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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Coming Off Medications

Frequently, patients tell me that they feel they are taking too many medications, and in some cases want to come off of all of their medicines.

Remembering to take a medication can be challenging, and a prescription pill can be a stigma that a person is unhealthy.

I am a big proponent of patients taking as few pills as absolutely necessary.  I emphasize food as medicine, exercise and movement as critical for health.  So, for some, it may be possible to stop medications, with appropriate lifestyle changes.  

One patient had a cardiomyopathy (weak heart muscle) which recovered, he switched to a plant-based diet, and at this point he no longer needs blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes medications.

Another patient who I regularly follow is a man in his mid-30's with hypertension and elevated triglycerides.  When I first met him a few years ago, his blood pressure was wildly uncontrolled and his triglycerides quite high, and I had him on three medications in order to control his blood pressure.  He has gradually improved his diet, eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods, has taken up regular exercise including Crossfit three times a week.  I see him every three months in the office, and we've been able to gradually decrease his blood pressure medication.  At this point he is on two low-dose blood pressure medications.  I think that in time he may be able to come off of the blood pressure medication entirely.

A man came to me in his late 30's after having quadruple bypass surgery.  He had a list of eight medications.  At that initial visit, I was able to streamline his medication list down to three, and now about five years later, he is only on two medications, an aspirin and a statin, the appropriate medications that anyone with coronary artery disease should be on.

That said, coming off of medications isn't necessarily an option, and should not be undertaken without a physician's guidance.  For example, a patient with a cardiomyopathy who stopped his medications on his own came back to me months later extremely short of breath due to congestive heart failure.  Or, a patient with uncontrolled diabetes and cholesterol and a history of a heart attack who "doesn't like medicines", this is not someone whose focus should be on stopping medicines, but rather on controlling his risk factors and regaining his health.

Some people should never be off of all of their medications, that simply isn't reasonable.  For example, type 1 diabetics don't produce insulin, and injecting insulin is their lifeline.  Or, a patient with coronary artery disease, whether he's had a heart attack or coronary stents or a very high coronary calcium score, he should remain on an aspirin and a statin likely for the duration.

There are many people who take several medications who may actually be surprised that their list could be shortened.  An obese man on three blood pressure medicines, a medication for high triglycerides, and one medicine for esophageal reflux -- with effective weight loss, his reflux symptoms could resolve, his triglycerides would drop, and he would need far less, if any, blood pressure medication.

It is possible to shorten a list of medications, or even come off of all medications entirely.  But, this needs to be done carefully and with thought, working with a medical provider.



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