SURPRISING SIDE EFFECTS AND SAFER ALTERNATIVES
SHERRY TORKOS, BSC, PHM
The Drug Abuse Warning Network’s most recent data collection estimates that more than 48 percent of the 2.5 million drug abuse emergency room visits involved nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals, including prescription or OTC medications and dietary supplements. Many people think that because these products are easily available “over the counter”—and thus without a doctor’s permission—they’ll be safe.
However, that is not always the case— I’ve identified some of the most commonly used OTC product categories, some surprising side effects associated with these OTCs, and smart alternatives to stay safe.
Pain and discomfort from lifting, exercising, leg cramps, and everyday life are often treated with OTC analgesics such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. As much as 70 percent of the population in Western countries use analgesics regularly, primarily for joint pain, injuries, and arthritis. Although safe for some, these drugs can cause serious side effects such as liver and kidney damage, ringing in the ears, stomach bleeding, rebound headaches, and hair loss. Safer alternatives include curcumin and boswellia for joint pain and inflammation, and homeopathics for leg cramps. Ice/heat packs can also provide temporary relief for injuries and acute inflammation, while rangeof- motion exercises and stretching are important to maintain muscle and joint health.
Allergies and cold and flu season can be big problems that leave many congested, sneezing, and wheezing. There are plenty of OTC antihistamines and decongestants on store shelves, but they carry the risk of side effects. Particularly, decongestants can cause racing heart, increased blood pressure, insomnia, thinning of the delicate nasal lining, and worsening of health problems such as glaucoma and prostate disease. The good news is that there are natural options available, such as the neti pot. Nasal washing with products that provide essential oils can help dissolve mucus in the nasal passages, sweep away bacteria, and moisturize nasal passages I also recommend fortifying your diet with immune supportive foods such as black elderberry, garlic, and probiotic yogurt.
When your eyes are red and irritated, you want immediate relief. Most OTC eye drops made for redness relief have vasoconstrictors, such as naphazoline hydrochloride or tetrahydrozoline which will actually worsen the symptoms of bloodshot eyes if used more than the directed four times a day. If you wear contacts, these and other harsh chemicals such as benzalkonium chloride—a preservative in most eye drop solutions—will cause additional redness and irritation on top of your existing issue. Antihistamine eye drops or artificial tears may provide temporary relief, but they don’t address the problem as well as homeopathic preparations that gently stimulate the body’s natural ability to relieve symptoms.I recommend using a formula with only natural ingredients—such as those found in Similasan eye drops—that stimulate your body’s natural ability to relieve symptoms of irritated eyes, including redness, dryness, stinging, burning, watery discharge, and grittiness.
People often turn to stimulants to increase energy, but these substances can be very dangerous—especially for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, or other serious conditions. Using stimulants can increase blood pressure and cause palpitations (irregular heart beat), insomnia, and flushing (reddening of the skin). A stimulant should be avoided by those who are stressed because it can increase all of the responses to stress, such as sleeplessness, hair loss, and heart palpitations. Safer alternatives to increase physical and mental energy include both green tea and an antioxidant present in green tea called EGCG. Research suggests that green tea and EGCG can help increase energy levels and even give your metabolism a boost! To keep energy levels high, I also recommend eating small, frequent meals with healthy fats, lean protein, and low GI carbs—foods with a low glycemic index have a lesser effect on blood sugar to help you avoid spikes and crashes.
According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, 30 to 40 percent of adults say they have some symptoms of insomnia within a given year; approximately 10 to 15 percent of adults say they have chronic insomnia. You may be surprised to know that the active ingredient in most OTC sleep aids is actually an antihistamine that is being marketed for its side effect: drowsiness In addition to drowsiness, these drugs can cause next-day grogginess, dry mouth, constipation, and others. Stress is one of the primary contributors to poor sleep quality, so I recommend the supplement L-theanine for a safer alternative; this amino acid promotes calming relaxation and is not addictive. I also recommend good sleep hygiene: regular sleep/wake times, making your room dark to optimize melatonin secretion, and avoiding alcohol before bed because it can cause nighttime wakening.
Keeping healthier habits and finding new solutions to your daily distresses might seem less convenient than reaching for an OTC med, but adopting these alternatives now will benefit your body in the long run—and you won’t have to deal with any unpleasant side effects along the way.