To understand the role of medications in nutrient depletion, we must first understand the variety of nutrient-depleting mechanisms.
How Medications Deplete Nutrients
Many drugs, such as the stimulants Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall, are prescribed for attention deficit disorder.
These can reduce appetite. This, in turn, decreases the intake of beneficial nutrients. Some antidepressants also tend to have this appetite-reducing effect.
On the flip side, a drug can reduce nutritional status by increasing the desire for unhealthy foods, such as refined carbohydrates. Many of the neuroleptics (antipsychotic drugs) and some antidepressants cause insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, with resulting blood sugar swings. Patients then crave simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, bread and pasta.
Steroid drugs, including those given by an inhaler, can create similar issues as well.
Learn more about antidepressants in Antidepressants Not Helping with Depression?
Certain medications reduce the absorption of nutrients. In passing through the gastrointestinal tract, drugs often bind to specific nutrients before they’re absorbed into the bloodstream.
The antibiotic, tetracycline, for example, can block absorption by binding with minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc in the GI tract.
Weight loss drugs and cholesterol lowering medicines similarly bind to fats, preventing them from being absorbed. Drugs that treat acid reflux or heartburn raise the pH environment of the upper GI tract, which reduces absorption of needed vitamins and minerals. This is especially problematic among the elderly, who often are already low in stomach acid.
Every Cell Needs Nutrients
Nutrients are essential to the metabolic activities of every cell in the body. They’re used up in the process and need to be replaced by new nutrients in food or supplements. Some drugs deplete nutrients by speeding up this metabolic rate. These drugs include antibiotics (including penicillin and gentamicin) and steroids, such as prednisone and the gout medication, colchicine.
Other drugs block the nutrients’ effects or production at the cellular level. In addition to the intended effect on enzymes or receptors, medications can influence enzymes or receptors that help process essential nutrients.
For example, widely prescribed statin drugs block the activity of HMG-CoA, an enzyme that’s required to manufacture cholesterol in the body. This action also depletes the body of coenzyme Q10, which requires HMG-CoA for its production. This has a serious negative impact on muscle and heart health.
Drugs also can increase the loss of nutrients through the urinary system. Any drug that does this can drain the body’s levels of water-soluble nutrients, including B vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium and potassium. The major offenders are medications to treat hypertension, particularly the diuretics that reduce blood pressure by increasing the volume of water flushed out of the body.
Drug-induced nutrient depletion is far more common than we think. In evaluating patients’ symptoms, doctors must assess whether symptoms are due to the illness, to side effects of the drugs or to drug-induced nutrient depletion. Considering the inadequate nutrition of most people, we must remember that the illness itself may be due, in part, to nutrient deficiency.
Learn more about how medications can deplete nutrients with the Pill Advised online health tool.
Hyla Cass M.D. is a physician practicing integrative medicine and psychiatry.
She combines the best of natural medicine with modern science in her clinical practice and appears regularly on TV, radio, and has been quoted in many national magazines.
A member of the Medical Advisory Board of the Health Sciences Institute and Taste for Life Magazine, she is also Associate Editor of Total Health Magazine, she has served on the boards of California Citizens for Health and the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM).
She graduated from the University of Toronto School of Medicine, interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, and completed a psychiatric residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center/UCLA. She is the author of several popular books including: Natural Highs, 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health, and Supplement your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition.
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