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PUMPING IRONY: A Real Pain

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There were no gifts to open this Christmas, as the pandemic prevented a gathering of our clan, but that doesn’t mean I emerged from the holiday empty-handed. Christmas Day delivered an excruciating sinus infection, which tested my pain threshold as well as my longstanding aversion to conventional treatment strategies. For the next week, I struggled to quiet the throbbing in my head with deep breathing, two varieties of herbal teas, echinacea, some homeopathic remedies, and a series of barely muted sighs of desperation.

Finally, after a number of sleepless nights, I stumbled out of bed around 4 a.m. one morning and began ransacking the hall closet seeking some relief. I recalled taking an aspirin at some point back in 2017 and knew there had to be a bottle somewhere in the house. Finding nothing amid the nutritional supplements and homeopathy, I turned my fevered gaze to the bathroom cabinet, with its essential oils, aloe vera, and neti pot. There, hidden behind the arnica gel and calendula cream was a tiny bottle of deliverance — aspirin, with an expiration date of 2012. 

Nine years is barely a wink of an eye in the grand scheme of the universe, I wagered and downed a couple of tablets with a splash of water from the bathroom sink. The throbbing pain eventually subsided, and I slipped into a soothing slumber.

I took two more in the morning and asked My Lovely Wife to replenish our supply of pain relief with something of a more recent vintage. Meanwhile, I was left to contemplate my pathetic descent into the Big Pharma vortex.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve deflected the advice of physicians peddling pharmaceuticals as a preventive healthcare strategy. By their calculations, I should be taking a cholesterol-lowering statin, an ACE inhibitor for my blood pressure, and maybe even some metformin as a hedge against diabetes. Basic stuff for your average American geezer, 80 percent of whom take at least two prescription drugs daily.

But, as I meander into my eighth decade, I’m steadfastly convinced of the body’s ability to heal itself without consistent pharmaceutical intervention. And I’d rather not support an industry that has been preying on the American consumer so rapaciously for so long. A recent JAMA report, for instance, found that list prices for prescription drugs had doubled over a seven-year period.

Drug manufacturers argue that those list prices are a product of their research and development costs, but lead study author Eric Yang, MD, and his team found that “recent reports of substantial increases in list prices of drugs already on the market cannot be explained by development costs.”

Neither have the industry’s financial-assistance programs sufficiently offset the upward trend in drug prices over the years. “Despite rising manufacturer discounts and rebates,” Yang writes, “these price increases were associated with large increases in patient out-of-pocket costs and insurer payments.”

It’s a trend that hits those of us among the Medicare set harder than most. As Harris Meyer notes in Kaiser Health News, Medicare recipients have been lobbying Congress for years to set a more reasonable cap on drug copays, which rose to $6,550 this year. It’s an issue that enjoys bipartisan support — even the drug companies and insurers agree — but nobody wants to pay for it.

That leaves an awful lot of seniors dependent on grant programs operated by pharmaceutical companies and foundations to pay for their prescriptions, a strategy that often requires the active participation of physicians — most of whom can offer little or no help. “If I didn’t do really well at scrounging free drugs and getting copay foundations to work with us, my patients wouldn’t get the drug, which is awful,” oncologist Barbara McAneny, MD, past president of the American Medical Association, tells Meyer. “Patients would just say, ‘I can’t afford it. I’ll just die.’”

Ironically, experts argue this approach actually contributes to the rise in prices because it encourages doctors and patients to opt for the most expensive brands when cheaper varieties are available. I suspect most cancer patients are not much concerned about the macroeconomics of the drug industry when they’re searching desperately for a way to secure the medication they need to prolong their lives, but it strikes me as a particularly warped feature of the whole medical-pharmaceutical complex.

As broken as the Big Pharma pricing model is, though, it’s not the primary reason why I’ve chosen to steer clear of the pharmacy all these years. The real threat comes from what’s known as a “prescribing cascade,” when the side-effects of one medication lead to subsequent prescriptions leading to additional maladies. A popular hypertension medication, for example, has been shown in a Canadian study to cause swelling in the legs, which is then treated with a diuretic, which can cause dehydration, kidney troubles, and other side-effects, which may require yet another drug.

“Doctors are often taught to think of everything as a new problem,” explains Timothy Anderson, MD, an internist at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in a recent New York Times piece. “They have to start thinking about whether the patient is on medication and whether the medication is the problem.”

My recent infatuation with aspirin, I know, does not necessarily portend some future cascade of prescriptions — or even a trip to the doctor — but it reminds me that conditions may arise that will force me to choose between alternative treatments and a pharmaceutical gambit. For all my commitment to the former and aversion to the latter, that’s one headache I’d rather avoid.


Craig Cox
is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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Health & Fitness

7 Immune-Boosting Foods – Experience Life

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Looking to build your immune system? Start by eating immunity-boosting foods like turmeric, sauerkraut, and medicinal mushrooms.

Healthy, balanced immune function is your best defense against any illness. One of the keys to bolstering your immune system? Nutrition.

“Diet is all-important,” says preventive-medicine specialist David Katz, MD. “You’re building white blood cells, enzymes, and antibodies every day, and the food you eat is literally the source of your construction materials.”

A single meal can alter how immune cells respond to provocation, and the effects accumulate over hours, days, and weeks, he explains. “You can do a complete 180 and optimize a badly broken immune system in as little as weeks by improving your diet, so it’s a very immediate return on investment.”

Foods that dampen the immune system include highly processed or fried foods, those high in added sugar, and nonorganic foods grown with glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Roundup, a common herbicide that has been linked to cancer.

On the flip side, foods rich in polyphenols — beneficial plant compounds found in many vegetables, fruits, and legumes — support immune function. Integrative practitioner Robert Rountree, MD notes that the Mediterranean diet (plenty of colorful vegetables, nuts, and olive oil; moderate amounts of protein; and a little red wine with dinner) provides a good general template for immune-supportive eating.

Some immune system–balancing superstars to focus on:

  1. Green tea is rich in polyphenols, including potent antioxidants called catechins that have antimicrobial properties and may help protect against influenza. It also contains quercetin, a flavonoid that Rountree calls a “time-honored immune-supportive agent.”
  2. Berries are a potent source of immune-supporting flavonoids. “When you eat berries, most of these pigment molecules go to the colon, where bacteria break them down into smaller molecules that escape and circulate in the body, exerting antiviral effects,” says David Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, an exercise immunologist at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University.
  3. Turmeric gets its deep orange-yellow from curcumin, a compound that helps balance the immune system. It has a modulating effect on T cells, B cells, macrophages, and other immune cells, and can also enhance antibody response.
  4. Garlic contains sulfuric compounds with a range of antimicrobial effects, such as inhibiting the biofilm formation of bacteria. It also has natural antiviral properties and can help reduce hypertension, one of the leading risk factors for COVID-19. (For more on garlic, see “Garlic”.)
  5. Citrus fruits such as grapefruit, kiwi, and lemon deliver abundant ­vitamin C — one of the most important nutrients for the immune system, aiding in the formation of white blood cells. (For more on this essential ­nutrient, visit “What You Need to Know About Vitamin C”.)
  6. Sauerkraut and other fermented foods contain lactic-acid bacteria, which produce compounds in the gut that spur the immune system into action. And cabbage itself is another excellent source of vitamin C.
  7. Medicinal mushrooms are rich in beta-glucans, an immunomodulator that activates macrophages, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, and neutrophils. “Mushrooms like shiitake, oyster, and maitake have been shown to prime immune cells in published studies,” says Rountree. He recommends both eating shiitake mushrooms and taking a mushroom extract to support the immune system.

This originally appeared as “Eat Well” in “6 Ways to Boost Your Immune System” in the January/February 2021 issue of Experience Life.


Mo Perry
is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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