House of Cards

It sure feels like the house of cards is crumbling. Hardly a week goes by without some pharmaceutical drug or other turning out to have unacceptable side effects. Yesterday it was hormone replacement therapy, today it is Vioxx, tomorrow it’ll be Viagra. You think I’m joking? There used to be a myth (maybe there still is) that certain sexual practices would make you go blind. Well, the use of Viagra might be added to that list very soon. It turns out that Viagra regulates a chemical that constricts the body's arteries and ophthalmologists are now identifying certain types of people who are susceptible to having the blood supply to the optic nerve cut off if they use it.

The March 2005 issue of the Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology (pg.. 9-13) reports that a “team of ophthalmologists has identified a condition that caused permanent blindness in a group of males who had taken Viagra...Nonarteritic ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION)... is depicted as "stroke of the eye" and takes place when the blood flow is cut off to the optic nerve, injuring the nerve and causing permanent vision loss...”

Or take Interferon, a drug that is a genetically engineered copy of a protein found in low levels in the human body. It is produced naturally in animal cells with the purpose of stimulating healthy cells to manufacture an enzyme that counters infection when they are invaded by viruses.

Alpha interferon, one of the three distinct types that have been identified, is used to treat Hepatitis C and B, genital warts, certain types of leukemia as well as some rare blood and bone cancers.

There probably is a good reason why the body only produces low levels. The other day I met with a patient who was prescribed Interferon for the treatment of his non-active Hepatitis C. Although I had read a little about the drug’s side-effects, it was hard not to be appalled at the lasting effect it had on her long after the drug had been discontinued.

It was particularly troubling in light of the fact that she had felt perfectly fine and was totally asymptomatic when a blood test turned up positive for the virus. And, from my perspective, it was even more distressing because there are a variety of natural, nontoxic treatments for Hepatitis C, especially in the non-symptomatic stages, which are quite effective.

It doesn’t take much investigative prowess to come up with a pretty long list of the possible side effects of taking Interferon. Common ones include fatigue (which can continue on long after treatment has ended), flu-like symptoms (like fever, chill, headache, and muscle aches), diarrhea, appetite loss, a metallic taste in the mouth.

There also can be a depression in the functioning of the bone marrow which can lower white and red blood cell counts as well as platelets. Low white cells increases the risk of severe, possibly life threatening infection. Low red cells makes you tired, pale or breathless and might make it necessary to get a blood transfusion. Low platelets causes bleeding like spontaneous nosebleeds or bleeding gums, bruising or tiny red spots on your limbs called petechiae.

Of course, you don’t want to carry a baby or even father one when taking the stuff because it may have a harm the developing fetus. Other, occasional (as opposed to ‘common’) effects include rash or itching, hair thinning, abnormal liver enzymes, heart irregularities and mental problems like low moods, confusion and sleepiness.

This last one is what got my patient. She developed a profound, unshakable depression which, as I have said, has carried on long after discontinuing the Interferon. Her enthusiasm for life and work has melted away, replaced by apathy and lethargy. Whereas once she couldn’t wait to start her job in the morning, now she just can’t wait to get home as soon as possible.

As research showing the problems with various drugs comes to light and the list of questionable ones grows, it is hard not to induce that conventional pharmaceutical agents are for the most part, by their very nature dangerous. The reasoning that has produced them does not take into account the cause of illness - just the results. Using them is a trade off - symptoms are often made to disappear, but the underlying disturbance remains.

Symptoms for the most part serve as a way by which the body discharges poisons and seeks to attain some form of stability in its diseased condition. Under the action of the drug, with the cause in tact and without the original symptoms, the body will be provoked to produce different symptoms which are often more severe than the earlier ones.

Every time new evidence questions the safety of a conventional drug, we need to ask ourselves, “Isn’t there a better way?”

Next time we’ll take a look at some startling information about a drug that millions of children and adults are being prescribed and to which our educational establishment has become addicted: Ritalin.

Two recent studies contain both good and bad news about the treatment of children labeled as having Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD).

The bad news first. A recent study associated the use of the central nervous system stimulant methylphenidate, best known to most of us as Ritalin, with chromosomal abnormalities that have been associated with higher cancer risks and other health problems.

Ritalin has been around for about half a century, but it has only been in the last 15 years that its use has exploded. Last year, in the United States 29 million prescriptions were written for it and other similar stimulants used to treat attention problems and hyperactivity. The vast majority of these, some 23 million, were for children.

There have been some animal studies indicating that there is a link between Ritalin use and cancer, but this is the first study with humans.

In the study, University of Texas researchers worked with a dozen 8 year old children with ADHD. Blood samples were taken from the children before and three months after starting Ritalin at normal therapeutic doses (20-54 mg/day. (El-Zein RA, et al. Cytogenetic effects in children treated with methylphenidate. Cancer Letters 2005)

White blood cells were tested for chromosomal damage using several testing methods. It was found that there was a threefold increase in the level of chromosomal damage in the samples taken after the children were started on Ritalin.

While the study size was small, the most surprising result was that all of the children showed these abnormalities. In the words of the researchers, "In every individual examined, there was a statistically significant increase in every genotoxic endpoint analyzed… for each of the parameters tested."

It was also pointed out that this class of drugs (which includes Concerta, the new time released methylphenidate, and Adderall, which is an amphetamine) are all amphetamine based and that similar chromosomal damages have been observed in users of metamphetamimes. The researchers concluded that, "the lack of research on the long-term effects of methylphenidate use in humans warrants great concern."

Aside from the chromosomal damage, there are many other problems associated with these drugs. For instance, side effects associated with Concerta include: abdominal pain, aggravation, nervousness, hostility, sadness, dizziness, headache, tics, insomnia and prolonged sleepiness, loss of appetite, increased coughing, sinusitis, upper respiratory tract infection, vomiting, allergic reaction, increased blood pressure and psychosis (abnormal thinking or hallucinations).

This last side effect is perhaps the most troubling. In one 5 year study (Cherland and Fitzpatrick, 1999) of children diagnosed with ADHD, 9% of the ones treated with methylphenidate developed psychotic symptoms, including hallucinations and paranoia. And in all of these cases, the symptoms stopped once the drug was discontinued. There were no cases of psychosis in the children in the study who were not given these stimulants. In their conclusion, the authors of the study suggested that because of poor reporting, the actual occurrence of psychosis in children taking drugs like Ritalin or Concerta is probably higher.

Often the problems caused by these drug side effects are compounded by a misinterpretation of the cause. Instead of removing the child from the drug, more drugs are prescribed on top of the offending one to treat the side effects.

In an article entitled “Confirming the Hazards of Stimulant Drug Treatment”, Dr. Peter R. Breggin, psychiatrist describes the vicious cycle this way:

“In my practice of psychiatry, I am frequently consulted about children who are taking three, four, and sometimes five psychiatric drugs, including medications that are FDA-approved only for the treatment of psychotic adults... Usually under pressure from a school, the parents instead acquiesced to put their child on stimulants prescribed by psychiatrists, family physicians, or pediatricians.”

“When these children developed depression, delusions, hallucinations, paranoid fears and other drug-induced reactions while taking stimulants, their physicians mistakenly concluded that the children suffered from "clinical depression," "schizophrenia" or "bipolar disorder" that has been "unmasked" by the medications. Instead of removing the child from the stimulants, these doctors mistakenly prescribed additional drugs, such as antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and neuroleptics. Children who were put on stimulants for "inattention" or "hyperactivity" ended up taking multiple adult psychiatric drugs that caused severe adverse effects, including psychoses and tardive dyskinesia (involuntary movements of the tongue, lips, face, trunk, and extremities).”

So, the good news? A very thorough Swiss study was published European Journal of Pediatrics which followed 62 children diagnosed with ADHD. These children were carefully screened to verify the diagnosis screening instruments to verify the diagnosis of ADHD, and to exclude other diagnoses.

In the first phase of the study, the children were treated with a constitutional homeopathic remedy carefully chosen to match their individual symptoms and character. Then, only the children who improved by at least 50 percent on an ADHD rating scale were included in a “crossover phase” in which they were randomly assigned to either receive the appropriate homeopathic medicine or a placebo in a blinded trial. Following this, the groups receiving the remedy and placebo were reversed. Finally, the children were given their homeopathic medicine in an open label phase.

The study showed that children continued to show improvement while taking the homeopathic medicine during the crossover phase of the trial and in the last post-crossover phase. There was no improvement while taking placebo.

For a deeper understanding of the homeopathic treatment of ADHD, look for a book entitled “Ritalin-Free Kids : Safe and Effective Homeopathic Medicine for ADD and Other Behavioral and Learning Problems”, by Robert Nd Ullman, Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman. It is an interesting and informative, full of actual case histories.