Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Blood Pressure Drugs…and How to Avoid Them

By William Campbell Douglass, MD

I met Bobbi when I was about 35-years-old. It was love at first sight. She was a redhead and weighed about 100 pounds. We remained friends through the years–marriages, divorces, children and now grandchildren. The last time we saw one another, about ten years ago, she looked pretty much the same–still tiny and beautiful–but she had a “medical problem”: high blood pressure.

But because of her physiology, Bobbi couldn’t tolerate the powerful anti-hypertensive drugs. So she, unwillingly, became an interesting experiment in: “What happens to a patient with a seriously elevated blood pressure if you do nothing?”

I checked in with her recently and she’s doing just fine. She’s “50-something” (I think close to 60, but I didn’t dare ask) and still has very high blood pressure. So if someone like Bobbi can do just fine without medication for over a decade, why are the health “experts” out there suddenly so hot and bothered to get even more people on them by lowering the already ridiculous hypertension guidelines?

I think that most doctors are forgetting (if they ever knew at all) that hypertension isn’t actually a disease in itself–it’s only a symptom of some other malfunction in your body. It’s possible that the elevated blood pressure is a protective effect, enabling the heart to get the blood to all the tissues in spite of the disease, whatever that may be. But since we still haven’t figured out what that reason is, most physicians just throw drugs at the symptom and consider the problem solved when the high blood pressure goes down.

The problem here is that just because the drugs have made the hypertension go away, that doesn’t mean you’re “cured”–or even safe, for that matter. People taking blood pressure lowering medications inevitably feel worse on the drugs. You would think this would signal to the doctor that he’s making the patient worse, and that the pressure is elevated for some good physiological reason. But most likely, he’ll just continue to prescribe away.

There are four major types of drugs prescribed to lower blood pressure. In order of their date of appearance in the market place they are: diuretics, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, and calcium channel blockers. Remember, these drugs are only masking one symptom of an unknown disease. Anti-hypertensives have no healing properties. Even the least toxic drugs can cause deadly side effects.

The diuretics are basically dehydrators; that is, they remove fluid from your body by way of the kidneys. This may cause a drop in blood pressure but the first question to come to mind is: “If I don’t have edema (swelling), am I going to accomplish anything by draining my body fluids?” Those fluids contain many vital minerals such as potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium, and getting rid of them will cause electrolyte imbalances (loss of minerals) in your body.

But electrolyte imbalance is only the beginning. Other problems caused by diuretics include: cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), gout, kidney damage or failure, uremia, hyperglycemia leading to diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, anemia, photosensitivity, indigestion, headaches, visual disturbances, and impotence.

Special mention should be made of the potent diuretic furosemide (Puresis, Aquarid, Lasix, Disal, Salix). This class of “water pill” causes thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency that can lead to heart failure. You should not take this diuretic without thiamine supplementation (250 mg twice daily).

Please note that the diuretics are the least toxic types of anti-hypertension drug treatment.

Then there are the beta blockers, which are not just blood pressure drugs. Beta blockers reduce the force of the heart’s contractions. Basically, the heartbeat slows in reaction to the drug, and that lowers your blood pressure. So keep in mind that you are dealing with a dangerous cardiac drug, not just “blood pressure medicine.” Your doctor probably didn’t dwell on this significant fact, but you need to know the truth. He didn’t necessarily lie to you: He just didn’t want to dwell on unpleasant things that might have caused you to toss the pills in the trash–or not get the prescription filled at all.

OK, class–pop quiz: Being cardioactive drugs, what might you expect in the way of side effects from beta blockers? You’ve got it–signs of serious heart disease. You may experience any or all of the following symptoms: congestive heart failure, which will lead to pulmonary edema, a good old-fashioned heart attack, or arrhythmias. And, of course, all of these irregularities can be fatal.
Beyond the heart, there are many other possibilities for mischief. There’s also a strong possibility that you’ll experience a stroke, which could cause partial paralysis or death. And asthmatics should never take beta blockers, since they may trigger life-threatening airway spasms.

All this is a mere sampling of the possible side effects that you may experience from these powerful cardiotoxic compounds.

The ACE inhibitors wage a sort of chemical warfare attack. They lower the pressure by blocking the release of angiotensin. Your body releases this molecule in order to raise the blood pressure. As I mentioned earlier, the body’s chemical regulatory mechanisms do things for a reason; usually high blood pressure is a protective mechanism designed to maintain your “homeostasis,” your biological balance in the turbulent world inside your body. The ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure by counteracting this blood pressure raising agent. Your doctor thinks this is a good thing. I think it is a bad thing.

But calcium channel blockers are, by far, the worst of the bunch. And, of course, they’re among the most widely prescribed drugs in the modern world. Calcium channel blockers block the movement of calcium across cell membranes. This suppresses muscular contraction, which dilates the arteries and reduces resistance to blood flow. The doctor sees a reduction in your blood pressure and proclaims it medical magic: You take the little pills, your pressure comes down, and the doctor is a genius.

I wish it were that simple, but what else happens?

Your heart feels like a fish flopping around in a bucket. You feel like you are going to faint, especially if you stand up quickly. You figure you can live with that; you just won’t stand up quickly. But if going from sitting to standing can cause you to faint, how about going from flat on your back to standing? This sudden drop in your pressure can cause a stroke, and off to the emergency ward you go. But the calcium channel blocker won’t take any of the blame: After all, your doctor prescribed it to you to prevent a stroke brought on by high blood pressure.

The “cure” that causes 85,000 unnecessary deaths each year, these “Kalcium Kardiac Killers” (KKK) can also cause heart failure, heart attacks, gastrointestinal bleeding, liver and kidney damage, and reduced white blood cell count (causing you to be more susceptible to infections). And another common–and deadly–possibility is their interaction with other drugs, which can lead to any of the above disasters.

The most important study to date on calcium channel blockers is the Wake Forest University School of Medicine research, which was presented at an international cardiology meeting in Amsterdam in 2000 by Curt Furberg, MD, Ph.D., who is a professor of public health.

According to the report, these very popular (with the doctors anyway) drugs may be responsible for an excessive number of heart attacks and cases of heart failure. It appears that they don’t even prevent the cardiovascular complications of high blood pressure. In fact, they cause complications. Calcium channel blockers lead to about 40,000 “unnecessary or excess” heart attacks in the US each year and about 85,000 such tragedies worldwide, said Marco Pahor, MD, the professor of medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine who headed the research project.

Plus, the annual cost of high blood pressure treatment with these drugs, which are taken daily, ranges from $740 to $990–much more expensive than treatment with a diuretic (described above) that costs only about $60 a year.

But cost is not the major issue. The real question is whether the treatment is worse than the disease. Dr. Pahor’s research team found that people taking long-acting calcium channel blockers had a “27 percent higher risk of heart attack and 26 percent higher risk of congestive heart failure than did persons taking diuretics, beta-blockers, or ACE inhibitors.”

And The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has reported that these drugs cause cancer in the test animals. Would you rather have elevated blood pressure, which has not been proven to cause any of the problems for which it is blamed, or cancer, a heart attack, kidney or liver disease (or both), or a stroke?

With all of the problems associated with them, it seems almost criminal that the CCBs are the most popular hypertension “treatment.” But the reason they’re the most popular is that they’re the most promoted. That’s not science, of course; that’s business. That’s just the way it is. In case your doctor offers you one of these little killers, give him a copy of this article and tell him you will think about it. Don’t plan on going back because (1) he probably won’t read it and (2) if he does read it, he will not want to waste his time on a kook like you. If you’re already taking a CCB, you must insist to your doctor that you be removed from the drug. But do not stop on your own. Ironically, that could be fatal too. You must go off calcium channel blockers slowly and gradually, not suddenly.

It’s easy for me to play the role of “Dr. No,” but I have to do better than that. So, what else can you to do? There are a number of safe approaches you can try.

My first choice is homeopathy. Don’t run down to the drug or health food store and buy the little bottles of drops or pills that your neighbor has recommended–you’ll only be disappointed. Homeopathy is a complex science and requires the services of an MD who knows pathology, physiology, pharmacology and all the other “ologies” (a traditional medical education is not all bad, you know). Contact the National Center for Homeopathy for a list of qualified homeopathic physicians near you. Their number is (703) 548-7790.
Acupuncture may be effective and there are lots of practitioners who perform it across the country. To find one near you, contact the American Association of Oriental Medicine by calling (301) 941-1064 or visiting www.aaom.org.

I do have to add that if you have disastrously high pressure, say 180 over 110, you are in serious trouble and will have to try the drugs. But “malignant hypertension,” as it is called, is not common and your garden-variety hypertension will not metamorphose into it–and don’t let any doctor convince you otherwise.

There are many other approaches, including diet and relaxation therapy, but one I must mention is: do nothing. I know this sounds radical but you would be surprised how many people do exactly that with great success. Take Bobbi, for example: She’s been living a normal, happy, and–dare I say–healthy life with hypertension (and without drugs) for years.

So if you try homeopathy, acupuncture, or any other non-drug approach without success, I recommend that you follow Bobbi’s lead and leave well enough alone.

“Popular Blood Pressure Medicine May Do More Harm Than Good,” WebMD Medical News (www.webmd.com), 8/29/00.

About the Author
Dr. Douglass is a physician with 40 years of experience in the field of nutrition, preventive medicine and “contrary medicine.” He is editor of Real Health, a medical/nutritional newsletter. He is well known for his humor,incisive and critical medical reports, and his sojourns in various jails around the world–he has a low tolerance for bureaucracy, which leads to trouble. This article will appear in his publication Real Health. For subscription information call (203) 699-4420.