Functional Medicine Offers Better Outcomes Without the Risk of Some Prescription Meds

DR. KEVIN RITZENTHALER, DC, DCBCN, Innovative Health


Today, it seems that there’s a “pill for every ill”. Advertisements for prescription medications have taken over nightly newscasts and magazines. As a society, taking prescription drugs is so commonplace that we often don’t give a second thought to popping the latest pill we are prescribed.

But should we be giving it a second thought? I would argue, yes, we should.

This article will offer some very important questions that you should be asking about any prescription drug you are taking. The answers to these questions may surprise you, and they may prompt you to take a serious look at other options for dealing with your condition.

Before I go any further, I think a few points of clarification are in order. I do not believe that all prescription drugs are evil, and I do not think you should throw away all of the drugs in your medicine cabinet. The purpose of this article is to ask some broad questions so that you can find out all of the facts and make the best decision for your individual health.

I will be using one prescription drug to help illustrate my point. I chose that particular drug because it is one of the most highly advertised drugs on the market, it has some dangerous side effects that warrant serious consideration, and it is prescribed for a condition for which there may be drug-free alternatives.

4 Important Questions to Ask About Any Prescription Drug:

  1. What are all of the risks and potential side effects of this drug?
  2. Is this treating symptoms or addressing the underlying condition?
  3. What is my exit strategy for this medication?
  4. What drug-free alternatives are available for this condition?

What I hope you will take away from this article are some questions to ask yourself and your doctor before you fill your next prescription at the pharmacy. I also want to encourage you to explore non-pharmaceutical options for some chronic conditions.

1. What are all of the risks and potential side effects of this drug? 

First, let’s start with a few questions. Raise your hand if you’re currently taking a prescription drug. If you’re reading this article, chances are your hand is up. Now, keep your hand in the air if you’ve fully read the entire information packet that came along with that prescription.

Is your hand still up? Woman holding three pill bottles.

I’d venture a guess that many hands are back down at your sides.

When we walk out of our doctor’s office with a prescription in hand, we presume it’s safe. After all, the FDA wouldn’t have cleared the drug, and our doctor wouldn’t have prescribed it, if it weren’t safe, right? It’s not unprecedented for a drug to be pulled from that market after its release due to safety concerns. You may recall that happening with, Accutane, Meridia, Raptiva, Redux, Vioxx, and many others.

Nearly every drug, even those currently considered to be safe, has side effects. Some side effects are common, others are rare. Some side effects are mild, but others can be fatal.

PHARMACEUTICAL DRUGS, A LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH IN THE U.S.

According to some estimates, dying from the proper use of prescription drugs is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. Notice that I said, “proper use”. This number does not include deaths from overdose, misuse, or prescribing errors. The deaths included in this estimate are ones that occurred in patients whose medications were properly prescribed and who were taking them as directed.

Let that sink in for a minute. Between 100,000 and 130,000 Americans die each year from drugs that are properly prescribed and taken as directed, and another 2 million Americans suffer “adverse events.”

The FDA itself is unable to provide accurate statistics for deaths and adverse events from prescription medications. That’s because there is no mandatory system in place to track them. The FDA’s current reporting system, FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), is a database of adverse events, medication errors, and product quality complaints associated with drugs and therapies. However, FAERS relies on voluntary reporting, and experts agree that it is capturing only a fraction of the incidents and deaths that occur.

By law, the FDA requires pharmaceutical companies to disclose risks and side effects in their advertising and labeling. If you think about the last drug ad you saw on TV, you’ll remember there being a list of side effects and warnings. But it’s pretty easy to gleen over the list of potential side effects when they’re read by a soothing voice over the backdrop of a video showing someone enjoying life.

Let’s look at the side effects of one of the most advertised drugs in 2018.

Humira™, is a drug prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ankylosing spondylitis, ulcerative colitis, plaque psoriasis, and other conditions. It is prescribed to reduce pain and inflammation with these diseases. Some of its most serious side effects include a reduced ability to fight infections, leaving you susceptible to tuberculosis, and other potentially fatal infections. It also increases your risk for certain types of cancer, some of which are rare, some of which are fatal. It may also lead to heart failure and liver failure.

At the time of writing this article, 472,570 adverse events have reported in FAERS for Humira since 2003. 173,354 cases were deemed “serious,” and 13,273 deaths have been reported. Remember, these reports may only include a fraction of the actual incidents.

It’s not uncommon for serious safety concerns to come to light only after a drug has been released in the market. In some cases, the concerns are addressed by changing the labeling and prescribing information. In other cases, the risks of a drug are determined to outweigh the benefits and the drug is pulled from the market.

Vioxx, a popular painkiller, was released in 1999 and pulled in 2004 due to high risk of stroke and heart attacks. Raptiva, a psoriasis drug was approved in 2003 and pulled in 2009 after being linked to life threatening infections including progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), which is fatal.

Something else to consider, especially when it comes to newer drugs on the market, is the effectiveness of the drug when compared to other drugs or therapies. Just because a new drug is on the market for a condition, that doesn’t mean that it’s been proven to be more effective or safer than existing alternatives.

What’s the moral of the story? Those rare, serious side effects happen to someone, and that someone could be you.

Ask questions. Research drugs that are prescribed to you and ask more questions. Make sure that you fully understand the relative risks and benefits of any drug that is prescribed to you so that you can make a fully informed decision.

2. Is this medication treating my symptoms or addressing the underlying condition? A picture depicting a man in a home that has been damaged by rain.

In many cases, drugs that are prescribed for various conditions are addressing the symptoms of the condition but are doing nothing to address the true cause of the condition itself. This means that you will continue to have the condition whether or not you take the drug. It also means that if you stop taking the prescription, your symptoms will likely return.

Here’s an analogy to understand the difference between treating a symptom and a condition. Let’s say that there’s a hole in your roof. During a rain storm, the hole allows water into your house resulting in puddles, a soggy chair, and a wet table.

You can use pails and buckets to catch the water to keep your furnishings dry. But until you fix the hole, the problem will always exist.

In this scenario, the soggy chair is a symptom of the true condition, which is the hole in the roof. Using pails to catch the water does provide temporary relief from the symptoms (wet furnishings), but it’s is doing nothing to correct the true problem (the hole in the roof).

Ask your doctor if the medication you’ve been prescribed is treating your symptoms or the underlying condition. Sometimes, you may need temporary symptom relief in order to work on treating your underlying condition. But, it’s essential to understand the difference.

3. What is my exit strategy for this medication?

The answer to question #2 above, will determine the answer to this question. Chances are good that if the drug is merely managing symptoms of a chronic condition, there will not be a long-term plan for you to get off of the medication.

If the drug is addressing the underlying condition, then there should be a point at which you will no longer need it.

4. What drug-free options are available for my condition?

Depending on the condition, your doctor may have other options for you to explore. It is also possible that your doctor might not have much to offer in terms of other options. That doesn’t necessarily mean that viable alternatives don’t exist, but they are likely outside of his or her traditional scope of practice.

It will be up to you to research and explore alternate choices.

Functional Medicine is a Viable Option for many Chronic Conditions

Functional medicine might be considered by some to be a “new” approach to treating conditions and diseases. In reality, it’s probably the oldest approach in the world. Hippocrates has been credited with saying, “The greatest medicine of all is teaching people how not to need it.”

Functional medicine identifies genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that influence health and induce complex, chronic disease. Functional medicine practitioners adhere to the principle that many chronic conditions can be resolved once the underlying cause is identified and corrected. When the body functions as it was intended, symptoms disappear, and medications may become unnecessary.

A real-world example of functional medicine in practice will help you to better under how this approach differs from traditional medicine.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a condition which results in painful inflammation and swelling in the joints. Over time, the inflammation can lead to permanent joint damage and loss of physical function. RA is classified as an autoimmune disorder. The means that the body’s immune system is attacking its own tissues, resulting in the painful inflammation.

The primary medical approach to treating RA is through pharmaceutical interventions to manage symptoms by weakening the immune system. The strategy is that if you weaken or block the immune system, the attacks and symptoms will be less severe.

Humira™ is the biologic medication mentioned earlier in this article. According to the Humira website, it is used to “to reduce the signs and symptoms of moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis in adults, may prevent further damage to your bones and joints, and may help your ability to perform daily activities.” It does this by “targeting and blocking a source of inflammation that contributes to joint pain and irreversible damage.” Photo of a woman holding her hand due to joint pain.

There are two major downsides to this approach. First, by suppressing your immune system so that it stops attacking itself, you’ve also decreased its ability to attack everything else – including bacteria, viruses, fungus, and parasites. Your immune system is also vital in recognizing and destroying abnormal cells – including cancer cells – this is likely the link between this drug and an increased risk of cancer in those who take it.

The second problem with this approach is that it has done nothing to find and correct the root cause of the problem. What will happen if you stop taking the medication? Will the symptoms return? Yes, it is likely they will. What has it done to fix the problem of your hyperactive immune system? Nothing.

It is not normal bodily function for your immune system to attack itself. Instead of trying to minimize the symptoms, you need to determine WHY the symptoms are occurring. The real condition is a hyperactive immune system incorrectly seeing joint tissue as something that must be destroyed. The condition we know as RA is essentially a symptom of the attacks.

Eighty percent of your immune system lives in your digestive system. It stands to reason then, that when looking for a cause of an autoimmune disease, the gut is a good place to start.

When the bacteria in your gut is out of balance, it is called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis can damage the lining of your digestive tract and increase inflammation. It has also been shown to be a trigger for autoimmune disorders, including RA. Chronic viral infections, nutritional deficiencies, and toxicity are additional autoimmune triggers. Some people may also have particular genetic predispositions that make them susceptible for autoimmune diseases. (For more information about the Functional Medicine approach to autoimmune disorders, read “Auto Immune Disease, There Is Another Way”).

A functional medicine doctor will conduct a detailed health history and may perform laboratory testing and a physical examination to determine the possible triggers for your autoimmunity. A treatment plan is then developed to address the underlying factors.

The functional medicine approach has been successful in minimizing and even reversing autoimmune disease (and other chronic conditions) by restoring the normal function to body without the potential risks and side effects of pharmaceutical drugs.

Functional Medicine: Low Risk, High Reward

Treating the root cause of a condition to restore health should always be the first option when it comes to any disease. Settling for symptom management, especially when it’s coupled with risky side effects, should be the back-up plan. It should only occur only when treating the underlying condition is not effective or not possible.

The functional medicine approach is a viable treatment option for any condition that has a biochemical foundation. It is impossible to list every condition that may be helped by the functional medicine approach, but some of the more broad categories include, autoimmune disease, heart disease, diabetes & pre-diabetes, chronic gastrointestinal disorders, skin conditions, thyroid disorders, ADD/ADHD, Autism, kidney disorders, menopausal symptoms, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and cancer prevention. There are many other conditions that can benefit from a functional medicine approach.

If you are dealing with a chronic condition or disease and want to know if functional medicine may be a viable option for you, I invite you to my office for a no-cost functional medicine consultation.

For additional resources and information, please see the following articles:

Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler, DC, DCBCN, is a Functional Medicine practitioner, diplomate in clinical nutrition, chiropractor, and owner of Innovative Health in Weston, Wisconsin. He can be reached at 715-355-4224 or via www.InnovativeHealthClinic.com. Initial consultations are always free of charge.