The drug habits of Americans — that’s “legal” drugs, obtained by prescription or off the grocery and drugstore shelves — is alarming.
Joe Graedon in The Peoples’s Pharmacy points out:
- The cost of prescribed medications exceeds $11 billion annually.
- We spend an additional $2.6 billion on over-the-counter preparations.
- 15-30 percent of hospitalized people experience a drug reaction during their hospital stay.
- At least 4 percent of hospital admissions are the result of adverse drug reactions.
- Minor tranquilizers — Valium and Librium — are the most frequently prescribed drugs.
Adverse drug effects are encouraged by multiple drug use; interactions between medications may alter their intended therapeutic effect. Multiple prescriptions are common, particularly within the present fragmented health system in which a person’s care may be divided among various specialists. In addition, people are often misinformed concerning the identity, purpose, side effects and dosage instructions for their medications. Improper storage may alter the properties of drugs or even make them strongly toxic. For example, outdated tetracycline can cause kidney damage; nitroglycerin can deteriorate quickly if exposed to light or moisture.
It is fashionable to assign sole responsibility for our pill-popping habits to the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry. Unquestionably, intense advertising increases both costs and the upward spiral of supply and demand. Mike Samuels and Hal Bennett, in The Well Body Book, observe “. . . in buying a healing herb I think the karma (or attitude toward life) of the whole industry comes through with the herb: the karma of the executive sitting in the market square . . . ; the doctor not caring, or too busy to care; the pharmacist’s lobby; the huge drugstore chains selling the stuff to you. You get the picture of an herb that comes to you the most expensive way it can.”
Equally, many health care providers feel ill at ease bridging the gap between psyche and soma, if, in fact, they even recognize the connection. Writing a prescription may be less threatening than investigating the emotions which underlie immediate physical disturbances. (One also wonders how many health professionals are torn between holistic ideals and their responsibility for numbers of people, all equally in need of care and counsel.) Health professionals clearly need to be more attentive to monitoring multiple drug use and providing clear instructions concerning drug dosage, storage and side effects.
However, I think heavy prescribing also reflects a response (dangerous but understandable) to demands for instant relief and quicky cures. We are an impatient people, used to quick technological solutions. The market for weight-losing devices could not survive were there no takers. We are not always willing to utilize gradual healing methods, whether these be immediate (getting extra rest during illness) or long term (evaluating diet, exercise, stress management, interpersonal relationships). As Graedon points out, “It is time we stop insisting on a prescription or shot. ‘Can’t you give me something’ is a phrase which should disappear.”
Although I feel drugs should be approached cautiously, and with respect, they can clearly be beneficial in some instances.
Antibiotics are an obvious example. Ample proof exists that the increased longevity we enjoy reflects control of infectious disease by improved public sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics. Nothing that has come along since then has significantly increased life expectancy. Now, lethal diseases such as tuberculosis, small pox, diphtheria, syphilis, pneumonia and meningitis are largely controlled. Predominant causes of death now include chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and cerebrovascular disease.
Used judiciously, antibiotics are a powerful aid to healing, allies which reinforce the body’s defense mechanisms. Antibiotics are either bacteriocidal, killing bacteria, or bacteriostatic, slowing bacterial replication and allowing the body’s healing forces to work. These forces include fever, antibodies, white blood cells and metabolic energy. Many antibiotics are produced by micro-organisms, the classic example being penicillin, which is found in bread mold. The Chinese used fermented soybeans to heal boils more than 2000 years ago.
Any medicine is more effective if used with a confident, positive attitude. Relaxation exercises directed at the affected body part help increase blood flow, carrying in nutrients, maximizing the circulating level of medication, and carrying off waste products. I find visualization exercises particularly powerful. Healing energy appears to me as an extremely pleasurable combination of color, touch and warmth — peaceful, vital and penetrating. This is my own image; each person has his own. Rest is extremely important in supporting healing energies. One estimate is that healing a simple “cold” requires as much energy as walking ten miles carrying a backpack.
Following is a description of common infections in which antibiotics are beneficial. There is clearly some risk involved in any drug use. Since drugs affect the whole body, numerous side effects are possible. Allergic reactions, in which the body rejects the drug, are also possible. These are generally more common and more severe in people with other allergies (asthma, hay fever), and in drugs given by injection rather than taken by mouth. As in other things, one takes the chance that benefits will outweigh liabilities. But this decision is impossible without information concerning both illness and drug.
Definition — infection of the posterior pharynx and tonsils with streptococci, Group A, beta hemolytic.
Common symptoms — sore throat, pus on tonsils; tender, swollen lymph glands below angle of jaw; fever to 104 degrees F .; fatigue, weakness, muscle aches.
Diagnosis — can be made only by culture of pharyngeal exudate. Other conditions not treatable with antibiotics, eg. mononucleosis, can mimic strep throat. Do not take antibiotics for a sore throat unless culture confirms strep.
Drug treatment — oral penicillin, phenoxymethyl penicillin; with penicillin allergy — erythromycin.
Rationale — penicillin is not given for the sore throat per se but to prevent a complication of strep infections, rheumatic heart disease. This causes damage to heart valves which may lead to heart failure, marked by cardiac enlargement, inadequate pump power and fluid retention, most importantly in the lungs.
Definition — infection of the bladder and/or kidneys with bacteria, usually E. Coli, which normally inhabit the colon.
Common symptoms — burning urination; urinary frequency, urgency, dribbling; blood in urine; lower abdominal pain, flank pain, pain at lateral rib margin (overlying kidney); nausea, vomiting, fever, chills.
Diagnosis — can be presumed on basis of symptoms, plus presence of pus, blood, bacteria, and protein in urine sample. Urine culture is indicated if urinalysis is inconclusive, if infection does not respond to treatment, and always on completion of treatment to confirm healing.
Drug treatment — sulfisoxale (Gantrisin), orally; Ampicillin, orally. Other drugs may be chosen if infecting organisms are resistant to above medications.
Rationale — antibiotics are given to prevent bacterial destruction of kidney tissue. Repeated urinary infections are a common cause of diminished renal function and mild renal failure.
Definition — purulent infection of the mucosa of the genital tract, caused by neisseria gonorrheae.
Common symptoms — Male — burning urination, urinary frequency, purulent discharge from penis. Female — may have no symptoms; yellow, creamy vaginal discharge; lower abdominal pain and tenderness; fever, nausea and vomiting.
Diagnosis — Male — can be presumed by staining discharge and identifying organisms under microscope; should be confirmed by culture. Female — can only be made by culturing exudate from endocervix. Antibiotics should not be given unless a culture is done.
Drug treatment — 1) Probenicid 1 gm. (increases absorption), Penicillin, 2.4 million units injected in each hip. 2) Tetracycline, oral, 1.5 gms. initially followed by 500 mg. four times a day for four days. 3) Spectinomycin, injectable.
Rationale — antibiotics are given to prevent scarring in the genital tract and to prevent spread of bacteria through the bloodstream, where they can infect joints. Scarring in women can be a cause of sterility, blocking passage of the egg through the fallopian tube. In men, scarring can cause urinary obstruction, by narrowing the urethra, leading to possible infection and kidney damage.
A final thought on bugs and drugs. The overwhelming majority of interactions between man and bacteria are beneficial. Most bacteria are harmful when displaced from their normal environment (staphylococci in lung or heart instead of skin) or when stress to the system upsets the usual balance. Lewis Thomas comments, “Disease usually results from inconclusive negotiations for symbiosis, or overstepping of the line by one side or the other, and biological misinterpretation of borders . . . Pathogenicity [disease development] may be something of a disadvantage for most microbes . . . The man who catches a meningococcus is in considerably less danger for his life than meningococci with the bad luck to catch a man.”
PHENOXYMETHYL PENICILLIN, generic name. Common brand names: V-Cillin K, Pen VK, Compocillin VK, Veetids. Dosage and Storage: Slightly more effective taken between meals. Store in airtight, moisture free bottle, away from direct light. Side effects: May affect normal bacteria flow of body, allowing overgrowth of pathogenic organisms causing vaginal infections, diarrhea, or nausea and vomiting. Allergic reactions: Fairly high incidence. Severe reactions less likely with oral penicillin. 1) hive-like rash 2) swelling, wheezing 3) anaphylactic shock: respiratory distress, circulatory failure 4) rare bone marrow depression.
AMPICILLIN (synthetic broad spectrum penicillin), generic name. Common brand names: Amcill, Polycillin, Omnipen, Supen, Penbriten, Principen. Dosage and Storage: (same as penicillin). Side Effects: (same as penicillin), diarrhea particularly common. Allergic reactions: (same as penicillin), people allergic to penicillin are also allergic to ampicillin.
SULFISOXALE, generic name. Common brand names: Gantrisin. Dosage and Storage: (same as penicillin), do not take with antacids; they decrease absorption. Side effects: Nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, skin rash. Allergic reactions: Bone marrow depression, should not be given to pregnant women, lactating women, or infants under 2 months old.
TETRACYCLINE, generic name. Common brand names: Achromycin, Sumycin, Robitet, Tetracyn. Dosage and Storage: Do not take with antacids or calcium containing foods; decreases absorption. Outdated medicine is toxic, can damage kidneys. Side effects: Vaginal infections, diarrhea, sensitivity to light. Do not give during last trimester of pregnancy, to lactating women or children under age 8, permanently stains child’s teeth. Allergic reactions: Rash, anaphylactic shock, bone marrow depression.