With the Spring allergy season upon us again, there is some important news you need to know.
A large new study provides the strongest evidence yet that popular over-the-counter allergy drugs like Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton may substantially increase the risk of dementia in older adults. By as much as 54 percent.
These medications belong to a class of drugs called anticholinergics. Other popular over-the-counter anticholinergic drugs include the anti-nausea medication Dramamine and sleep aids such as Sominex.
Other anticholinergics include xybutynin and tolterodine (prescription drugs for the suddenly discovered, quasi-medical condition of “overactive” bladder), tricyclic antidepressants such as Zyban and Wellbutrin, and the COPD medication Spiriva.
Considering how many different conditions these drugs are designed to “treat,” it’s no wonder research shows as many as 50 percent of all Americans age 65 and older have taken at least one anticholinergic drug.1
Until now, the only side effects attributed to these drugs have been dry mouth, constipation, urine retention, blurred vision, and increased heart rate. And although there is some awareness that anticholinergics cause unpleasant short-term mental confusion and drowsiness, there has been no mention of long-term effects on dementia in the prescribing information.
Which means most doctors remain unaware of this problem. Hopefully this new study will change that lack of awareness. But regardless, it should most certainly change the way you handle your own seasonal allergies. I’ll give you some effective, natural ways to combat your allergy symptoms in just a moment. But first, let’s take a closer look at this new study.
Even the minimum dose can lead to maximum damage
The study involved 3,434 men and women, with an average age of 73 years. The researchers used pharmacy records to track the participants’ medication use. Patients were followed for an average of 7.3 years, and every two years, they were tested to see if they had developed dementia.2
Over the study period, 23 percent of the participants were diagnosed with dementia, and 80 percent of those people were diagnosed specifically with Alzheimer’s disease.
As I mentioned above, the researchers found that the people who took the largest amounts of anticholinergic drugs had a 54 percent increased risk of developing dementia.
But even more frightening is their finding that simply taking the minimum effective daily dose of one of these drugs every day for just three years put people in the highest category for dementia risk.
Overall, there was an obvious dose-response effect between use of anticholinergics and risk of dementia. Even the study participants who took minimal doses were still at greater risk than those who didn’t take the drugs at all.
So why are these drugs so risky for our brains?
Well, much of pharmacology is traditionally based on developing drugs that affect the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These key nerve systems use adrenalin (epinephrine) or acetylcholine, respectively, as neurotransmitters.
Anticholinergics interfere with acetylcholine playing its normal role in the nervous system. Scientists believe that acetylcholine has an affect not only on the nerves throughout our bodies, but also on the neurons in our brains.
Natural allergy options that are better for your body and your brain
These study findings are nothing to sneeze at. But unfortunately, neither are seasonal allergies, which can be long-term—even life-long—problems. Lack of breastfeeding during childhood, exposure to increasing numbers of vaccines, poor food choices, and being trapped indoors may all play roles in overly sensitizing our immune system to allergies while we are still young.
Consequently, a key way to fight allergies is to keep your immune system healthy and balanced. Make sure to take a daily, high-quality B vitamin complex, as well as 5,000 IU of vitamin D and 1-2 g of fish oil.
Another way to prevent your immune system from becoming overtaxed during allergy season is to limit the amount of allergens that enter your body. One simple method is to wash your hands and face frequently whenever the pollen flies.
You can also flush allergens from your eyes and nose by immersing your face underwater (salty water is best) and blinking your eyes several times, and then blowing out through your nose. Gargle with salty water to flush out your mouth and throat. And don’t be afraid to blow your nose regularly into a handkerchief or tissue—that’s nature’s way of clearing out allergens.
Some common spices, such as capsaicin (hot red pepper), curry (turmeric, coriander, cumin, chili pepper), or horseradish, are great at clearing sinuses when used in food—in addition to all of their other health benefits. Chinese hot and sour soup (black pepper with vinegar) and Chinese hot mustard have the same effects.
To soothe an allergy-irritated throat, try hot tea with lemon and honey. And menthol and eucalyptus help with allergic cough and congestion.
I decided to stop relying on over-the-counter allergy drugs many years ago because I just could not think straight whenever I took them. I thought this was a temporary side effect, but as this new research shows, these drugs cause long-term cognition problems as well.
The serious risks of anticholinergic drugs simply aren’t worth it, no matter how awful seasonal allergies make you feel. Especially when you can manage the temporary inconvenience of these symptoms naturally, and help avoid the permanent devastation and debilitation of dementia. For more on how you can protect your brain from dementia, see the article on pages X.
1Campbell N, et al. The cognitive impact of anticholinergics: A clinical review. Clin Interv Aging. 2009; 4: 225–233.
2Gray SL, et al. Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergics and Incident Dementia: A Prospective Cohort Study. JAMA Intern Med. Published online January 26, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.7663.