We assume that over-the-counter meds for common ailments such as allergies and sleeplessness are safe. The most popular brands of these drugs are staples in many homes and children even know them by name.
Like every other assumption, we go along until we find a very good reason to change our minds. When it comes to allergy and insomnia medication, new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Neurology shows that these pharmaceuticals definitely aren’t safe.
Effects on Memory and Brain Atrophy
Researchers have found that use of common anticholinergic medications has a profound effect on memory and brain atrophy in older adults.
“Cholinergic” refers to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is responsible for involuntary muscle movement; anticholinergic medications block this chemical in your brain (1).
They are used in allergy, cough, and cold medicines; as well as drugs that treat incontinence, motion sickness and nausea, seizures, insomnia, asthma, depression, and muscle spasms and pain (2).
The study examined a group of 451 people 65 years of age and older with normal cognitive abilities using laboratory tests for glucose metabolism and cognition. In a first of its kind, the study used brain imaging to detect how anticholinergic drugs impact the brain. In the test group, subjects had been regularly taking at least one anticholinergic drug over an average of 2 ½ years.
At the end of the study, patients in the test group showed lower memory scores and a reduction in the size of the cortex and temporal lobes of the brain (atrophy) (3).
The study concluded: “The use of AC medication was associated with increased brain atrophy and dysfunction and clinical decline. Thus, use of AC medication among older adults should likely be discouraged if alternative therapies are available.”
This Information Isn’t New
A previous study had already discovered the link between cognitive decline and the use of over-the-counter drugs.
In this study, researchers sought to trace anticholinergic drugs specifically to dementia. The newest study aimed to examine the phenomena more in depth.
It is believed that these drugs’ effect on memory is reversible after discontinued use. Dementia, however, is not reversible. This study found that the effects of anticholinergics are cumulative: the more medicine you take, the greater the risk of dementia (4).
Popular brands of over-the-counter anticholinergics include:
Commonly prescribed anticholinergics include:
- Ativan (anxiety and depression)
- Atrovent (asthma)
- Demerol (pain relief)
- Paxil (antidepressant)
- Spiriva (asthma)
- Vesicare (bladder control)
These two studies were part of the Aging Brain Program at Indiana University. A full list of all the drugs tested in their studies can be found here.
Now that we are learning the dangers of even over-the-counter medications, it seems worthwhile to investigate the use of natural remedies instead.
Colds and Allergies
Herbs that are natural antihistamines include stinging nettle and Timothy grass. Raw, unpasteurized local honey and bee pollen eaten on a regular basis throughout the year will ward off seasonal allergy symptoms (5).
You can also use probiotics or an astragalus tincture to boost your immune system and regulate your immune response.
Whether due to a cold, flu, or allergy, there are simple ways to loosen mucus to expel it. It can be as simple as sipping on hot tea or a hearty soup. The steam form these foods seems to be the perfect antidote for congestion.
Peppermint is a natural antispasmodic (6). Put a drop or two in a glass bowl of very hot water and allow the steam to rise up to your nose and mouth.
It’s also a good idea to eat more pineapple, which contains bromelain, an enzyme that aids in digestion and thins mucus. It’s been found to be more effective (and delicious!) than cough syrup. To ease a sore throat, make your own cough drops with horehound and honey.
Lavender is calming and soothing. It has been shown to be as effective in treating anxiety as Ativan (7).
Another great option is to eat more cashews , which contain a high amount of tryptophan, a chemical your body uses to create a mood-regulating hormone called serotonin. For an extra kick, bake them in coconut oil and turmeric.
Valerian root tea has been found to promote quality sleep with no side effects (8). Many other herbs have been found to treat insomnia, such as California poppy, catnip, and chamomile. Regular exercise and spending time away from electronics will also help you fall asleep.
Motion sickness and nausea
Ginger and peppermint are very effective in treating stomach and digestive ailments, including motion sickness.
There are foods, herbs, and therapies for relieving pain. Turmeric, for example, is a strong anti-inflammatory.
Massage therapy can release restrictions in muscle and fascia to relieve musculoskeletal pain.Regular stretching and yoga can also improve flexibility and fight pain.