dosages (SUs and/or insulin) while only 3% were able to decrease dosage strength [4]. Over time, all diabetics who don't adjust their lifestyles will likely increase medications for two reasons. First, muscles are the major storage units for medications, and all adults who don't strength train are gradually losing muscle mass. Therefore, over time, their abilities to store glucose declines. Second, the pancreas gradually "burns out" from overproducing insulin to store excess blood glucose. As it burns out, diabetics become increasingly reliant on insulin pills or injections to store glucose.

The list above certainly isn't all-inclusive. By providing this list, am I saying that diabetics shouldn't take medications? No. Research shows that diabetes medications will likely increase lifespan and while lowering the risk of future amputation and vision loss when compared to diabetics who don't take medications or change their lifestyles.

However, the best solution is to change your lifestyle. Medications do not restore complete health - they patch some leaks while creating others. Lifestyle - increasing exercise time and intensity, improving diet, decreasing sedentary time, and improving sleep habits - are solutions. They provide more significant improvements and are not riddled with side effects. Diabetes is a perfect example of why you should choose lifestyle over medications, but you can say the same for heart disease, hypertension, joint pain, and osteoporosis.

Choose lifestyle when it comes to disease treatment. I promise that you won't regret it.

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