Herbal Alternatives to Over-the-Counter Drugs
Herbs offer a safe and effective alternative to many over-the-counter drugs. With mounting evidence about the adverse consequences of many common medications, think of this as a way to detoxify your medicine chest.
When you choose herbs for common complaints, it’s important not to self-diagnose and to see your medical practitioner when appropriate. Most of us are comfortable taking care of a cold, an occasional headache or simple indigestion on our own, without seeking medical attention. Let your body and common sense guide you.
If you do take prescription medications, always be sure to check out the possibility of interactions with over-the counter medications and with herbs. You can start with this online herb & drug interaction checker or talk to your pharmacist or practitioner.
If you happen to stroll the aisles of your local drug store you’ll find non-prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) medications for a seemingly endless variety of symptoms from allergies, to colds and flu, digestive complaints, and poor sleep. Itching, belching, sneezing, coughing, you name it and there’s probably an OTC drug for it.
These drugs may provide temporary relief, but in most cases they do very little to bring the body back in to balance. This is where herbs excel! Not only do they help you feel better, they can speed recovery and promote healthy function and tissue repair.
So, detox your medicine chest and fill it with these herbal alternatives. If you feel a cold coming on late at night or suffer an unexpected bout of indigestion after dinner, you’ll be glad you already have these remedies on hand.
HEARTBURN + INDIGESTION
If you’ve experienced heartburn (acid reflux or gastro esophageal reflux disease (GERD)) you may have used an over-the-counter drug like Prilosec, Prevacid, or Nexium. These drugs are called proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) and are designed to suppress stomach acid. Even putting aside the fact that most people who suffer from heartburn don’t have excess stomach acid, these drugs have serious side effects. Keep in mind that stomach acid plays a vital role in keeping you healthy. It inhibits bacterial overgrowth in the gut and helps your body break down and absorb critical nutrients. Bacterial overgrowth in the gut can eventually lead to compromised immunity.
Long term use of these drugs can lead to calcium and magnesium imbalance in the body and put you at risk for osteoporosis. These drugs are also associated with an increased risk of kidney disease and may be cause or accelerate dementia. Need I say more?
Herbal alternatives to PPI’s help soothe hot, inflamed irritated tissue, improve tissue health and promote digestive function. Herbal carminatives act to ease gas and bloating without suppressing function. Bringing your body back into balance will also involve looking at your diet, food sensitivities and other lifestyle issues. While you’re making the needed changes consider these herbal allies.
Hay fever and seasonal allergy sufferers are likely to reach for over-the counter antihistamines and nasal decongestants. Antihistamines block histamines (produced in an allergic response) from binding to receptor sites. Most antihistamines cause drowsiness because the brain requires histamine function for mental alertness. Now researchers have found a link between long-term use of some antihistamines (those know as anticholinergic medications) and dementia. This includes common over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton. Some of the newer antihistamine drugs are less likely to cause drowsiness, but they still come with other common side effects like dry mouth, sore throat, hoarseness and nose bleeds, not to mention other more serious, but less common side effects like heart palpitations, jaundice and seizures.
If you suffer from seasonal allergies, why not switch to something natural, nourishing to the body and without side harmful side effects? There are many herbal options to reduce the allergic response, dry up excess secretions and relieve itching. Look for products that contain the natural antihistamines like Nettles and Quercetin or consider a simple inhalation of German Chamomile essential oil.
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COLDS + FLU
Common over-the-counter remedies for colds and flu are usually some combination of antihistamines (see Allergies, above), decongestants, analgesics (like aspirin or Tylenol), and cough suppressants. Despite wide-spread use, many studies have demonstrated that they offer little beyond a placebo effect. Analgesics do reduce fever but in doing so, they suppress the body’s own healthy immune response. In the case of the common cold, immune suppression can lead to a more serious infection and increase the duration of the cold.
Herbs on the other hand can help the body fight back, offering anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties along with stimulation of the body’s own immune system. Keep these herbs in your home medicine chest if you want to be prepared for cold and flu season.
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HEADACHES | JOINT + MUSCLE PAIN | MENSTRUAL CRAMPS
When it comes to pain, the most commonly used over-the-counter drugs are acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin and ibuprofen (i.e., Advil and Motrin). These pharmaceuticals are not only toxic, they can make worse many of the conditions they are used to treat. Tylenol alone is responsible for more emergency room visits than any other drug. Drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, are responsible for about 16,500 deaths in the US annually and more than 100,000 hospitalizations. They also damage the intestinal tract and are proven to accelerate osteoarthritis, a major cause of joint pain, and one of the reason doctors so often recommend NSAIDs to their patients. Tylenol is associated with frequent unintentional poisoning and Tylenol overdose is the leading cause of liver failure and a common cause of kidney failure in the US.
There are many good herbal alternatives for pain. It helps to focus on the cause of the pain, inflammation, muscular, or otherwise and choose the herbal remedies accordingly. As with any health issue, a holistic approach requires that you also look at and modify any diet and lifestyle factors causing or contributing to the problem.
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Common over-the-counter sleep aids like Unisom and Nytol are actually antihistamines. Remember from the discussion of allergies above, that these drugs cause drowsiness because the brain requires histamine function for mental alertness. This might seem like a good idea for occasional insomnia, but many people rely on these pharmaceutical drugs night after night, putting themselves at greater risk of dementia. These drugs also disrupt normal sleep patterns and the vital repair functions the body performs while we sleep.
Fortunately, there is a wide range of herbal products that promote a good night’s sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, be sure to look at underlying issues (diet and lifestyle) that may be disrupting your sleep. For a more in-depth discussion of good sleep habits and herbal remedies for sleep check out this article, 5 Herbs + Essential Oils for Better Sleep. For occasional sleep problems, stock these herbs in your medicine chest.
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Now you know the alternatives. Go take a good look through your medicine cabinet and see what needs to be replaced. If you wind up disposing of some of the over-the-counter drugs in your home, post a picture of the medicine chest detox or better still post a picture of your newly stocked herbal medicine chest and what you’re saying good-bye too, and tag it #nectarapothecary on Instagram. I love seeing what you’re up to!
If you have questions, please post in the comment section below.
Wishing you health and happiness,
The Anticholinergic Cognitive Burden, Beyzarov, Elena , PharmD, http://www.pharmacytimes.com/publications/issue/2012/april2012/the-anticholinergic-cognitive-burden, April 8, 2012; accessed July 18, 2017
Association of Proton Pump Inhibitors With Risk of Dementia, A Pharmacoepidemiological Claims Data Analysis, Gomm, Willy, PhD, et al., AMA Neurol. 2016;73(4):410-416. See also http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/2487379.
Common Anticholinergic Drugs Like Benadryl Linked to Increased Dementia Risk, Merz, Beverly, Harvard Women’s Health Watch, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/common-anticholinergic-drugs-like-benadryl-linked-increased-dementia-risk-201501287667; accessed July 18, 2017.
Is Your Medicine Making You Sick?, Murray, Michael, ND, http://doctormurray.com/is-your-medicine-making-you-sick/; accessed July 8, 2017.
Natural Alternative to Over-the-Counter and Prescription Drugs, Murray, Michael, ND, William Morrow and Company, 1994.
What the Drug Companies Won’t Tell You and Your Doctor Doesn’t Know: The Alternative Treatments That May Change Your Life–and the Prescriptions That Could Harm You, Murray, Michael, ND, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2009.
Why I Won’t Take These ‘Safe’ Drugs, Northrup, Christine, MD, http://www.drnorthrup.com/three-drugs-that-i-would-not-take/; accessed July 18, 2017.
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