The Worst Medications for Your Brain
Seventy percent of the people in the U.S. take at least one prescription drug. You’ve probably heard this number before, but it’s worth repeating. It’s a scary number. It means that out of every ten people you know, seven of them are taking some kind of chemical with the potential for damaging side effects. Because let’s face it — if there’s a single drug out there that doesn’t have side effects, it’s the best kept secret in the world.
Fifty percent of us take two different prescriptions. And twenty percent take an incredible five or more. Some sixty-four million of us are swallowing five — or more! — pills per day. And that’s just the prescriptions. When you add over-the-counter drugs to the equation, the number is truly astronomical.
Every single one of these drugs has documented side effects. That’s why they have warning labels. Many are so dangerous that it’s hard to believe they’re still on the market. Some injure your liver or kidneys. Some cause heart attacks or strokes. Some cause cancer. And some — often the drugs you’d least expect — have damaging effects on your brain. Which drugs affect your brain the most?
The “anti” drugs
Some of the worst offenders belong to a class of drugs called anticholinergics. This includes a variety of different drugs, most beginning with “anti” — antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics, etc. These drugs block a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is vital to forming memories and learning new things.
Anticholinergics are well-known to cause confusion and memory loss. People with Alzheimer’s disease invariably have very low levels of acetylcholine. Seventy percent of the people in the U.S. take at least one prescription drug. You’ve probably heard this number before, but it’s worth repeating. It’s a scary number. It means that out of every ten people you know, seven of them are taking some kind of chemical with the potential for damaging side effects. Because let’s face it — if there’s a single drug out there that doesn’t have side effects, it’s the best kept secret in the world.
Fifty percent of us take two different prescriptions. And twenty percent take an incredible five or more. Some sixty-four million of us are swallowing five, and taking just one of the drugs in this class makes you four times as likely to develop dementia. Taking two or more raises the risk even higher.
Common examples of anticholinergics include:
- Benadryl or any other drug containing diphenhydramine. This includes many over-the-counter cold and allergy remedies, especially those with “PM” in the name.
- Many OTC sleep aids such as Sominex. These usually contain diphenhydramine.
- Dramamine, an OTC motion sickness pill.
- Paxil, an antidepressant.
- Detrol, prescribed for urinary incontinence.
- Demerol, a painkiller.
- Elavil, an anti-anxiety drug, also used to treat nerve pain.
Ambien and its siblings
If the risk of driving in your sleep wasn’t enough of a reason to stay away from Ambien and the other drugs in its class such as Sonata and Lunesta, here’s another: they hurt your brain. Measuring the brainwaves of people taking these drugs shows something startling. Instead of having normal sleep brainwaves, they instead have the same patterns as people in a coma. This means that these so-called “sleep aids” don’t really put you to sleep — they just make you unconscious.
Unconsciousness and sleep are not the same thing. Sleep is what allows your brain to do routine housekeeping. It’s when we turn short-term memories into long-term ones. And it’s when your brain clears out chemical and physical debris. Recent studies tell us that people who don’t get enough sleep develop the same beta-amyloid plaques that we see in Alzheimer’s brains, and that getting enough sleep allows the brain to remove them.
Lipitor, Crestor, and the other cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins have been the most profitable drugs of all time for the pharmaceutical industry. If Big Pharma has its way, each and every one of us will end up taking statins one day. Even though the cholesterol-heart disease link has been pretty thoroughly debunked, the guidelines for who is “eligible” to take these drugs gets broader every year.
And so does the list of side effects, including effects on your brain. After years of ignoring evidence about how harmful these drugs are, the FDA now lists “memory loss and confusion” as just two of many side effects on the warning label.
Ritalin, Concerta, and other prescription stimulants
As the push to medicate “adult ADD” gets bigger — and it will — expect to see more adults taking these drugs. And look to see long-term negative effects on our brains, too. New studies show that these drugs decrease the brain’s plasticity. That is, they make it more difficult for the brain to create new connections and pathways. They also make it more difficult to form memories and to learn new things, and preliminary research suggests that they may physically damage a part of the brain involved in processing rewards.
Medications are an often-overlooked cause of memory problems and even what may, on the surface, appear to be dementia. If you suspect that your medications are affecting your mind, here’s what you can do:
- Make a list of every single drug you’re taking, both prescription and over-the-counter. Make a note of how much you take and when you started taking it.
- Talk to your doctor about why you’re taking each prescription. Is it really necessary? Does it interact with any other drugs? What happens if you stop? If you have more than one doctor, talk to all of them.
- Fill all your prescriptions in one place, and talk to the pharmacist about any possible drug interactions. Pharmacists often know a great deal more about the drugs you’re taking than your doctor does.
- Look into non-drug alternatives wherever possible.
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