Lifestyle vs. Medication
Doctors often prescribe medications instead of advocating for a healthy lifestyle, even though diet and exercise changes may lead to better outcomes than medication. For example, statin drugs may be able to reduce absolute risk of a heart attack by 3.1% over six years, while a whole-food, plant-based diet has an absolute risk reduction of 60% in less than four years.
On the whole, vegetarians have lower chronic disease rates than non-vegetarians and take fewer medications. Plant-based diets provide a potential alternative or supplement to drugs and may be effective at preventing, and sometimes even reversing some chronic diseases, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Chronic indigestion
- Erectile dysfunction
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Mental illness
- Multiple sclerosis
- Oral lichen planus
- Prostate enlargement
- Radiation sickness
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Ironically, while many doctors are skeptical of the ability of whole, plant-based foods to treat disease, many modern medications, including aspirin, are based on plants that have been used as medicine for centuries. Unlike drugs, plants can’t be patented, thus get scarcer research funding for possible therapeutic uses. Because of the potential profit from patented drugs, pharmaceutical companies often look at how a whole food can be made into a patentable pill. The pharmaceutical industry is starting to shift away from single target drugs to drugs that affect multiple pathways, like many plant compounds.
Concerns about Medication
While medications can be helpful in treating chronic diseases, their effectiveness is sometimes overstated. Pharmaceutical companies have been known to withhold results that would indicate their drugs may not be as effective as advertised. In one survey, when patients were presented with the real benefit of the drugs they were taking, 90% said they wouldn’t bother taking them.
The potential side effects of medications is another concern. In fact, prescription drugs (not including medication errors) are the sixth-leading cause of death in the US Potential side-effects of some drugs may be so serious that some have argued, in certain situations, giving the patient a placebo may be a better option.
It’s important to be aware of potential drug-food interactions because certain phytochemicals in plants, like grapefruit, can affect the metabolism of drugs in the body. Depending on the dose, plant-derived products can be toxic, such as Cassia cinnamon.
Prescription drugs may also pollute the environment. Drugs excreted in our urine often pollute our waterways, which can then bioaccumulate in fish. Purity of medications can also be an issue; some Ayurvedic medicines have been found to be contaminated with heavy metals.
Topic summary contributed by Linda.