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Amy M. FitzPatrick, MS, L.Ac. Headshot

What Are Those Prescription Drugs Doing in Your Body, Anyway?

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You Live in Your Body -- Not Your Doctor, Part III

It was a long and arduous process, but after years of research and millions of dollars, various drug companies have probably managed to offer you remedies for some of your ailments. These remedies came in a little brown bottle full of pills expertly prescribed by your physician. Probably, some pills made you feel better, some made you feel worse and others just plain didn't work.

They usually come in a small pharmacy bag with all manner of warnings stapled to them. If your prescription came in packaging from the drug maker, it also came with a rice-paper thin, folded up tome of science gibberish. This is alternately called patient information, the package insert or just "the PI."

You probably routinely throw out this little nugget and just read the dosage stickers and "take with food" icons affixed to the bottle. Go to the trash and get that paper out.

No seriously, now. This PI is a treasure trove of information you never knew you wanted but that you really should have. If it's covered in coffee grounds already, then go to the drug website and find the "patient information" or the "important safety information tab."

Here's why.

OK, there are few reasons -- most are boring except to nerds like me -- but the most interesting reason is side effects.

Side effects may also be referred to as "adverse events." Lately they've been called "untoward events," which sounds more like you didn't mind your manners at afternoon tea than that your drug gave you unremitting diarrhea.

In any case... the side effects are important to know about, so you can recognize if you are experiencing any and can tell your doctor. But the concept of "side effects" is essential to understand because of what it implies.

Side effects tell us about the lack of precision of a medication. Again, I will caveat: I am a medical writer, and not against Western drugs used appropriately. But rather, I want to illustrate our role as patients in the use of these drugs. And one way to illustrate this is to learn about what these things we willingly ingest are, in fact, all about.

A clear cut and common example is morphine. If you have had surgery, you have almost certainly had morphine or some opiate derivative of it (OxyContin, Oxycodone, codeine, dilaudid, etc.).

Opiates help dull pain. They act on opioid receptors in your brain and spinal cord to stop your perception of pain. Useful. Opiates can also make you terrifically constipated. This is somewhat less useful.

Turns out, the same receptors that are in your brain that tell you about pain are also in your intestines helping it to move waste out of your body. (There are opioid receptors in a number of places in the body, but we will focus just on these two.)

The point is:

1.) It will behoove you to know that morphine can do this -- because post-op constipation is particularly painful and can be prevented or mitigated if you know it is coming.

2.) The body uses these same receptors for completely different functions -- and your bloodstream will carry the drug to most or all of these receptor types. This means the drug may act in many places, not just the one that you (and your doctor) want it to act.

Furthermore, this only addresses the receptors we do know about. We don't know how every cell works or how every substance that comes in contact with those cells is going to react. Some side effects don't make sense to what we know yet... as I pointed out in my previous entry, science is still evolving and learning. There are still a lot of unknowns.

Makers of prescription medications go through some serious hoops to 1) identify side effects, and 2) to justify that the curative effect of the drug outweighs the side effects.

It's high time we as consumers of those drugs go through one or two hoops to learn about what we are ingesting -- both for our own safety and for our education. (It's fun, really, I promise!) It is your body, after all, that you are putting that medication into. Empowering yourself to understand what the drug may do or shouldn't do will help put you in charge of your own healing, let you know when you should call your doctor for more help and provide education about the wonderfully fun things we call our bodies.

That said... needing to take as few drugs as possible should be all of our goals and something we all try to work toward. So, please make the lifestyle changes that can make that possible, if that's applicable to you. But if you do need to take prescription meds, understand as much as you can about them before you ingest them.

For more by Amy M. FitzPatrick, MS, L.Ac., click here.

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