Pharmaceutical drugs have a place in our lives. In acute situations, they can quell serious symptoms and even save lives. But they are not without their problems.
People seek out supplements in health food stores for one of two reasons, says Darrin Peterson, CEO of the LifeSeasons supplements company. “They’ll say, ‘My doctor gave me a prescription drug for a health issue, and I don’t want to take drugs. Do you have something more natural I can take?’ Or the second thing that happens is that they’ve been prescribed a drug, but they don’t like how the side effects make them feel.”
A third, lesser-known problem is that pharmaceuticals can deplete nutrients in the body or that supplements can alter the effectiveness of drugs. So it’s wise to know which classes of pharmaceuticals and supplements do and don’t play well together. Here are some classic cases:
Statin drugs are a blockbuster drug category used to lower cholesterol levels. The problem is that statins deplete the body of coQ10, which helps create energy on a cellular level. CoQ10 is particularly abundant in muscles, especially the heart. A problem arises: Patients take statin drugs to improve a marker of cardiovascular health; meanwhile, the heart’s vitality decreases.
In Canada, the national regulatory body requires a black-box warning on statin drug containers that recommends coQ10 use when taking statins. No such warning exists in the United States, however. Studies show that statins do indeed deplete the body of coQ10, so it makes sense that coQ10 depletion could account for the top side effect of statin drugs: muscle pain and weakness.
We like Doctor’s Best Ubiquinol at 100 mg because ubiquinol is the reduced form of coQ10 (the usual form is ubiquinone); thus, the body may absorb it more easily. The 100-mg dose is a solid amount for coQ10 maintenance, but for those who have already suffered cardiovascular events, the 300-mg dose may be better.
One of the most popular herbs in the 1990s, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is commonly recommended for people struggling with mild to moderate depression. A typical drug prescription given to those trying to overcome depression and/or anxiety is for SSRIs—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
SSRIs, though, come with several known side effects, from drowsiness and insomnia to nausea and diarrhea. Some people have reported feeling overly tired or suffering from a range of symptoms called serotonin syndrome when taking St. John’s wort at the same time as SSRIs.
St. John’s wort has also been documented to lead to unwanted pregnancies in women while using oral contraceptives. The herb may also reduce the effectiveness of some drugs, because it speeds up activity in a key biochemical pathway responsible for their breakdown. Because of this, if you are taking any prescription medications, it’s a good idea to discuss St. John’s wort with your doctor. If you take St. John’s wort, consider Gaia Herbs, which grows many of its herbs on its own 300-acre organic farm in North Carolina. Its Meet Your Herbs program lets you see precisely where in the world the St. John’s wort in your bottle comes from. That’s a level of transparency that builds trust in your plant medicine.
Antibiotics are a ridiculously popular prescription physicians dole out to fight bacterial infections. The problem is twofold. First, antibiotics are widely acknowledged to be overly prescribed, leaving many to be concerned about evolving bacteria that will become resistant to the antibiotics.
Secondly, antibiotics indiscriminately kill all bacteria, and that includes the good bacteria throughout your GI tract. That makes it important to take a lot of probiotics as soon as your antibiotic regimen is over, so you can repopulate your body with good bacteria. It’s also a good idea to take probiotics during your antibiotic intake. Take the probiotics in-between doses, so the good bacteria have time to exert a positive benefit before the antibiotics wash them away.
A major problem with antibiotics is antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Only a few strains of probiotics have shown to benefit this: Lactobacillus GG, Saccharomyces boulardii and Bacillus coagulans. Culturelle is the classic supplement brand of Lactobacillus GG.
A common prescription medication to prevent harmful blood clots from forming or growing larger is warfarin. It’s used in diagnoses including irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia) and blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolism) or legs (deep vein thrombosis), according to the UC San Diego Health Anticoagulation Clinic.
However, there are lots of things that interfere with its effectiveness, according to the Mayo Clinic. These include medicines such as antibiotics and aspirin; botanicals like ginkgo, ginseng and green tea; and plants containing vitamin K, like leafy greens, spinach and broccoli. Cranberry juice and alcohol can also interact with warfarin.
This is why a comprehensive discussion with your doctor is essential if you’re prescribed warfarin (brand name: Coumadin). Rather than avoiding healthy vitamin K-containing foods completely, such as leafy greens, many doctors recommend patients instead eat a consistent amount of them daily. Some doctors even recommend a low-dose vitamin K supplement, depending on the situation.
British researchers 25 years ago first discovered a curious interaction between grapefruits and certain drugs. It seems the citrus fruit impairs drug metabolism, thus increasing drug concentrations. Specifically, grapefruits interfere with the activity of the CYP3A4 enzyme, which is involved in the breakdown of about half of all drugs.
In one human study, researchers gave healthy volunteers 200 ml (about 6 ounces) of grapefruit juice for three days. On the third day, they gave the subjects a single 40-mg dose of simvastatin—one of the statin drugs used to lower cholesterol levels. (Typical doses range from 5 mg to 40 mg.) The grapefruit juice more than tripled the concentrations of the statin drug, which could increase both the cholesterol-lowering effect and the risk of side effects.
Studies on women taking estrogen to help themselves through menopause have been equivocal—one study showed that women who ate a grapefruit a day had a higher risk of breast cancer, while another more recent study found no association.
The counsel here is that if you’re taking pharmaceuticals, you should ask your doctor to monitor your blood to see if your consumption of grapefruits (and certain other citrus fruits) is boosting the drug’s effects.
And that goes for all supplements. If your doctor prescribes you a pharmaceutical drug, provide her with a complete list of your supplement intake. That way you can get the best use of all your healing agents.