By the ANH team


Many people assume that when their GP writes a prescription for them, the drug they’re given is ‘safe’ and they trustingly take it and wait to be healed. On the 20th January 2010, the UK’s BBC 2’s Horizon aired a program regarding the pharmaceutical pill industry that probably caused many peoples belief systems to spin.

The program talked about the global pill industry as "an ongoing clinical trial in which we all take part", and outlined our reliance on these pretty coloured tablets. The BBC said “Drug discovery often owes as much to serendipity as to science, and that means much is learnt about how medicines work, or even what they do, when they're taken. By investigating some of the most popular pills people pop, Horizon asks, how much can they be trusted to do what they are supposed to?”

The main thing that was validated by this program was that these drugs cannot always be trusted to work and more often than not have more side effects than they do benefits. For example, it is suggested that statins be taken to help lower cholesterol levels. For the one benefit of lower cholesterol, you may also be subject to fever, nausea, muscle aches, cramps and liver problems. And, it is suggested that these be given to people to stop them getting high cholesterol, not because they have high cholesterol.

Successful failure

Some of the drugs we take are accidental; unsuccessful formulations that are re-labelled and sold as something other than what they were originally intended for because they cause a strong side effect that is marketable. Viagra is the most commonly known example of this. Originally developed as a drug for angina, it was unsuccessful in its treatment of this condition but thankfully, for drug-maker Pfizer, displayed an interesting side effect.

Horizon also showed the process that the ‘wonder drugs’ we have today went through during ‘Research and Development’. A hit and miss, experimental and expensive process culminating in the public being the guinea pigs for the ‘live’ trials, with everyone keeping their fingers crossed for a few years while the short and then long term effects of the drug became evident. With the massive expense of making a new drug, its no wonder that the pharma industry has been accused of pushing it’s drugs to recoup some of the money it has spent making them. As Tim Dowling from The Guardian pointed out “it's so expensive, slow and thankless that the only possible way to make money from it is to ensure that as many people as possible are prescribed your new drug, whether they need it or not.”

With all the time and expense that goes into these drugs it is no surprise that they need to be popular and, above all, deemed a necessity. Does it make you think about the swine flu pandemic that never really amounted to anything? Does it make you wonder why you rushed out and had that vaccination?

Over-use and over-reliance

Over time, the use of new-to-nature therapeutic agents has become by far the dominant means of disease management and, given their high cost and relatively low and unpredictable efficacy, has resulted in a medical paradigm that is relatively ineffective, untenable and almost certainly unsustainable. Although there has been a decline in the average rate of infectious diseases, there has been an incline in the rate of chronic diseases with it expected that they will be accountable for almost 75% of deaths worldwide by 2020.

With this in mind, and remembering that it is widely accepted that nutrition and lifestyle approaches are key factors in the aetiology of chronic diseases, it seems counter-effective that a visit to the doctor lasts a very short time, 5 or 10 minutes and, in the majority of instances, results in the prescription of pharmaceutical drugs.

Mainstream health professionals (doctors, nurses and pharmacists), have very limited formal training in either nutritional or lifestyle strategies and healthcare delivery is primarily curative rather than preventative in nature. Since the development of chronic diseases is dependent to a large extent on nutritional and lifestyle habits exercised during childhood and early adulthood, curative approaches are both relatively ineffective and are certainly uneconomic as compared with preventative strategies applied during the earlier years of life. Even in the USA, where integrative medicine is more widely accepted than in many other parts of the world, nutrition education in medical schools is considered inadequate by public health researchers.

Lets talk numbers

Using data from the USA, over 3 billion prescriptions are filled each year, averaging around 10 prescriptions for every person in the USA annually. With an average cost of $54.34 per prescription in 2007, the annual cost of these prescriptions is about US$165 billion, the equivalent of $550 for every American each year. Adverse drug reactions (ADRs), which increase exponentially in those taking 4 or more different medications, are now the fourth leading cause of death in the USA, putting them in front of pulmonary disease, diabetes, AIDS, pneumonia, accidents, and motor vehicle deaths.

With all this in mind, it’s interesting that it seems so easy to get a drug licensed when much of the time, it turns out, pharmaceutical companies don't really know what effects a new pill has until they launch it. Foods and natural ingredients have been ‘tested’, albeit outside of laboratories, for millions of years and anything with healing or positive properties has been used for these reasons, and anything with a negative effect discarded and avoided. Given that food has millions of year’s worth of evidence and so little is known about a drug when it goes onto the market, why should it be necessary to prove to the world that foods are safe? In an environment where we rely heavily on evidence, the evidence is already there and has been for years.


To Sustainable Healthcare

To ANH Homepage