The Truth Behind Mixing Medications Reveals Dangerous Chemical Interactions

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If you watch one video today, make it this one. This TED talk by Russ Altman, Professor of Bioengineering, Genetics, Medicine and Computer Science at Stanford University, reveals the truth behind mixing medications.

The motivation behind Altman’s initial study was to uncover the effects of taking two prescription medications at the same time. Specifically, the changes they make to a person’s glucose levels. As some doctors may not fully understand the complex interactions that take place in the body when you ingest more than one pharmaceutical, the results are eye-opening.

Currently, little research exists on the side effects caused by taking multiple medications. “How much have we studied these two together?” he asks, holding up two pill bottles, before answering, “It’s very hard to do that. In fact, it’s not traditionally done. We totally depend on what we call “post-marketing surveillance’.”

Post-marketing surveillance is how researchers and scientists learn about a drug after it’s in circulation. Altman and his team studied the FDA’s database of ‘adverse events’ from every pharmaceutical imaginable. This consists of data submitted from a wide ranging group, including doctors, pharmacists and patients, who report on side effects from particular drugs.

The team analysed that data by not simply looking at the effects of say, one drug, but by looking at how two drugs taken in tandem could make a big change in the body. Two of those are Paroxetine (an antidepressant) and Pravastatin (a cholesterol drug). Neither is known for their glucose-changing attributes, but when taken together, those glucose levels rose.

15 million Americans take the two drugs separately, with an estimated 1 million taking them at the same time. By approaching three universities, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Harvard, Altman’s team were able to find records of 150 patients who were at one time prescribed both.

By noting the glucose levels of patients while taking just one drug, and then looking at those same levels after they had started on the second drug as well, they noticed a trend. Glucose levels rose 20 points. For diabetics in that group, the levels rose 60 points. And that’s just for those two drugs.  This is a significant rise for someone who is pre-diabetic as this can push them into diagnosed diabetes and thereby warrant the addition of even more pharmaceuticals.

The scope for future studies is vast, because as Altman says, we don’t just use pairs of drugs. “Have those people on nine drugs been tested all together?” he asks. It’s a pertinent question: what does happen to the body when multiple pharmaceuticals interact? With so many drugs currently on the market, the specific effects they may cause when used in tandem are unknown. Taking more than one could make them more or less effective, or cause serious side effects.

A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year analysed prescription drug use in the U.S. between 1999 and 2012. Researchers noted that the percentage of Americans using five or more drugs together is on the rise, which would indicate that further exploration into Altman’s work is a necessity.

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