How long-term medication harms – but why nothing may be done about it

In looking at mental health, we have previously examined the idea that while medication offers short-term relief, long-term change is brought about through lasting measures such as cognitive therapy. We have also seen that medication is more effective in individuals with more severe forms of mental health, while milder forms can also be dealt with through non-medicative measures. We can summarise by saying that the role of medication is to offer immediate relief, but over a long term, to stabilise the individual to a state where pressures or stressors can be managed to a point where they do not cause stress, but give the individual opportunity to live with them, while examining the root cause of their problems.

The underlying causes are usually non-medically related; they can be extrinsic factors such as the working enviroment or lifestyle. Medication is hence insufficient to deal with these because they cannot impact on them. The focus on the root of the problem is one that patients on medication need to ultimately address. Unfortunately patients taking prescription medicines often make the assumption that if a certain pharmaceutical drug has been prescribed to address a particular problem, then more of it, even within limits, can eventually help resolve it. That is only a mistaken assumption. Overdosing on medication does not address the root of the problem. It only lulls the body into a relaxed state, blinding us to the immediate surroundings, so while we feel calm, relaxed or “high”, this feeling is only temporal.

Medications and the prescription of medication are reactive, not proactive. They treat symptoms that have manifested, but do not treat the cause of the symptoms.

These views of medicine are not just limited to mental health problems; they can extend into physical realms. Take eczema for example. A doctor may prescribe creams containing hydrocortisone and paraffin for you to manage the itchy, red flaring skin conditions that usually see in eczema sufferers. However, these creams may only offer you temporary relief. As soon as you stop taking them, your eczema may return. Advocates of TCM, or traditional Chinese Medicine, suggest that eczema results from an overactive liver, and the trapped “heat” in the body, when it is seeking release, manifests itself as flared red patches over the skin. Creams such as paraffin or other barrier creams may be viewed actually as being counterproductive, because they only prevent the internal heat from escaping and make the eczema worse. Have you ever encountered anyone who, upon applying the cream for ezcema, reported it only worsened the itch? If you visit a TCM practicioner, you will probably be prescribed a cream with some menthol formulation for external use, oral medicine for your eczema, and the advice that in order to deal with the root cause of your eczema, you have to make changes in your diet – specifically, not to over-consume food such as fried food or chocolate, and to avoid alcohol and coffee.

It would be great if the immediate and short-term relief brought about by medication could be extended for long periods. If you were suffering from serious illness such as severe depression, the difference you feel would be very noticeable at the onset of medication. However, medication is only a short-term stress suppressant, buying time in order for longer-term (usually non-medical) measures to take effect. It is not the intention of any prescriber – be it a GP or pharmacist – that any patient be on medication for a prolonged period of time. While it might be good financially to have such patients, it is unethical to keep patients unwell to have a constant income stream and a source of revenue. In this situation the health of the patient has become secondary to the financial benefit he or she can bring, and it is against the ethics of the medical profession.

It is unwise to be on medication for long periods. First and foremost, the body adapts to the doseage and in time the effects that the medicine initially brought are diminished, to the point that either a higher doseage of the medicine is required, or the patient is switched to another new type of medicine which is more potent. In both cases, if medication is seen to be the cure, rather than just to buy immediate relief, then the patient will merely keep taking the medicine in the hope that one day it will completely cure his or her problems, and the potential for addiction to a higher doseage results. This is how all addiction begins, and it is unfortunate if patients who take medication find that it has not only dealt with their initial symptoms, but layered it with a secondary problem of addiction to painkillers.

Addiction is only one of the problems brought about by use of long-term medication. There is the possibility, too, that the body also adapts to new chemicals and is slowly malformed. But the negative impact of medication remains unnoticed until it reaches the tipping point and consequences are made apparent with a catastrophic event. With smoking, for example, constant exposure to the chemicals damages the lungs and malforms them, but often people only sit up and try to take corrective action when irreparable damage has set in and lung cancer has developed. Medication is on the opposite end to the scale as smoking and is taken at the onset to cure rather than harm, but it has the potential to change the human body when taken over prolonged periods.

But the changes are not necessarily just experienced by patients on medication alone. Research scientists from the University of Exeter found that, for example, certain species of male fish were becoming transgender and displaying female characteristics and behaviours, such as having female organs, being less aggressive, and even laying eggs. The fish had come into contact with chemicals in water near waste-treatment plants. Chemicals contained in birth-control pills, mixed with urine flushed down the toilet, were cited as a particular source of contamination.

When it comes to mental health problems, the best approaches are a mixture of medication and therapy. Give that medication is meant to be short-term, it is hence, important that therapy be as effective as possible in order for patients to entrust it to fully healing them, rather than depending on medication. This is of course more appropriate in instances of mental illness rather than physical illness that involve pain-relief. Nevertheless, in the latter case, where medication is for physical pain relief, some have suggested therapies such as hypnosis and acupuncture as long-term substitutes for pain medication.

It is worth the NHS examining such therapies in order to study the scientific evidence behind them, to glean any insight that could either be applied elsewhere to other treatments, or to find more cost-effective, longer-lasting treatments that will contribute to the NHS being a sustainable health service. Already, at the present time, the current model of the state being a mere provider and source of medicines and advice to its citizens cannot carry on. The cost of patient care will rise and drain its resources, and it would be more cost-effective to spend resouces to encourage citizens to actively take responsibility for their own health, and hence lessen the burden on the health service, rather than merely look towards it as a provider of medication.

There are also other reasons why the NHS has to prime itself for a move towards being a sustainable health service. It has to limit its carbon footprint in order to minimise the impact it has on the environment.

The prescription of long-term medication can ultimately have its impact traced back to the environment. Constituents of medication are either obtained from natural ingredients from foods grown on land, or manufactured in factories, which again, commandeer land use. The process of turning them into medication requires power and electricity, which either use up fossil fuels and produces fumes and greenhouses gases that result in global warming and instances of extreme weather, or renewable energy in the form of wind farms that still use up land, or solar energy from solar cells whose manufacture might have been through unsustainable means. Waste from manufacturing processes, or from the manufacture and the disposal of the medical product enters landfill or pollutes natural resources.

Land is a limited resource. More specifically, land that can grow useful crop is a limited resource. And so even if the current level of pharmaceutical manufacturing remains the same – perhaps, by some freak balance where the number of people being newly prescribed medication is equatable to the number of deaths – the land, along with the space available for landfill can never be refreshed on that basis. It might not make an immediate difference to you, but every individual has a civic responsibility, as a global citizen, to preserve the earth to make it habitable for future generations, to avoid killing off the human race.

Essentially, we need to lower our dependency on medication to avoid this impact on the environment. So that future generations have a habitable environment.

The problem is in convincing pharmaceutical companies to embrace this thinking. These companies depend on sales and if sales were to fall, so would profits and the price of shares. Pharmaceutical companies are accountable to their shareholders, and need to raise their share prices and create growth. The moment they start thinking about sustainability, they are looking to reduce their growth, and their share price would stagnate. Would you invest in a company with stagnant growth? Thought not. And if a company reports less profit, the government would have raised less revenue through tax and has to make up the shortfall somehow.

Being on long-term medication harms the body, among other things by creates changes in the body and fostering dependency. Ultimately it has significant bearing on the environment. The challenge is for us to wean ourselves off long-term medication, only using it in the short term while we address the root causes of our problems through therapy. On a wider scale, we need to create new business models because current ones actually depend on a sizeable number being unwell, in order for the economy to function. Surely that last statement is not ethical in itself and must raise incredulity – that in this day and age we are not trying to heal people, but maintain a threshold of well and unwell people that is economically beneficial!