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Are Medications “Hall Passes” or “Lottery Tickets”?

You might have been told that taking pills to lower your blood pressure, your blood sugar, or your cholesterol helps to protect you against harm. Those who have high cholesterol have higher risks for heart disease, those with high blood pressure have more stroke risk, and those with high blood sugar have more risk for early death.

It seems logical that if high levels mean high risk, then if the levels are lowered the risk should be lowered also.

Is this true? Let’s look at the science of it all.

Medications, Medications, Medications

The use of medications is so common. Today, 61% of adults use at least one drug to treat a chronic health problem – which is a 15% rise from 2001 (1). What’s even more startling is that 1 in 4 senior citizens take at least 5 medications, each and every day. That is quite a bit!

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of adults taking medications to combat high cholesterol rates from 20% to 28% between 2003 and 2012. The fact of the matter is that these types of medications are becoming more common, and as a result they are becoming over-prescribed for so many.

So, what’s the problem with medications? The problem is not that they are ineffective. They actually do have an effect on your body, and are certainly not a placebo whatsoever. Instead, they are engendering a false sense of security that can be harmful to your overall health. Medications have the effect of making you think you are doing exactly what is right for your body, and that you are healthier or safer because of it. They make you feel like you have the “ticket” to ending your risk for conditions like high cholesterol, blood sugar or blood pressure.

Medications and High Cholesterol

A recent patient told me that she wanted to stop taking her cholesterol pills altogether – and that she was afraid of the potential consequences. Her previous doctor had essentially told her that she would have a heart attack if she quit taking her pills. For her, the medications felt like a hall pass that was protecting her from immediate heart disease. She felt protected, safe, and like it would not affect her so long as she continued to take her pills.

Top cholesterol medications include:

  • Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • Lovastatin
  • Rosuvastatin (Crestor)
  • Simvastatin (Zocor)

So, was this patient’s belief about her medication actually a hall pass or a lottery ticket? Let’s consider the numbers…

The patient had never had an actual heart attack. She was in her mid-50’s, had high LDL cholesterol and a family history of heart disease. Based on studies involving 65,229 participants just like her, here are the odds of the medication helping or hurting (2):

What does this tell us? It tells us that the medications are certainly not a hall pass. At best, they are only a lottery ticket. The odds of the cholesterol medication doing anything helpful are 1 in 104 (for a man). This means that if 208 people, just like the patient, were divided into two groups, and one group took cholesterol pills and the other did not, the group on the medications would see just one less heart attack. Just one.

Interestingly enough, as well, even though they would have one less heart attack, they would have no fewer deaths. Deaths from other causes would outweigh any reduction in death from heart disease. In fact, the odds of muscle damage were 10 times higher than the odds of preventing a heart attack. If that is not bad enough, the possible benefits may be even lower in women (3).

There were also plenty of side effects, including:

  • Liver damage
  • High risk of diabetes
  • Brain damage
  • Nerve pain
  • Fatigue

Bottom Line: Even if these medications lower cholesterol levels, they ultimately do not lower the risk of heart attacks. They are not a hall pass, only a lottery ticket.

Medications and High Blood Sugar

What about medications that you might be taking for blood sugar?

Top blood sugar include:

  • Metformin (Glucophage)
  • Glipizide (Glucotrol)

Those deserve a look, as well. Here are the results of over 35,000 people on medications that aggressively control blood sugar levels (4):

What can we understand from this? Well, this large study showed that medications actually had no benefits towards preventing those with diabetes from:

  • Dying
  • Having a stroke
  • Having a heart attack
  • Suffering from kidney failure

The only real benefit that we can see from these medications is that 1 less person, out of 250 total people, would have to have a limb amputated from complications with diabetes. That’s right, just one person.

At the same time, the risk of overall harm was much higher. Participants in this study actually had a 1 in 6 chance of hypoglycemic reactions – ones that were dangerous enough to even cause hospitalization.

The bottom line that you need to remember here is that even when these medications lower overall blood sugar levels, they do not lower the associated risks that go along with high blood sugar – it’s a lottery ticket, an illusion of health.

To better illustrate the fact that your blood sugar means nothing when the risks are still present, let’s envision ourselves at a funeral. It’s a bit dark, but imagine the pastor telling everyone that although a life was lost to diabetes, at least they died without high blood sugar. How does that help the situation? It simply does not.

The main takeaway here is that we cannot discount the effect of associated risks, and that this “lottery ticket” phenomenon allows us to think that these associated risks no longer exist.

Bottom Line: Even if we are taking medications which push down our high blood sugar levels, it does not mean that the risks of high blood sugar have also been pushed down – they are still there.

Medications and High Blood Pressure

At this point, you might be holding out hope that medications can make a difference. After all, medications have to be helping in some way, right? Let’s think a little bit about high blood sure – surely there must be a difference, but is there?

Top blood pressure medications include:

  • Hydrochlorothiazide
  • Metoprolol (Toprol)
  • Lisinopril (Prinivil)

The following shows the outcome from over 8,900 people, who were given blood pressure medications, for blood pressure levels as high as 159/99 (5):

When we think about high blood pressure, and the associated consequences, we need to think of:

  • Death
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Other cardiovascular events

As it concerned any of these very real outcomes, the medications provided no measurable benefit to preventing any of them. It’s another case of these types of medications having no measurable benefit when it comes to actually reducing the risks associated with the condition.

What do all of these outcomes prove?

The fact of the matter is that medications do not work well for chronic diseases. Even though they might lower the marker of illness, like high cholesterol, blood sugar, or blood pressure, they provide no benefit towards actually preventing what matters: the potential dire consequences of these conditions. They do not prevent tragedy, they simply make you feel like you are preventing it – until it, unfortunately, happens.

For this reason, the case can be made the dangers of these medications center around the false sense of security that they provide patients. Let’s think about it like this: who will try harder to improve their health… someone who feels they need to, or someone who believes that they have a pill protecting them?

Many have the impression that radical lifestyle changes might be a nice idea, but pills are more powerful. This evidence today should change the way you feel about that. After looking at the very real numbers and statistics, we can safely say that pills are not “hall passes” – they are lottery tickets, and they give us a false sense of security that can potentially be deadly.

Share With Those You Love

Most folks on medication simply do not like taking them. While it might be a combination of side effects that make them feel yucky, or they just do not like the idea of needing a pill to get by. The problem is that they keep taking them, because they think they are required for good health.

Most would admit that lifestyle change would be a good idea, but that pills do work and that they are easier. The data we have looked at today tells us the opposite, pills do not work.

Bottom Line: Lifestyle changes are not just nice ideas or “nice-to-haves” – it is really our only option when it comes to lowering disease risks.

Please know this – pills only provide a false sense of security. If you are a patient, you need to know that pills are not a solution unto themselves. Not only do they not work, they can get in the way of you reclaiming your health and feeling better sooner. We cannot last when we ignore the larger issues facing our health.

Do you take pills for any of these previously mentioned conditions – cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar? Please, after reading this article, share it with someone you know who might also be on pills like these. It’s time we ripped up our lottery tickets, and got back to feeling better today.

dr-c-pic

Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.

Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, cure diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.