The average American aged 19 to 64 takes nearly 12 prescription drugs a year. If you happen to be age 65 or over, that amount rises to 28 different medications annually.1 You’re probably well aware that the more medications you take, the more your risk of side effects grows, not only because of the sheer number of medications, but also because combining drugs can oftentimes create new risks.
What many do not realize, however, is that one common effect of taking medication is the depletion of key nutrients in your body, which over time can not only cause troublesome health symptoms but may also seriously hinder your ability to stay optimally healthy.
5 Ways Drugs May Deplete Your Body’s Nutrients
How nutrients become depleted depends on the drug’s mechanism of action, but according to Hyla Cass, M.D., integrative medicine expert and author of the book Supplement Your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition, most of the time the damage occurs due to one (or more) of the following five factors:
1. Reduced Appetite or Increased Cravings for Unhealthy Foods
Stimulant drugs, such as Ritalin, are notorious for reducing your appetite, which means you’re also reducing your intake of essential nutrients. With other drugs, such as hormonal contraceptives, certain antidepressants, antipsychotics and steroids (such as prednisone), your appetite for junk foods may increase, causing you to gain weight while still missing out on important nutrients your body needs.
2. Reduced Nutrient Absorption
Certain drugs, such as antibiotics, weight-loss drugs and cholesterol medications, may bind to nutrients in your gastrointestinal tract (particularly fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A and E), preventing them from ever being absorbed into your bloodstream. Also, Dr. Cass explains:
“Drugs used to treat acid reflux or heartburn can change the environment of the GI tract in a way that reduces absorption of needed vitamins and minerals.”
3. Increased Nutrient Breakdown
Drugs such as antibiotics, steroids and colchicine can actually speed up the rate at which your body breaks down and uses nutrients, causing them to be used up faster than they can be replaced.
4. The “Anti-Nutrient” Effect
“Most drugs work on individual cells by interacting with receptors on their surface, or by affecting the activity of enzymes that regulate the operations of cells. It’s here that some nutrients are depleted by medications through what’s known as an anti-nutrient effect,” Dr. Cass says.
“The medication has its intended effect on enzymes or receptors, but it also affects enzymes or receptors that are needed to process essential nutrients. For example, widely prescribed statin drugs, such as Crestor and Lipitor, block the activity of an enzyme that creates cholesterol in the body—but this action also depletes the body of a substance called coenzyme Q, which is vital for heart health.”
5. Increased Urination
Any time you urinate more frequently than normal, you run the risk of depleting your body’s levels of water-soluble nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium and potassium. Diuretics used to treat high blood pressure are examples of drugs that may deplete your body of nutrients by increasing your urination.
Signs You May be at Increased Risk of Drug-Induced Nutrient Depletion
While anyone taking certain medications may find their body lacking in nutrients, certain factors increase your risk even more. According to Dr. Cass, this includes:
- “Being under chronic or intense stress, either physically or mentally. This can speed up your body’s “burning” of needed nutrients.
- Having a chronic disease that depletes nutrients. Many disorders fit this description.
- Having pre-existing GI problems that reduce your ability to absorb nutrients. For example: inadequate stomach acid is a common problem in older people, and this can reduce absorption of important nutrients.
- Poor function of your liver or kidneys. If either of the body’s main cleansing systems is not working well, nutrients can’t be utilized properly.
- Genetic makeup that causes your body to process drugs slowly or differently than the general population, or requires more of certain nutrients.
- Alcohol abuse or use of recreational drugs. Using alcohol or illegal drugs along with prescriptions is dangerous. This practice can not only deplete your body of nutrients, but also an accidental overdose or a bad combination of medicines with recreational drugs and/or alcohol can be deadly!
- The use of multiple medications. Polypharmacy is a fact of life for some people, but they need to be aware that nutrient depletion can be amplified by this.
- Poor diet. This is pretty obvious. If you’re eating poorly and taking one or more medications that deplete nutrients, you’re digging a hole for yourself faster than if you’re eating well and taking those same medications.”
If you have any of these risk factors and are taking one or more medications, it is of crucial importance that you work with a health care provider who can monitor your nutrient levels to help prevent serious deficiencies.
15 Common Drugs Linked to Nutrient Depletion
Below are some common medications along with the nutrients most at risk for depletion. Keep in mind that this is not a complete list; if you’re taking a medication not on this list, contact your physician or pharmacy to find out if nutrient depletion is a concern.
|Drug Name||Use||Nutrients Depleted|
|Statins (Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor)||Cholesterol lowering||Coenzyme Q10|
|ACE Inhibitors (Lisinopril, Altace)||High blood pressure||Zinc|
|Tricyclic Antidepressants||Depression||Coenzyme Q10, Vitamin B2|
|SSRI Antidepressants (Prozac)||Depression||Melatonin|
|Antibiotics||Infection||B vitamins, folic acid, vitamin C, healthy gut bacteria|
|Steroids (corticosteroids, Prednisone, hydrocortisone)||Immune disorders, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis||Vitamins B6, C, D and K, zinc, potassium, beta carotene, selenium, zinc|
|Bisphosphonate (Fosamax, Boniva)||Osteoporosis||Calcium, magnesium, phosphorous|
|Aspirin||Inflammation, pain relief||Folic acid, vitamin C, iron, potassium, zinc|
|Birth Control Pills and Synthetic Estrogen||Contraception or hormone replacement therapy (HRT)||Vitamins C, B6 and B9, folic acid, magnesium, zinc|
|NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, naproxen)||Arthritis, pain relief, inflammation||Folic acid|
|Antacids (Maalox, Mylanta)||Heartburn, acid reflux, GERD||Folic acid, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, beta-carotene, chromium|
|Proton Pump Inhibitors (Prilosec)||GERD, heartburn||Beta-carotene, folic acid, vitamin B12, iron, sodium, zinc, thiamin|
|Opiates (hydrocodone)||Pain relief||Folic acid, vitamin C, iron, potassium|
|Biguanide (Metformin, Glucophage)||Diabetes||Folic acid, vitamin B12|
|Bronchodilators (Albuterol, Terbutaline)||Asthma||Potassium|
It’s Important to Know the Risks of Nutrient Depletion
If, over time, your body does not receive enough of the nutrients it needs to function, it can lead to malnourishment – which in turn may seriously interfere with your mental and physical well-being. Dr. Cass explains:
“This effect, which is an issue with a surprising number of the most oft-prescribed drugs, doesn’t hit the headlines too often; it’s usually not dramatic or immediately noticeable. But over months to years of taking one or more prescription drugs every day, nutrient depletion can take a toll on your general health and well-being.
Many people who are nutritionally depleted due to health conditions and prescription drugs may think their mounting health problems are just part of aging. The consequences of drug-induced nutrient depletion can lead to the use of more and more medications—which only makes the matter worse. Couple this with the same standard American dietary and lifestyle choices that can cause the chronic conditions that create the need for drugs in the first place, and you have a potent combination of factors that can make your nutritional deficiencies a very real detriment to your health.
Every person who takes prescription drugs needs to know about drug-induced nutrient depletion, and about how to effectively balance this effect with appropriate nutrition from foods and supplements.”
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll discuss how you can harness the power of food and supplements to help balance out any nutritional deficiencies you may have.
1. Kaiser State Health Facts, Retail Prescription Drugs Filled at Pharmacies, 2011