Aggressiveness. Hallucinations. Confusion. Stomach bleeding...
Even spoken in the dulcet tones of TV drug hucksters, side effects sound scary. Or at least they should. "Anytime you take a drug, whether it's prescription or over-the-counter, you're accepting a certain amount of risk," says Sandra Kweder, M.D., deputy director of the office of new drugs at the FDA's center for drug evaluation and research. "If you take it regularly, that risk only goes up."
It's not just side effects you should be wary of. Many meds are costly and often aren't as effective as drug-free strategies. "Taking something doesn't always make you as healthy as doing something can," says John Abramson, M.D., a lecturer in health policy at Harvard medical school and the author of Overdosed America. "It's better to try a lifestyle modification first. That way you're actually trying to achieve better health, not just masking symptoms with drugs."
So we rolled up our sleeves and found eight popular medications that our experts say can be most readily dumped in favor of DIY strategies. Read on for a healthier, drug-free you.
Instead of cough syrup, try a dose of honey
Think about how long it takes honey to travel down the inside of a plastic bear squeeze bottle, out its head, and onto your toast. You can check your e-mail, Facebook, and the Dow while waiting. Well, that same thick, viscous quality makes honey a perfect substitute for cough syrup. Both do essentially the same thing--coat the throat, relieving irritation.
In fact, a recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that a spoonful of honey was better than dextromethorphan (DM), the active ingredient in Robitussin DM and other cough suppressants, at halting hacking in children. Honey should work equally well in adults, says study author Ian Paul, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Penn State University. The best part: You won't feel dizzy or light-headed--one of the side effects of taking DM.
Try buckwheat honey, a darker variety that contains more antioxidants than lighter shades do. (Antioxidants may help prevent heart disease and cancer, scientists believe.) Take 2 teaspoons when you want to quiet your cough--at night or before a meeting, for example--but don't try to squelch the cough altogether. Productive daytime coughing can help loosen and move mucus out of your lungs.
Instead of NSAIDs or acetaminophen, the warrior pose
What's the first thing you do when your back starts hurting? You probably stretch and twist your torso in an instinctive attempt to work out the kinks you're feeling. Your body is onto something: In a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a therapeutic yoga technique known as viniyoga reduced peoples' chronic back pain enough for them to decrease or even eliminate pain medications. And in so doing, they spared themselves the potential liver or gastrointestinal damage that can result from long-term reliance on NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen and aspirin) or acetaminophen. After all, chronic back pain can persist for 3 months or longer after an acute episode, possibly leading sufferers to stay on these medicines longer than the labels recommend.
The people in the study spent 75 minutes once a week doing the cobra, wheel, bridge, supine butterfly, swimmer's posture, and warrior, among other yoga poses. Not only will you increase your strength and flexibility with these poses, but you may also become more aware of movement habits you've slipped into that caused the pain to begin with, says study author Karen Sherman, Ph.D., a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute, in Seattle. To see how to do these moves, go to MensHealth.com/yoga.
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Instead of painkillers, try fewer pills, more sleep
Who would've thought that taking medicine to stop pain could actually perpetuate the pounding? This can happen with certain headache "remedies." "A medication-overuse headache can occur when people who have frequent headaches take painkillers 15 or more days a month," says Peter Goadsby, M.D., director of the headache center at the University of California at San Francisco. Doctors don't fully understand why it happens, but it appears to occur most often when people take compound analgesics--that is, medicines with multiple active ingredients, such as Excedrin (which contains aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine) or Tylenol with codeine.
Avoid the compound meds, and scale back using any pain pills as much as you can tolerate, Dr. Goadsby says. Strive for no more than two a week. Then focus on your sleep as a way of heading off headaches. The areas of your brain that contribute to your cranial pain are also involved in sleep, he says. By sticking to a strict--i.e., consistent--sleep schedule, you may be able to desensitize those trouble spots.
Instead of antidepressants, try retraining your brain
To fight depression, consider battling the negativity head-on. That's the thinking behind a DIY treatment known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). With this technique, you focus on controlling your reactions to certain thoughts and emotions--you learn to see them objectively rather than allowing them to sweep you away. In recent studies, MBCT proved to be as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapse, and more effective at enhancing quality of life. "When people stop taking antidepressants--and they often do because of side effects--they're vulnerable to relapse," says Willem Kuyken, Ph.D., of the mood disorders center at the University of Exeter. "MBCT gives people skills that help keep them well."
One MBCT technique, the "3-minute breathing space," is designed to help end the swirl of negative thoughts in your head. You start by focusing on how your body feels as well as on what you're thinking and feeling right now. Then you shift your attention to your breathing to bring yourself further into the present moment. Finally, you expand your awareness back out to your entire body while deliberately breathing in and out. If that sample feels effective for you, ask your doctor to recommend a therapist trained in MBCT.
Instead of sleep aids, try a few late nights
Chronic toss-and-turner? Just give up. Go flip on Letterman. That's because cutting back your restless hours by delaying your bedtime could ultimately point you toward more solid slumber--and keep you off prescription sleep aids, says Lee Ritterband, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Virginia's department of psychiatry. That's good, because drugs like Ambien aren't permanent solutions. "Sleep medicines commonly lose their effectiveness over time because your body can grow used to them," says Men's Health advisor W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia.
If you usually go to bed at 10 p.m. but don't nod off until 1 a.m., try to hit the sack at 1 a.m.--but wake up the same time you ordinarily would, Ritterband suggests.
"You're creating some sleep deprivation, of course," he says, "but that makes it easier to fall and stay asleep on subsequent nights." After a few weeks of this, start pushing your bedtime up in 20-minute increments to see if you can maintain the gains.
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Instead of laxatives, try turning on the waterworks
Your colon moves. It twitches and tightens to keep things rolling down the line. But your colon can slow down or absorb too much liquid (for any number of reasons, including insufficient fiber in your diet, inactivity, dehydration, or certain meds), making waste linger and dry up. That's constipation. Americans spend about $725 million a year on over-the-counter laxatives, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Frequent users typically need to increase the dose over time because their bowels become dependent on the medicine. (Some laxatives create small bowel spasms to help things along.)
Eliminate the laxative habit by downing two full glasses of water before breakfast. Liquids add fluid to the colon and bulk to stools, making them softer and easier to pass. While you're at it, eat a banana or an apple.
"The bulk provided by their fiber stimulates the bowel to move in a rhythmic way--hence the phrase 'bowel movement,' " says Dr. Abramson.
"Why would you use something to irritate your bowel--which is what many laxatives do--when you can simply eat fruit instead?"
Asthma and Allergies
Instead of daily medicines, try an air filter
Instead of trying to change the way your body responds to irritants--that's how most asthma and allergy meds work--go after the irritants directly. Whole-house air filters and even portable units can significantly reduce the triggers that cause your wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing, says Ted Myatt, Sc.D., a senior scientist at the consulting firm Environmental Health and Engineering, near Boston. His 2008 study in Environmental Health found that high-efficiency in-duct air filters reduced cat allergens by up to 55 percent and fungal spores by up to 75 percent. Your doctor can tell you whether home filtering can minimize your need for an OTC or prescription drug.
A whole-house air filtration system has a big price tag--$900 to $1,200 for installation into existing ductwork. Or you can place a portable HEPA air filter in your bedroom, where you spend most of your time at home. Myatt's study found that a portable unit like the $115 Hunter QuietFlo HEPA 30090 still does the job in a single-room scenario.
Instead of antiviral meds, try jacking up the humidity
Wage your flu battle at the hardware store, not the pharmacy. Your weapon of choice: a humidifier. "The airborne influenza virus survives longer in drier air," Myatt says. His newest study in Environmental Health found that a humidifier in a bedroom produced significant reductions in flu-virus survival. Given the disputed effectiveness of the popular antiviral drug Tamiflu-- a 2009 study was underwhelmed by it--this ounce of prevention has obvious appeal.
If the flu is going around, place a portable humidifier in your bedroom and set it for 50 percent humidity, Myatt says. Better-quality models come with microbe-fighting UV lights or silver in their filters. We like the Air-O-Swiss 7135 humidifier, at $170. Bonus: It'll keep your skin from becoming itchy and scratchy as well.
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