“One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small.
And the ones your mother gives you don’t do anything at all.”

– Darby Slick

Imagine the public outcry, says Bernard Rimland, Ph.D., if two commercial airliners crashed in mid-air each day of the year. A chilling thought – but that’s how many people die each day from prescription drugs, says the San Diego, Calif., nutrition and autism researcher.

Drugs are a big business. Last year, aggressive marketing and sales rang up revenues of more than $100 billion dollars for the top 12 pharmaceutical companies. Rimland, who has long questioned the benefits of heavily promoted pharmaceuticals, refers to them as “sub-lethal doses of toxic substances” that kill an estimated 150,000 Americans each year. Rimland also likes pointing out that the 3,000-page Physicians Desk Reference, a compendium of prescription drugs, would probably be only about 100 pages long if all the drug side effects, warnings, and contraindications were deleted. That’s an example, he says, of how dangerous prescription and OTC drugs are.

In contrast, natural therapies, which include vitamin and mineral supplements and herbal remedies, can often do the job of drugs, but with greater safely and at a lower cost. Vitamins and minerals also play roles in normal biochemistry and maintaining, so they’re less likely to cause side effects. “You don’t get a headache because you have an aspirin deficiency,” Rimland quips.

If you find yourself regularly reaching for the medicine cabinet to deal with ailments from headaches to hypertension, consider some of the natural alternatives to the top over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs. Of course, if you’re taking medicine to treat a chronic condition, please work with your physician to transition from one treatment to another.

Alternatives to the Top 5 OTC Drugs

Analgesics. Tylenol and Advil are the best-selling OTC drugs in the United States. Most analgesics, which also include aspirin, are used to relieve headaches, muscle soreness, and inflammation and pain related to arthritis or injuries.

Natural alternatives abound. To ease joint or muscle pain, apply a topical capsaicin (pronounced cap-say-uh-sin) cream, made from the active ingredient in hot peppers. Roy Altman, M.D., of the University of Miami School of Medicine, recommends using capsaicin cream to ease sore arthritic joints, and his studies have shown that it does work. The cream’s warm sensation goes away with regular use – as does the pain. Just recently, Neil Ellison, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic reported in the August Journal of Clinical Oncology that capsaicin cream also relieves post-surgical pain. He had asked patients to rub the cream around their incision sites for eight weeks. Most benefited from pain reduction after using the cream.1

Taken orally, the omega-3 fatty acids, popularly known as fish oils, have a powerful antiinflammatory affect, easing the pain and swelling associated with rheumatoid arthritis and injuries.2 So do common antioxidants, such as vitamin E and Pycnogenol.

Natural therapies can also help people suffering from migraine headaches. Long-term use of the herb feverfew (Tanacetum pathenium) inhibits blood vessel dilation and can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. Other studies have found migraine sufferers to be low in magnesium, and magnesium and taurine (an amino acid) supplements sometimes help.3

Antacids/Antigas. A few years ago, heartburn was a pain in the chest. Today, drug companies have repositioned heartburn as “acid reflux disease.” Aggressive marketing has made Pepcid AC the third most popular OTC drug and Tagamet and Zantac big sellers as well.

While heartburn is characterized by excess stomach acid backing up into the esophagus, its actual cause can be an undiagnosed food allergy or sensitivity. Eating fewer processed microwavable or “fast” foods, with a lot of suspect additives, and taking the time to de-stress and enjoy your meal, can often eliminate heartburn.

Also, consider taking a small amount of “buffered” vitamin C, which will temporarily lower your stomach acidity, plus give you a little extra of an important nutrient. In addition, several studies have reported that licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), rich in antioxidants, can relieve heartburn.

If flatulence is a problem, again reevaluate what you’re eating. Food allergies can contribute to this problem but some foods, such as beans, contain gas-producing compounds. By eating beans on a regular basis, though, people often start producing the enzymes needed break down these compounds. Fermented foods, such as yogurt or kefir, or “probiotic” capsules, contain legions of beneficial bacteria that can control the gas-producing bad ones in your gut.

Cold Remedies and Lozenges. Robitussin, NyQuil, and Halls cough drops and lozenges are very popular OTC drugs. But all they do, at best, is temporarily relieve cold symptoms. You can do more than that with vitamins, minerals, and herbs.

If you feel a cold coming on, act fast: pick up some zinc lozenges at a health food store and suck on one every two waking hours. According to research by Michael L. Macknin, M.D., of the respected Cleveland Clinic, doing so greatly relieves cold symptoms and cuts the length of a cold almost by half, from about 7.6 to 4.4 days.4 The lozenges are much more effective when taken at the start of a cold rather than after you’re very sick. Stop taking them when you have recovered.

High doses of vitamin C – 2 to 6 grams daily – can also ease cold symptoms. Divide the dose so you take the vitamin several times during the day and follow the “bowel tolerance” concept. If you start to develop diarrhea, reduce your dose slightly. According to Robert Cathcart, M.D., of Los Altos, Calif., the amount just below what causes loose stools is your ideal dose. High doses of N-acetyl-cysteine, a form of the amino acid cysteine, also relieve cold and flu symptoms – and can even bolster the immune system against AIDS.5 Try 1,000-2,000 mg daily.

Allergy relief. Benadryl, Contact, and Sudafed are commonly used to treat allergic rhinitis, the sneezing and thick-headed feeling you get when you’re hypersensitive to pollens and other allergens.

There are a number of alternatives. Vitamin C might be of benefit, along with such antioxidant flavonoids as Pycnogenol and quercetin. All are natural antihistamines, and they won’t make you drowsy. Elliott Middleton Jr, M.D., who recently retired from the State University of New York, Buffalo, reported in the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology (1995;107:435-6) that quercetin inhibits the activity of cells that release histamine, which causes allergic symptoms.6

The herb feverfew, rich in flavonoids, might also relieve allergies. And crazy as it might seem, bee pollen has a devoted following as a remedy for allergies. Senator Tom Harkin, a democrat from Iowa, suffered from severe pollen allergies until, on the advice of a friend, he began taking bee pollen.7 Solid scientific evidence to support bee pollen is hard to find – some older studies show benefits and others show people going into anaphylactic shock after taking pollen.8 Pollen advocates typically recommend consuming one granule of pollen daily and slowly upping the dose to avoid a negative reaction.

Laxatives. Being constipated is a sign from nature that you’re not eating right. Ask yourself: do you want to continue not eating right, or do you want to do something good for your body.

X-Lax and Metamucil might get you going, but simply adding a little fiber and water to your diet is a lot more natural. Drinking several glasses of water daily enlarges and softens stools, while fiber speeds the movement of food through the intestine. Fruits and vegetables contain both fiber and water. Eating a bowl of whole grain (minimally processed) cereal in the morning, or sprinkling bran on cereal, are other good ways to add fiber. There’s an added benefit – fiber moves cancer-causing substances out of your digestive tract and reduces the long-term risk of colorectal cancer.

If you want something that’s more forceful, so to speak, increase your vitamin C intake until you feel it loosening your stools. If you’re eating a high-fiber diet, but still get constipated from time to time, occasionally try some Aloe vera. A warning, though: the result could be explosive, so don’t take aloe on a regular basis.

Alternatives to the Top 5 Rx Drugs

Just because a physician prescribes a drug for you doesn’t mean that it’s the best therapeutic option. Doctors often recommend drugs because of savvy marketing by pharmaceutical companies, which are not going to suggest cheaper and more natural alternatives.

Estrogen replacement. Premarin, the best-selling drug in the world, racked up more than $1 billion in sales last year for its maker, Wyeth-Ayerst. This estrogen-replacement drug, made from horse urine, is prescribed to relieve menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes. But most women suffer such severe gastrointestinal side effects from Premarin that they stop taking it after less than a year.

Some physicians, such as Susan Love, M.D., of Los Angeles, believe that the marketing of Premarin is designed to turn a normal process, menopause, into a condition that needs to be treated. Marcus Laux, N.D., of Marina del Rey, Calif., recommends numerous natural alternatives in his book, Natural Woman, Natural Menopause (HarperCollins, 1997). Among them are isoflavones, found in soy foods, and also available in supplements.

Isoflavones are a type of antioxidant flavonoid that has mild estrogen-like properties. Recent studies of menopausal women have found that isoflavones can reduce the number and intensity of menopausal hot flashes. (See the Oct. 1997 Let’s Live.) The herb black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) has very similar properties and a long history of use as a folk medicine to treat menstrual cramps and menopausal symptoms.

Antibiotics. Trimox, a form of amoxicillin, is the top-selling antibiotic in the United States. Sure, it kills germs. But the over-use of antibiotics breeds antibiotic-resistance bacteria – germs that are immune to antibiotics! Amoxicillin also destroys large numbers of protective “good” bacteria that reside in your intestine, making you more vulnerable to other infections.

Probiotic capsules or tablets, containing beneficial bacteria, have long been used to restore intestinal bacteria destroyed by antibiotics. According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they might actually protect against many infections. Gary W. Elmer, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, Seattle, reported in JAMA that probiotics greatly reduced the risk of gastrointestinal and vaginal infections.9

Garlic is well documented for its antibacterial properties and its ability to increase resistance to infection, according to The Natural Health Guide to Beating the Supergerms, by Richard P. Huemer, M.D. Huemer recommends making liberal use of garlic in foods or taking it in supplemental form. He also points out that there is considerably scientific support for the herbs echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).10

Antidepressants. Books have been written extolling the benefits of Prozac, an antidepressant that’s one of the best-selling drugs in the United States. If you’re having a bad day, Prozac (or Zoloft, a competing drug) isn’t for you. But if you’re feeling down all the time and see no hope for getting better, you might consider a natural antidepressant.

The herb St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) may be the biggest rival to Prozac and Zoloft. There have been dozens of medical journal articles published on St. John’s Wort. Last year, in the British Medical Journal. Klaus Linde, Ph.D., of Ludwig-Maximillians University, Munich, analyzed the effect of St. John’s Wort on 1,757 patients in 23 studies. St. John’s Wort, often referred to as simply hypericum, was “significantly superior” to dummy pills.11

Although St. John’s Wort is extremely safe, do not take it for bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder or with mono-amino-oxidase (MAO) inhibiting drugs, such as the antidepressant drugs Nardil and Parnate, cautions Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D., author of Hypericum & Depression.12 St. John’s Wort works in part as a “serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI),” and combining an MAO inhibitor and an SRI can increase blood pressure to dangerous levels.

Vitamin B1 can also improve and stabilize mood, according to a study of 120 college students by David Benton, M.D., of the University of Wales, Swansea.13 And a study of 11 men found that low selenium levels were associated with depression and confusion.14

Although Ritalin is not really an antidepressant, it is becoming a popular behavior-altering drug used in the treatment of attention-deficit disorder (ADD). David Horrobin, D Phil, BM, BCh, a British researcher and editor of the journal Medical Hypotheses, has found that supplements of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can improve ADD by correcting brain chemistry. GLA is found in evening primrose oil and DHA is found in fish oil supplements.

Blood-Pressure Lowering Drugs. High-blood pressure, known as hypertension, is a major contributor to coronary heart disease. Increased pressure on blood-vessel walls damages them, setting the stage for cholesterol deposits and vessel ruptures.

Vasotec is the most prescribed medication for hypertension, but there are natural and easy ways to lower blood pressure. David McCarron, M.D., of Oregon Health Sciences University has reported that calcium, magnesium, and potassium lower blood pressure. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed the blood-pressure-lowering benefits of potassium.15

Garlic supplements have also been reported to lower blood pressure. Manfred Steiner, M.D., Ph.D., of East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C., gave male subjects nine “aged garlic extract” capsules or placebos daily for six months. Men taking the garlic capsules had a modest drop in blood pressure and cholesterol.16

Anti-Ulcer Drugs. Zantac is the most popular prescription drug for treating peptic ulcers, but most makers of anti-ulcer drugs have had to scramble over the past couple of years. It turned out that most ulcers are actually caused by a bacterial infection, Helicobacter pylori, not by excessive stomach acid.

H. pylori infections are easily treated with a brief antibiotic regimen. But if you have an ulcer not caused by this germ, consider trying two herbs: licorice root and bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Numerous medical studies have found that a key component of licorice root, deglycyrrhizinated licorice, promotes the healing of ulcers.

Bilberry is the European version of common blueberries, so eat more of this fruit might help against ulcers. Both bilberry and blueberry are rich sources of anthocyanidins, a type of flavonoid also found in Pycnogenol. In addition, another flavonoid, catechin, has also been reported of benefit in treating ulcers. Pycnogenol and green tea also contain catechin.

Natural alternatives to drugs are almost always safer, less expensive, more effective, and with fewer side effects. While it’s always best to stay in good health, sometimes you do have to resort to more aggressive treatments of specific conditions. When you do, think natural.