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Long Term Effects Of Prescription Drugs On Your Brain

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Long Term Effects Of Prescription Drugs On Your Brain

Natural Remedies For Anxiety and Depression
Dr. Mike Dow
Dr. Mike Dow More by this author
Apr 18, 2016 at 03:00 PM

We are over medicated. We are taking medications far more frequently and at far higher doses than we really need.

Over medication can have potentially disastrous effects on our brains. Antidepressants, for example, may increase the risk of inflammation in the brain, and, as we’ve learned, an inflamed brain ages more rapidly and thinks less clearly. We simply can’t think and feel our best when our brains are struggling with inflammation.

My online course addresses what we can do to ease the symptoms of brain fog by making some simple lifestyle and dietary changes.

Every year in the U.S.over 250 million antidepressant prescriptions are dispensed, with about 50 million for Xanax, 27 million for Ativan, and 40 million for Ambien. Add those numbers and they far exceed the population of the country—and this shocking figure doesn’t even account for the people who take these medications without a prescription.

There’s a possible association between antidepressants and cancer, and between antianxiety pills and dementia. In fact, all of these increasingly common psychiatric medications can harm the brain, especially when taken regularly over long periods of time by people who don’t really need them.

Understanding The Risks

You might be thinking, But antidepressants are legal. They’re not dangerous like illegal drugs, right? Wrong. Overdose deaths from prescription painkillers have tripled over the past ten years. These drugs now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined.

Emergency room visits for benzodiazepine abuse (e.g., Xanax, Klonopin) surged 89% between 2004 and 2008.

Many of these drugs are also addictive, with people gradually increasing their dosage to achieve the same effect. Half a Xanax becomes a full one, then two. Then you go through a stressful breakup and you’re popping six. At what point is this medication hurting more than it’s helping?

There are problems associated with all four of the most-used psychiatric meds today: antianxiety medications, SSRI and SNRI antidepressants, ADHD stimulants, and Ambien. So before you reflexively turn to a prescription pill to cure whatever ails you, first get acquainted with the risks—and the alternatives.


There’s no quick, one-size-fits-all solution to the problems that have so many of us turning to prescription medications on a far too regular basis, but we can make some lifestyle adjustments to steer us toward a better night’s sleep and away from depression, anxiety, and panic. Every recommendation in my book, The Brain Fog Fix, is geared toward long-term solutions that can leave us thinking and feeling better with minimal pharmaceutical interventions.

Anxiety, sadness, or addiction can be telling you that what you’re doing in your life isn’t working.

  • It may be what you’re eating (or not eating)
  • Who you’re loving (or not loving)
  • How you’re dealing (or not dealing) with life’s problems


When you start listening to your emotions and taking the messages they’re communicating more seriously, you will start to manifest everyday miracles in your life.

You should also make an effort to reframe moderate amounts of so-called negative emotions like anxiety to realize how they can be helpful. Research shows that moderate anxiety can actually improve performance on tests, increasing concentration and forging new connections in the brain. These bouts of concentration can help prevent cognitive decline and dementia, and they can also increase your happiness by rewarding you with challenging work.

Depression may also be a signal that it’s time to change your perception of the world. If, for example, you see everything through the lens of “I’m not okay,” you’re likely to interpret every ache in your body to mean you have stage 4 cancer.

If you view the world through a lens of “I’m not good enough,” you incorrectly assume you are to blame for every one of life’s disappointments.

It’s time to examine your life to find evidence that you are okay and more than good enough. Start looking for what’s right in your life, not what’s wrong. Maybe it’s not what you see in your life but how you see it. 

Underneath this American phenomenon of overmedication is a belief that we should never be uncomfortable in any way. On a much deeper level, this conviction comes from fear. Living life and making choices based on fear is no way to invite abundance, joy, and love.

For human beings, it is our experiences that have the profound power to change the way we think and feel. Is there something scary that you know you need to do in your life to grow? In most cases, that will be far more effective and profound than the persistent medication of symptoms. If you need these medications, let them serve as tools to help you change, not crutches for long-term dependency.


I do understand that there’s a great deal of psychological power in that little orange bottle. It says, “I’m a heavy hitter. I’ll make you feel better. A doctor prescribed me, so I must be good for you.” You assume that this pill must obviously be more effective than changes in what you eat or how much light you’re exposed to. And if so-called natural remedies worked so well, why don’t the big pharmaceutical companies make prescription drugs out of them?

The answer is that in other countries, that’s exactly what they do. In Germany, St. John’s wort, a natural herb with antidepressant effects, is prescribed far more than Prozac or Paxil.

The way U.S. law is set up means you will find herbs and other natural remedies like St. John’s wort or turmeric (see the end of my article on dementia for an easy way to take turmeric here) in the food aisle instead of behind the pharmacy counter. And some natural remedies may be more effective in promoting good mood with fewer side effects compared to the drugs in the little orange bottles.

In fact, most of the “side effects” of natural solutions like omega-3s include better skin, longer life, and decreased risk of many major diseases.

Speaking of drug-free remedies, what about psychotherapy?

From a financial point of view, psychotherapy is far more expensive in the short term than paying for your generic Xanax or Prozac. And while the effects of six months of cognitive behavioral therapy can last a lifetime while the antidepressant effects of Prozac stop when you stop taking them, this long-term savings isn’t very persuasive to your insurance company. But it’s not just your insurer; it’s you, too!

Complying with therapy or lifestyle changes requires more hard work, commitment, and motivation than popping a pill—but it is well worth the effort.


Atarax, Ativan, BuSpar, Catapres, Centrax, Dalmane, Dormalin, Halcion, Inderal, Klonopin, Librium, Neurontin, Paxipam, Prosom, Restoril, Serax, Tenex, Tenormin, Tranxene, Valium, Versed, Vistaril, Xanax

Today, scientists are well acquainted with the dangers of benzodiazepines (Xanax and Valium). In a 2004 meta-analysis, researchers cited several studies of long-term benzodiazepine use affecting several cognitive functions, including nonverbal memory impairment, loss of fine motor coordination, and deficits in verbal memory and learning, attention, visuospatial abilities, general intellectual ability, reaction time, psychomotor speed, and increased cognitive decline.

High doses may result in depression. The authors did find some studies that identified no relationship between long-term benzodiazepine use and cognitive effects, but are you willing to take that risk?

Getting off or even reducing the dosage of these drugs has been shown to be extremely difficult as well. As one researcher put it,

“It is more difficult to withdraw people from benzodiazepines than it is from heroin.”

When the FDA approved Xanax for panic attacks, psychiatrists and psychologists from several countries published a scathing letter condemning the decision. But even with these well-respected medical authorities screaming their disapproval, the marketing worked— big time.

Today, more than 50 million prescriptions for Xanax and its generic formulations are filled in this country every year. Since long-term benzodiazepine use may result in irreversible damage, people with mild to moderate anxiety should first consider cognitive behavioral therapy or other clinically proven models of psychotherapy, changes in diet and exercise, and spiritual practices like meditation.

Drugs this powerful should always be used in combination with therapy, which helps treat the root causes of anxiety and in the process helps reduce or eliminate the amount of medication needed.


Adapin, Anafranil, Asendin, Aventil, Celexa, Cymbalta, Desyrel, Edronax, Effexor, Elavil, Lexapro, Ludiomil, Luvox, Marplan, Nardil, Norpramin, Pamelor, Parnate, Paxil, Prozac, Remeron, Serzone, Sinequan, Strattera, Surmontil, Tofranil, Viibryd, Vivactil, Wellbutrin, Zoloft

A whopping two-thirds of Americans currently on antidepressants do not meet the clinical criteria for depression. Yes, these people need help to feel better, but the vast majority of them do not need antidepressants, which have serious side effects that could be making their problems worse.

The modern era of antidepressant medication kicked off in 1987 with the introduction of the SSRI Prozac onto the market. Other drug companies quickly brought out competitor SSRIs like Paxil and Zoloft and later Lexapro, Luvox, Celexa, and Viibryd. The 1990s saw the introduction of the serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) class, which includes drugs like Effexor, Pristiq, and Cymbalta; these drugs target both serotonin and norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter associated with depression.

According to the CDC, prescriptions for antidepressants tripled from 1988 to 2000. By 2011, there were 264 million antidepressant prescriptions filled in the U.S. After cholesterol-lowering meds, SSRIs have become the most prescribed class of medication in the country.

On some level, these numbers come as no surprise, since depression is already the leading cause of medical disability in the U.S. It is also—and I can’t emphasize this enough—a real disease that requires real treatment.

For people who meet the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder, antidepressants and clinically proven models of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy are as vital as insulin is to a diabetic. Untreated depression can be both debilitating and life threatening.

The flip side of this tragedy is that many of the people who do take antidepressants—up to two-thirds of them, in fact—aren’t actually depressed.

That means that only about 83 million of the 250+ million SSRI prescriptions dispensed every year in this country may be truly necessary.

If you’re taking antidepressants and you don’t need them, you may be setting yourself up to think and feel worse, with no real benefit. SSRIs come with some well-known side effects, one or more of which most patients will experience:

  • Weight gain (ten pounds or more in about 25 percent of patients)
  • Sexual dysfunction (which about 50 percent or, in some reports, even more experience)
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia

Constant fatigue is one of the biggest side effects of antidepressants, which can suppress one of your most important functions in terms of rest and memory consolidation: REM sleep. If you’re not getting enough REM sleep at night, you’re probably feeling tired all day.

Also, because they depress REM sleep, prescription antidepressants may interfere with the receptors in your brain getting the rest they need at night, which allows them to regain sensitivity to serotonin and other feel-good chemicals during the day. 

But surely these hazards are all par for the course, right?

These drugs must be remarkably effective if they’re prescribed so frequently; otherwise, doctors wouldn’t bother.

Maybe—or maybe not. In 2007, the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine looked at both published and unpublished studies on the effectiveness of antidepressants. All but one of the studies with a favorable outcome had been published, whereas half of the studies that failed to show a favorable outcome never saw the light of day.

There was also a nearly one-to-one ratio of total studies, both published and unpublished, that found these drugs to be effective versus those that did not, meaning that for every study that found these drugs worked, another found that they didn’t. So really the jury is still out on just how effective these drugs really are—especially for those with less severe forms of depression.

Even where the antidepressants were found to be effective, the placebo effect played a big role—meaning people with minor depressive symptoms responding to antidepressants reported similar improvement by taking a sugar pill.

Even those studies that did show antidepressants were effective found that placebos were 82 percent as effective as the drug itself.

And as evidenced by the huge popularity of these drugs, many people assume that no “natural” treatment could possibly be as effective in treating major depression.

Yet one study that compared Prozac to an omega-3 supplement with high levels of EPA found that they were equally effective at controlling depressive symptoms in patients diagnosed with major depression. The difference is that the former is associated with side effects, whereas the latter comes with added health benefits. 

With all this troubling new research about antidepressants, we should probably conduct a risk-benefit analysis and reconsider our overreliance on them. I believe that if you suffer from milder forms of depression and anxiety, you owe it to yourself to try a treatment with benefits that can last a lifetime.

The good news is there is a way to restore three of your brain’s most crucial hormones; serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol naturally. If you want to reclaim your focus, memory and joy check out my online course here.

About Author
Dr. Mike Dow
Dr. Mike Dow is a psychotherapist, author, and relationship expert.  Dr. Mike also appears regularly on The Dr. Oz Show as one of his Miracle Workers and has appeared on Rachael Ray, Wendy Willia Continue reading