THE BLOG

Revolutionary Way to Be Healthy #8: Minimize Symptom Suppression

02/06/2015 07:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

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So, the guy says to his doctor, "Doc, it hurts when I do this." And the doctor says to the guy, "Then don't do that."

OK, it's silly, old-fashioned humor (attributed alternately to Henny Youngman and to the 1920s vaudeville duo Smith and Dale). But you know what's even sillier, and arguably more old-fashioned? The exchanges that happen in many real-life doctors' offices today.

Too often, in response to all sorts of health complaints, we're likely to be given the same pat advice: "Take this drug. Carry on as usual, and then come back when it gets worse."

The result? According to a 2013 Mayo Clinic report, about 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug. More than half take two. And 20 percent of patients take five or more.

The vast majority of those prescriptions are for antidepressants, painkillers, antacids, antibiotics, and cholesterol- and blood pressure-lowering medications.

Most are designed to alleviate the symptoms of lifestyle-related conditions but don't in any way address their causes, or effectively offset their damage.

Our doctors are not the only ones to blame for our overmedication. As consumers, we've been trained by pharmaceutical advertising to go looking for symptom-suppressing drugs, and even to insist on them, rather than taking ownership of our bodies' well-being.

We've been taught to think of a great many maladies (from dry eyes to social anxiety) as "diseases."

We've bought into the idea that popping a pill will return us to health -- or at least allow us to continue living pretty much the way we have been, but without quite as much discomfort.

To some extent, this is understandable. None of us likes to suffer. None of us likes to worry. Most of us dread having to significantly change our lives.

So if a medication can mask our symptoms, ease our pain, or take our troublesome cholesterol or blood pressure reading down a notch, it's hard not to think that's a pretty good idea.

The problem is, just because a symptom fades doesn't mean that its underlying cause has vanished.

Think about what happens when you burn something in the oven. Your kitchen smoke alarm goes off. It is painfully loud and very annoying. So you disconnect the alarm. The infernal beeping stops.

But that doesn't mean the problem is handled, right? So the very next thing you do, presumably, is to turn off the oven and deal with the charred pizza, or whatever's smoking away in there.

As you're opening the windows and clearing the burnt-food fumes out of your kitchen, you might also take a moment to contemplate what went wrong. Maybe you set the oven for the wrong temperature? You forgot to set the timer? You overloaded the pizza with cheese?

Once you know the source of the problem, you might make an effort to avoid repeating it in the future. If you're really savvy, after the soot clears, you might also take a moment to reconnect your smoke alarm.

This is how we'd do well to relate to a lot more of our health complaints. A symptom would draw our attention to an underlying problem (e.g., an imbalance, weakness, or source of inflammation). We'd be eager to investigate and address that problem right away. And if we chose to take a symptom-quieting drug, we'd do so with the goal of muting the "alarm" just long enough to take care of whatever underlying issue had triggered it in the first place.

But in reality, that's rarely the way things work. Instead, we experience a symptom, suppress it as quickly as possible, and then forge along for years with our ovens going full blast and acrid smoke filling up our homes.

As more alarms go off, we just keep getting more prescriptions. Maybe we don an industrial-strength gas mask and earplugs so we can tolerate the noise and stench.

This takes some of the fun out of our lives. We experience side effects, interactions, a loss of pleasure and vitality. Meanwhile, it's causing some real damage to our bodily homes. And if another fire were to start, say in the basement or attic, we might not even know about it until it was too late.

Obviously, that's not a great plan. So, what's a healthier way of relating to our symptoms as they pop up?

  • Recognize that your body's symptom-creation strategy is pretty brilliant. It tends to proceed from minor alarms (rashes, fatigue, irritation, discomfort, slightly out-of-range lab-test results) to major ones (debilitating pain, alarming readings, systemic dysfunction, tissue damage, loss of function, organ failure). The sooner you choose to pay attention to the small warning signs, the less need your body will have to pull out its bigger guns.
  • Stop playing "whack-a-mole." Know that a symptom occurring in one area of the body (e.g., your lungs, joints, or skin) might well be originating with a disturbance elsewhere (e.g., your gastrointestinal system). Unless the underlying challenge is addressed, suppressing a given symptom may simply result in new and different symptoms popping up in new and different locations.
  • Get into the habit of asking why. Why is your digestion not working right? Why is your skin acting up? Why are you experiencing pain or fatigue? Why are your labs off? Chances are good it has something to do with the way you are living -- your nutrition, activity, sleep, stress, environment, or sense of connection. And most prescription meds are not going to address those core issues. So if your doctor isn't willing or able to help you sort out the root causes of your maladies, find another health professional who is. If you aren't willing to consider how lifestyle factors are playing into your problems, recognize that you are playing fast and loose with your health.
  • Investigate the prescriptions you are taking now. Find out how they work, and what normal bodily mechanisms they interrupt. Statins, for example, force cholesterol down, but they don't address the reasons the body is overproducing cholesterol in the first place (typically, chronic inflammation caused by lifestyle factors). Plus, they can have a range of health-and fitness-sacrificing side effects. The same is true of a great many prescription medications. Make a point of knowing yours.

There are certainly good reasons to take prescription medications now and then. They can help knock back infections, spare us misery, and buy us time and focus for dealing with underlying health issues.

But, when relied on excessively and over the long haul, symptom-suppressing strategies can do more harm than good, triggering new disorders and depleting our overall health and resilience in the process.

Whenever we go to the doctor with a lifestyle-related symptom, what we're really saying is this: Doc, it hurts when I live this way. And the solution, while not quite as simple as the old joke punch line, is just about as straightforward.

REVOLUTIONARY READING

"The Other Drug Problem" -- The prescriptions we take to regulate cholesterol, blood pressure, and stomach acid are supposed to make us healthier. But could these medications be doing us more harm than good?

"Game Changers" -- 12 big ideas that are shifting the way we think about health.

"This Is Your Body on Ibuprofen" -- How NSAIDS -- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin -- can cause more pain than they relieve.

Pilar Gerasimo is a nationally recognized healthy-living expert, author of A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World, and the creative force behind the 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy. She serves as senior vice president of Healthy Living for Life Time, the Healthy Way of Life Company, and is currently working on a book about the art of being healthy in an unhealthy world. Learn more about Pilar's work and connect with her via social media at PilarGerasimo.com.