Over-Medicated Me

Whenever I tell people I used to be on eight different types of medication, they immediately look shocked.  I think it comes from the fact that I’m 5 feet tall and petite. From the outside, I don’t look like I’d be a candidate for that many meds.

A couple years after college, I started the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s Health Coach Training Program.  I loved wellness and planned to use it as a skill outside of performance to help others achieve greater wellbeing.  Little did I know, it was the start of my own journey through self-healing.  

One day, while having a practice session with a fellow coach, she looked over my health history and asked, “Why are you taking so many medications at your age?”  All it took was that one question from a fresh perspective to wake me up. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind before. My doctors told me to take them, so I took them. Or I had convinced myself that I needed to continue them or else chaos would ensue. But in that moment, I realized there was no actual “need” for the meds. They had simply become a psychological comfort and crutch over time.

It was in that moment that I decided to make it my goal to be off all the medications within the year I was taking the program. I became instantly curious to know what my body would be like without them. I never knew my baseline since I was always taking something.  And in the process of cutting them out, I would see if they were actually assisting me or not.

Some meds were easier to cut out then others, like the medicated face creams I used to ward off acne. Since I was 11 years old, I had been applying each morning and night.  That’s when I experienced my first transformation.

In college, I started going through facial oil-blotting sheets like packs of chewing gum. I could fill two to three sheets in one sitting, and you could see the light reflecting off my greasy forehead in most photos. I had always assumed I had oily skin by nature.  Turns out I had abused those face creams and dried my skin out so much that my body overcompensated by producing more oil to protect me. Once I cut the creams, my skin returned to normal and I’ve never had to “blot my face” for a picture since.

The next three I addressed were two nasal sprays and Clarinex for my environmental allergies.  They had always made me feel tired, and since I never had severe enough allergies that left me unable to breath or keep from sneezing/coughing repeatedly, I simply let them go.

But the last three meds were the most difficult. I chose to approach the acid reflux medications next. My second semester senior year of college, I had begun waking up with the taste of metal in the back of my throat every morning and felt acid regurgitation with particular foods and drinks.  Between gearing up for my leap into adulthood and finishing up my graduation requirements, the pressure mounted.  Looking back it was stress and poor diet/lifestyle choices that were to blame.  But before I fully accepted and addressed that truth, I immediately asked for acid reflux medication to protect my voice.  I eventually ended up losing my voice for two weeks in an off-Broadway show due to continued reflux issues, and finally realized the meds wouldn’t suffice.

My physician had put me on Prilosec/Omeprazole when my reflux first cropped up. Then upon losing my voice, an ENT doctor prescribed Dexilant, a higher and more powerful dose, to get it back under control. To my doctors’ credit they both advised I not be on PPIs long term, and asked that I address diet and lifestyle and wean off once symptoms subsided.

Dealing with reflux naturally took a little more investigating into my triggers.  For example, I finally decided to kick my coffee habit once and for all. I’ve learned to always replace a habit that no longer serves me with a healthier enjoyable option so that I don’t backslide or feel deprived.  I swapped out the coffee slowly with tea and ended up loving it.  Dark chocolate is another story. I’ll never give that up!

During this time of exploration, what I found most fascinating was learning which foods exacerbated my reflux symptoms that weren’t on “the list” of typical culprits like spicy/fatty foods. For example, through the process of elimination and trial and error, I learned that I refluxed from plain old fashioned oats; a food I had been eating for years.  I’ve now found much better breakfast options and my body thanks me for it. I also discovered dairy, which I ate daily in yogurt and cottage cheese, was not working for me. So while I switched up my diet, and made sure not to eat close to bedtime or workouts, out went the acid reflux pills as well.  Since that time, addressing underlying gut issues has been another major support for staying off the PPIs.

Then came the final two and trickiest medications to eliminate.  How would I look and feel without these two? I was scared, but determined to find out.

The first was birth control. I had been on it for six years and had gotten so accustomed to practically non-existent periods and symptom-free bliss.  I didn’t want to leave that comfort, but had always wondered if it was really healthy for me to be on it that long. Every time I asked my gynecologist, all she’d say was, “Do you smoke? No? Then you’re fine.” I wanted to trust her and take full advantage, until I discovered that “the pill” may have been the cause of my final and hardest medication crutch of them all; The anti-depressant.

Throughout college I had fought against taking anti-depressants as it felt like the wrong choice for me. I had my bouts of mild depression during winter months in college, which made sense in the cold/light-deprived midwestern climate, but when it persisted through summer months I knew something was off. I also had mild anxiety as a performer, but that seemed to come with the territory. I tried so many alternatives to avoid taking it (e.g. exercise, massage, getting a pedicure, talking to a therapist, talking to friends and family, journaling, etc.). But I finally gave in when symptoms left me feeling so estranged and emotionally taxed that it seemed the only other option that could work. (This was all before I learned the power of food/lifestyle habits, and how they could completely transform my state of being.) So I said “yes” to Zoloft, and reluctantly agreed to take it for 1 full year at my doc’s recommendation.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had mid-way through my year at IIN that helped me discover how birth control truly impacts the body, and how it could have been a major contributor to my developed depression.  I’m forever grateful for that one discussion that made connection, and reaffirmed the importance of moving forward with my goal.  

After a year of being on Zoloft, I called my doctor and explained my new plan to go off birth control and anti-depressants. He gave me permission, but expressed that the two had nothing to do with one another and that I was completely safe to continue on both.  Just so long as I weaned off of antidepressant very slowly. He recommended going off birth control first so I’d have Zoloft as a “mood buffer” for stability.

I dropped my birth control in November of 2012 and immediately got my period the following month, surprisingly and gratefully.  It went back to my average cycle from when I was a teen in high school.  So in January of 2013, I took the plunge and weaned off of Zoloft. I took 25mg less every two weeks until I hi zero.  At first it seemed fine, until I began experiencing the strangest sensation that I soon learned was a symptom of withdrawal.

I did some research and discovered my symptom was fondly referred to as “brain shivers”. No pain, thankfully. But I was nervous how long it would last or if it would force me to go back on the meds. I was extremely relieved to discover it disappearing within a matter of two to three weeks.

So there I stood a year later.  From Spring of 2012-Spring of 2013 I went off all medications and celebrated at my Health Coach Training Program’s graduation ceremony at Lincoln Center.  The pride I felt over that accomplishment is hard to put into words.  In that beginning stage, things were going wonderfully.  Until I started getting my period twice a month only six months after quitting the pill.

Through more research (especially utilizing Flo Living and the book Woman Code by Alisa Vitti), I learned further that birth control essentially works like a band-aide. It may keep symptoms at bay, but if you have underlying hormonal issues that haven’t been addressed, it can take time to rebalance your body.

It took me another six months of assessment and discovering the herb Vitex before my cycle was back to only once a month. Prior to that, I went from doctor to doctor for answers, only to be told repeatedly “Go back on the pill.” And my reply? Absolutely not.  I had worked too hard to get back homeostasis, and I knew the pill wouldn’t solve the root problem.  My body was just trying to rebalance itself, and I wanted to assist it. None of my doctors understood nor truly supported my decision at the time, and that’s always been a disappointment.

Now three years later, I’m delighted to say that I’m still medication free and feel more balanced and understanding of my body than I ever was in the past. Am I telling you this story to make a statement against all western medicine and to proclaim no one needs medication? No!  This is just my story.  I highly recommend consulting a Functional Medicine doctor and getting second opinions as needed to make sure you take the right steps for your health.  Particularly from practitioners who know the importance of diet and lifestyle.

That being said, I learned from this experience that education, patience, and intuition are key.  I still deal with occasional reflux, which I treat with apple cider vinegar, gut supplementation, and watching my diet and lifestyle to reduce stress and foods that don’t serve me.  Self care is non-negotiable for keeping my gut and hormones on track.  And two years ago, I also began a meditation practice of twenty minutes twice a day via Ziva.  Stress reduction alone is life-changing and essential.

I hope this inspires you to simply take a look at what’s working for your health, what’s not, and what you’ve never explored before. Take a deep dive into your wellbeing. You spend the most time with your own body, so get to know it intimately. Get advice from holistically minded professionals who practice what they preach.  And rather than accepting yet another pill and taking it for granted, like I did, it’s time to listen, take note, and support your body’s desire to function optimally.

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