What You Need to Know About Over-the-Counter Health Products

otc drugs, prescription drugs, over-the-counter healthBy Sherry Torkos

It seems people go to the pharmacy more in the winter, whether it’s because of sore muscles from hitting the gym too hard trying to keep their weight-loss resolutions, or they’re dealing with colds or flu.

We assume that medications available over-the-counter (OTC) are safe but many carry the risk of side effects and other health risks, especially if they are not used as recommended. The Drug Abuse Warning Network estimates that of the 2.1 million drug abuse emergency room visits, 27.1 percent involved non-medical use of pharmaceuticals including prescription or OTC medications, and dietary supplements.

There are some smarter and safer alternatives to some of the most commonly overused or misused OTC medications:    


  • Pain or discomfort from lifting, exercising, and normal attrition in joints is often treated with over-the-counter analgesics such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Up to 70 percent of the population in Western countries uses analgesics regularly, primarily for muscle and joint pain. These drugs, while safe for some, can cause serious side effects, such as liver and kidney damage, ringing in the ears, stomach bleeding, rebound headaches and hair loss. Safer alternatives include supplements that contain BioCell Collagen. This clinically tested ingredient helps to promote joint comfort and mobility. It also helps to protect tendons and ligaments during intense exercise, and to promote their recovery afterward. Ice/heat packs can also help provide temporary relief for injuries and acute inflammation. Range-of-motion exercises and stretching are also important to maintain muscle and joint health.


  • Allergies and cold/flu season can be a big problem, leaving many people congested, sneezing and wheezing. There are plenty of OTC antihistamines and decongestants on the shelf, but they carry the risk of side effects. In particular, decongestants can cause racing heart, increased blood pressure, insomnia, thinning of the delicate nasal lining, and worsening of health problems such as glaucoma and prostate disease. Natural options include the neti pot. Nasal washing with products that contain botanical extracts and essential oils can dissolve mucus, relieve congestion and moisturize the nasal passages. I also recommend fortifying your diet with immune-supportive foods such as black elderberry, garlic and probiotic yogurt.


  •  People often turn to stimulants to increase energy, but these stimulants (such as those found in Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy and others) can be very dangerous, especially for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression or other serious conditions. Using stimulants can increase blood pressure, and cause cardiac palpitations (irregular heart beat), insomnia, and flushing (reddening of the skin). Safer alternatives to increase physical and mental energy include green tea and an antioxidant present in green tea called EGCG. Research suggests that green tea and EGCG can help increase energy levels and give your metabolism a boost. To keep energy levels high, eat small, frequent meals with low-GI carbs, healthy fats and lean protein. 

Sedatives/Sleep Aids:

  •  According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, about 30-40 percent of adults say they have some symptoms of insomnia within a given year. About 10-15 percent of adults say they have chronic insomnia. Stress is one of the primary contributors to poor sleep quality. You may be surprised to know that the active ingredient in most OTC sleep aids is actually an antihistamine, marketed for its side effect, which is drowsiness. However in addition to drowsiness antihistamines can also cause next-day grogginess, dry mouth, constipation and more. A safer alternative is supplementing your diet with L-theanine, an amino acid analogue that promotes calming relaxation and is not addictive. Good sleep hygiene – regular sleep/wake times, making your room dark to optimize melatonin secretion, and avoiding alcohol before bed– is also essential.


  • Laxatives are one of the most commonly overused/abused classes of OTC drugs. People turn to laxatives not only for relief of constipation but as a means to lose weight. This can be dangerous and lead to dehydration, a condition known as “lazy colon” and other problems. Instead of using laxatives, whether for constipation or weight loss, I recommend taking a good soluble fiber supplement. Soluble fiber, when consumed with fluids, swells in the intestine and works effectively to aid both constipation and loose stools. A side benefit is that it also enhances satiety so it works well as a weight management aid.

Your local pharmacy is often a great place to shop for health and wellness products. The key is understanding what you need a product to do and then choosing a product that will accomplish that safely and with the fewest side effects.

About the author: Sherry Torkos is a pharmacist, author, and certified fitness instructor.  As a leading health expert, she has delivered hundreds of lectures to medical professionals, and is frequently interviewed on radio and TV talk shows throughout North America and abroad. Sherry has authored 18 books, including Saving Women’s Hearts, The Canadian Encyclopedia for Natural Medicine, The Glycemic Index Made Simple, Winning at Weight Loss and Breaking the Age Barrier.

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