Far from being recognized for their potential health hazards, ADHD drugs have gained a reputation as “cognition enhancers” among students and young professionals. Narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, and antidepressants are also notoriously overprescribed, which I’ll address below.
“Prescription ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are becoming increasingly popular for overworked and overscheduled college students — who haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD…
The numbers vary significantly by school, with the greatest proportion of users at private and ‘elite’ universities. Some researchers estimate about 30 percent of students use stimulants non-medically.3
‘When we look at upperclassmen, the number really begins to jump,’ says Alan DeSantis, professor of communications at the University of Kentucky who has conducted research on stimulant use in college. ‘The more time you stay on campus, the more likely you are to use.'”
ADHD Drugs Are Far from Harmless
One 2008 study,4 which interviewed 1,800 college students, reported that 81 percent of them perceived illicit use of ADHD drugs as being completely harmless, or only “slightly dangerous.”
This is despite the fact that these drugs are Schedule II substances5 — just like cocaine, methamphetamines, and morphine. As such, drugs like as Ritalin, Vyvanse, Strattera, and Adderall have very real health risks. Commonly reported short-term side effects include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in sex drive
Accidental overdose and/or acute adverse effects are also quite possible, as recent statistics demonstrate. According to a report6 published just last year, ADHD drugs were responsible for nearly 23,000 emergency room visits in 2011.
This is a more than 400 percent increase in ER visits due to adverse reactions to ADHD medication in a mere six years.The increase was most dramatic among 18- to 25-year-olds. Far more serious adverse effects of ADHD drugs include:
- Permanent brain damage
- Liver damage
- Heart and blood vessel damage7
- Heart attack, stroke, and sudden death
- Changes in personality, depression and/or hallucinations, and suicide
- Increased cancer risk
Risks of Popular Anxiety Drugs Overshadowed by Opioid Epidemic
Benzodiazepines, a class of anxiety drugs, are also widely overused, and a common source of drug addiction. As reported by NPR:8
“The drugs first burst onto the scene in the 1950s and ’60s and quickly became known as ‘mother’s little helper,’ the mild tranquilizer that could soothe frazzled housewives’ nerves. More than four decades later, benzos — including Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan — are used to treat anxiety, mood disorders and insomnia.
Dr. Michael Kelley, the medical director of the behavioral department at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine, says he doesn’t go a single day without seeing somebody addicted to them…
‘They do produce a strong, physical dependence that can create life-threatening withdrawal seizures and other consequences, but I think that the perception that they’re harmful is low,’ he says.”
Even more disturbing, these drugs are frequently prescribed along with opiates—narcotic painkillers such as morphine, codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. Both benzodiazepines and opiates are sedatives that slow down your respiration, which can lead to death. This risk is greatly enhanced when these two drugs are mixed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),9the combination of benzodiazepines and opioids accounts for about 30 percent of all opioid-related deaths, which claim an estimated 16,600 lives each year.10
Narcotic painkillers have now been officially identified as a major “gateway drug” to heroin, which is less expensive than its prescription counterparts. The US Justice Department has even declared that prescription opiates and heroin are two of the most lethal substances available today.
US Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced his office is taking steps to address America’s burgeoning drug problem head-on. This effort includes11 but is not limited to tracking drug overdose trends, educating health care professionals and the public about prescription drug abuse, and promoting programs shown to prevent such abuse. The federal government will also require manufacturers of extended-release and long-acting opioids to provide prescribers with educational programs explaining the risks and benefits of opioid therapy, and how to select appropriate candidates for such therapy.12
Prescription Painkillers Increase Your Risk of Depression
There’s little doubt that many are completely oblivious to the risks of these kinds of prescription drugs. Or choose to turn a blind eye, in order to get quick relief. One side effect that many are completely unaware of is that narcotic painkillers (opioids) can significantly raise your risk of developing major depression.
Research shows the risk for depression can kick in after using opioids for a mere 90 days. Taking a narcotic painkiller for 90 to 180 days increased the risk for depression by 25 percent in study participants. Those who took opioids for 180 days or longer were at a 53 percent increased risk of developing depression compared to those who did not take such drugs.
It’s not entirely clear how narcotic painkillers induce depression, although it’s widely known that they have a strong impact on your brain. The drugs work by binding to receptors in your brain to decrease the perception of pain. But they also create a temporary feeling of euphoria followed by dysphoria that can easily lead to physical dependence and addiction. The researchers speculated13 that there could be numerous factors linking opioid painkillers with depression:
“Some of these include opioid-induced resetting of the brain’s ‘reward pathway’ to a higher level, which means the chronic use of narcotic pain killers can elevate the threshold for a person’s ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards such as a food or sexual activity. Other factors may include body aches months and years after the use of opioids has stopped, side effects such as adrenal, testosterone and vitamin D deficiencies and glucose dysregulation.”
The Antidepressant Generation
Depression, in turn, appears to be at epidemic levels, if you look at the number of antidepressants prescribed each year. According to CDC data,14 one in 10 American adults report some form of depression, and 11 percent of the US population over the age of 12 is on antidepressant medication!15 This despite overwhelming evidence showing that antidepressants do not work as advertised. In fact, at best, antidepressants are comparable to placebos, and at worst they can cause devastating side effects, including suicidal and homicidal tendencies, and deterioration into even more serious mental illness.
Clearly, what we have here is a gigantic spinning merry-go-round of drug use and addiction to mind-altering medications, where one drug frequently leads to the use of another. Not even pregnancy is reserved for chemical-free living anymore, and recent research16 shows that boys with autism are three times more likely to have been exposed to antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in utero than non-autistic boys. Those whose mothers used SSRIs during the first trimester were found to be at greatest risk. According to another recent study,17 more than 14 percent of pregnant women were prescribed opioid painkillers during their pregnancy, and researchers have yet to determine what effect this might have on children.
The full societal ramifications of all this pain-avoidance, whether physical or emotional, and the insistence on immediate relief, are probably far greater than any of us can conceive. A recent article penned by Dr. Doris Iarovici in the New York Times18 discusses some of the questions the widespread drug treatment for depression raises:
“[A] growing number of young adults are taking psychiatric medicines for longer and longer periods, at the very age when they are also consolidating their identities, making plans for the future and navigating adult relationships. Are we using good scientific evidence to make decisions about keeping these young people on antidepressants? Or are we inadvertently teaching future generations to view themselves as too fragile to cope with the adversity that life invariably brings?” she asks, noting that:
“We walk a thinning line between diagnosing illness and teaching our youth to view any emotional upset as pathological. We need a greater focus on building resilience in emerging adults. We need more scientific studies — spanning years, not months — on the risks and benefits of maintenance treatment in emerging adults.”
Key Factors to Overcoming Depression Without Drugs
It’s important to realize that your diet and general lifestyle are foundational factors that must be optimized if you want to resolve depression, because your body and mind are so closely interrelated. Depression is indeed a very serious condition. However, it is not a “disease.” Rather, it’s a sign that your body and your life are out of balance.
Mounting and compelling research demonstrates just how interconnected your mental health is with your gastrointestinal health, for example. While many think of their brain as the organ in charge of their mental health, your gut may actually play a far more significant role. The drug treatments available today for depression are no better than they were 50 years ago. Clearly, we need a new approach, and diet is an obvious place to start.
Research tells us that the composition of your gut flora not only affects your physical health, but also has a significant impact on your brain function and mental state. Previous research has also shown that certain probiotics can even help alleviate anxiety.19, 20 The place to start is to return balance—to your body and your life. Fortunately, research confirms that there aresafe and effective ways to address depression that do not involve unsafe drugs. This includes:
- Dramatically decrease your consumption of sugar (particularly fructose), grains, and processed foods. (In addition to being high in sugar and grains, processed foods also contain a variety of additives that can affect your brain function and mental state, especially MSG and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.) There’s a great book on this subject, The Sugar Blues, written by William Dufty more than 30 years ago, that delves into the topic of sugar and mental health in great detail.
- Increase consumption of probiotic foods, such as fermented vegetables and kefir, to promote healthy gut flora. Mounting evidence tells us that having a healthy gut is profoundly important for both physical and mental health, and the latter can be severely impacted by an imbalance of intestinal bacteria.
- Get adequate vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to depression and affects one in four people.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is very important for your mood. In one study, people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were found to be 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels.21 The best way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunshine, not swallowing a pill. Remember, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression that we know is related to sunshine deficiency, so it would make sense that the perfect way to optimize your vitamin D is through sun exposure, or a safe tanning bed if you don’t have regular access to the sun.
- Get plenty of animal-based omega-3 fats. Many people don’t realize that their brain is 60 percent fat, but not just any fat. It is DHA, an animal-based omega-3 fat which, along with EPA, is crucial for good brain function and mental health.22Unfortunately, most people don’t get enough from diet alone. Make sure you take a high-quality omega-3 fat, such as krill oil. Dr. Stoll, a Harvard psychiatrist, was one of the early leaders in compiling the evidence supporting the use of animal based omega-3 fats for the treatment of depression. He wrote an excellent book that details his experience in this area called The Omega-3 Connection.
- Evaluate your salt intake. Sodium deficiency actually creates symptoms that are very much like those of depression. Make sure you do NOT use processed salt (regular table salt), however. You’ll want to use an all natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt, which contains more than 80 different micronutrients.
- Get adequate daily exercise, which is one of the most effective strategies for preventing and overcoming depression. Studies on exercise as a treatment for depression have shown there is a strong correlation between improved mood and aerobic capacity. So there’s a growing acceptance that the mind-body connection is very real, and that maintaining good physical health can significantly lower your risk of developing depression in the first place.
- Get adequate amounts of sleep. You can have the best diet and exercise program possible, but if you aren’t sleeping well you can easily become depressed. Sleep and depression are so intimately linked that a sleep disorder is actually part of the definition of the symptom complex that gives the label depression.
Getting Off the Drug Merry-Go-Round
Between the rampant overuse of stimulants such as ADHD drugs, sedating anti-anxiety medications, pain-killing narcotics, and mind-numbing antidepressants, you’d think “life” was a disease to be medicated away. Of course there are situations where these drugs are warranted, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The fact of the matter is that all of these mind- and body-numbing drugs are grossly overused. I’d be willing to bet that a majority of people taking them are not appropriate candidates, and would fare much better were they to address the basic, core issues relating to their general lifestyle and health.
This includes proper diet, sleep, exercise, and employing effective tools for stress relief. Exposure to the outdoors, such as walking barefoot through a grassy field and getting appropriate amounts of sun exposure, also should not be underestimated. If you’re suffering from emotional or physical pain, I encourage you to peruse my inventory of tens of thousands of articles, which address these issues and offer a multitude of safe and effective alternatives.
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