Archive for Saturday, August 4, 2001

Synthroid news raises questions

August 4, 2001


I have been taking Synthroid for 18 years to treat an underactive thyroid gland. I just read that the Food and Drug Administration is going to take it off the market. What's going on?

Synthroid (levothyroxine) has been prescribed for decades without formal FDA approval. But the agency has recently been giving this thyroid hormone more scrutiny. Competitors Unithroid and Levoxyl have been approved by the FDA, but the manufacturer of Synthroid has been slow to file its paperwork.

The dose of levothyroxine is small, measured in thousandths of a milligram, and the FDA claims that in the past there have been discrepancies between the amount on the label and in the pill.

The current manufacturer, Abbott Labs, has promised to meet the FDA's Aug. 14 deadline, so you shouldn't have to worry about Synthroid disappearing from the market.

I am sick and tired of having patients come into my office waving your newspaper column and complaining about memory problems or muscle pain on cholesterol-lowering drugs. Don't you know these drugs save lives? It's hard enough for me to get people to take their medication without you worrying them unnecessarily.

Elevated cholesterol and a high ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol are certainly important risk factors for heart disease and shouldn't be ignored. Medications like Zocor, Baycol and Lipitor lower cholesterol and prevent heart attacks. Most people can handle them quite well.

But these medications are not right for everyone. We have heard from hundreds of patients who have experienced debilitating muscle weakness or frightening memory loss while taking such drugs.

One 80-year-old woman wrote: "I used to go to a health spa several times a week for senior aerobics, but on Lipitor my muscles just won't carry me anywhere. I have become inactive and don't go to the spa anymore. I have also become very forgetful about everyday, ordinary things."

When an active older person stops exercising due to a drug reaction, the medication might be counterproductive. If memory fails, quality of life suffers. Doctors and patients need to balance benefits against risks of any treatment, especially one that is taken for a long time.

I am only 45, but my doctor is concerned about my blood pressure, which runs around 150/95. He has prescribed the following drugs: Vasotec, Zestril, Cardizem CD, atenolol and Norvasc. Each one caused side effects I didn't want to put up with. Some made me cough, others upset my stomach or affected my love life, and one made my ankles swell. Is there a blood pressure pill I can handle?

Only you and your doctor can determine the best approach to treating your blood pressure. This is often a trial-and-error process, but you shouldn't have to suffer with side effects that make you miserable.

Exercising and losing weight can help enormously and might make blood pressure control easier. We are sending you our "Guide to Blood Pressure Treatment" for a discussion of popular medications and their potential side effects, as well as a discussion of nondrug approaches. Others who would like a copy should send $2 in check or money order with a long (No. 10), stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. B-67, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, N.C. 27717-2027.

I want to thank you for writing about black pepper as a remedy to stop bleeding. I was opening a can of cat food and sliced my thumb on the lid. It started to bleed, so I followed your advice and sprinkled ground black pepper on it. To my amazement, the cut stopped bleeding and has healed well.

We all owe Nell Heard and her woodcarver brother-in-law Wendell thanks for telling us about this home remedy. At first we were skeptical that black pepper could be useful for minor cuts. But dozens of people have shared similar success stories.

In Peru this is a well-established treatment. We have tried it ourselves and are pleased with the quick results. It doesn't sting, as many people fear.

Obviously, a serious cut that needs stitches should get medical attention instead of black pepper.

I am a 61-year-old retired physician. Over the past several years, my total cholesterol has crept up from 215 to 255 despite an almost-vegetarian diet and daily exercise.

I've never taken cholesterol-lowering drugs because my ratio of beneficial HDL cholesterol to total cholesterol has always been good. Four months ago I began taking red yeast rice at half the recommended dose. My cholesterol fell to 192, and my LDL dropped from 166 to 118. Is it possible that a small amount of red yeast rice could be responsible for such a dramatic improvement?

Red yeast rice is a traditional Chinese medicine and flavoring for food. In a double-blind study published in the February 1999 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a standardized extract (sold as Cholestin) lowered LDL cholesterol by 22 percent. Your results are even better.

The Food and Drug Administration is trying to remove red yeast rice from the market. The agency considers this traditional medicine an unapproved new drug and not a dietary supplement. That is because it contains small quantities of the compound lovastatin, the same ingredient found in the prescription drug Mevacor.

For a complete discussion of the red yeast rice controversy and other nondrug approaches to cholesterol control, you might wish to consult our book "The People's Pharmacy Guide to Home and Herbal Remedies" (St. Martin's Press). It is available in libraries and bookstores or may be purchased by calling (800) 732-2334.

Fifty years ago I was at a party kidding a doctor that they didn't even know how to prevent cold sores. He said: "Oh yes, we do! Just drink buttermilk to prevent them."

I tried it, and, sure enough, it works. I really don't care for buttermilk, so I tried yogurt instead. That works, too. Tell your readers they don't need medicine just eat yogurt or drink buttermilk to prevent cold sores.

You're not the first person to share the buttermilk secret. Pharmacists have recommended this approach for years, and some people find it helpful. Other remedies include taking 500 mg of L-lysine or using the herb lemon balm as a topical treatment.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Write to them in care of King Features Syndicate, 235 E. 45th St., New York, N.Y. 10017, or e-mail them via their Web site,

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