Dangers of Diabetes Drugs
Julian Whitaker, MD
It’s déjà vu all over again. When are we going to learn—rather, when are we going to accept—that oral medications for type 2 diabetes actually do more harm than good?
In February 2008, researchers heading a large, government-funded trial made a sobering announcement. The study in question, Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes (ACCORD), was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of various medication regimens in reducing heart attacks, strokes, and death from cardiovascular disease in patients with type 2 diabetes. One arm of the study tested the widely held assumption that more aggressive lowering of blood sugar would provide greater protection against heart disease.
Instead, ACCORD found just the opposite. Study participants on the most intensive drug regimens aimed at driving blood sugar way down had a much higher cardiovascular death rate. “Intensive blood sugar lowering treatment” proved to be so harmful that the researchers halted this arm of the study 18 months early to prevent this aggressive drug use from killing even more people.
“Those Who Cannot Remember the Past…”
Medical experts were reportedly “shocked,” “stunned,” and “startled” by this “unexpected” finding. Folks, this is nonsense. We’ve known about the fatal complications of diabetes drugs since 1969, when results of a similar study called the University Group Diabetes Program were made public. The goal of this placebo-controlled study of patients with type 2 diabetes was to see if either of two oral diabetes drugs lowered the incidence of heart attacks and other cardiovascular complications.
Incredibly, just like ACCORD, the study had to be stopped two years early because participants who were taking the drugs had a 250 to 300 percent higher death rate than those taking the placebo. That’s right: People taking dummy pills did far better than those taking diabetes drugs!
Philosopher George Santayana said more than a century ago, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, modern medicine has a terrible habit of forgetting—or ignoring—the past. And patients are condemned to pay for this folly.
The Main Culprits
One of the two drugs used in the older study, DBI (phenformin), was shown to be so deadly that it was taken off the market. Yet this drug’s close cousin, metformin (Glucophage), which has a near-identical mechanism of action, is the most popular diabetes medication in the country and was the most frequently used drug in the ACCORD study.
The other drug used in the 1969 study, Orinase (tolbutamide), was ultimately tattooed with a black-box warning stating that it dramatically increases the worst complication of diabetes: death from heart attack. Orinase belongs to a class of drugs known as sulfonylureas, which includes dozens of popular medications such as gliclazide, glimepiride, glipizide, and glyburide. The same black-box warning has appeared on all sulfonylureas since 1984, long before the ACCORD trial began.
Another class of diabetes drugs, and the second-most widely used type of medication by ACCORD participants, was thiazolidinediones, the most notorious of which is Avandia. If you want to increase your risk of heart attack by 40 percent, heart failure by 60 percent, and death by more than 30 percent, Avandia is the drug for you.
With side effects like these, it’s no wonder that intensive drug use in the ACCORD study caused so many deaths. The only “shocking” thing is that physicians persist in using these dangerous drugs at all! Are we really going to let another three decades go by before we take this junk off the market?
You Do Have Safe, Effective Options
In 1978, nine years after the University Group Diabetes Program study illuminated the lethality of diabetes drugs and 30 years before the ACCORD study reiterated it, Public Citizen, a noisy nonprofit consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, said in Off Diabetes Pills: A Diabetic’s Guide to a Longer Life:
Warning: Antidiabetic Pills Are Dangerous to Your Health. Are you taking [oral diabetes drugs]? These pills could cost you your life….You must do three things: Stop taking antidiabetic pills as soon as you can; go on a diet and lose weight; stop seeing your present doctor unless he or she genuinely tries to help you lose weight and agrees to switch you to insulin if you still have diabetic symptoms at or below your ideal body weight. These steps could mean the difference between life and death.
I’ve been heeding this advice for 30 years. The majority of patients with type 2 diabetes who come to the Whitaker Wellness Institute are taking at least one oral medication. We stop these drugs on sight. If they’re on insulin and they’re overweight, we stop the insulin as well. Giving insulin to heavy type 2 diabetics is a recipe for further weight gain and does more harm than good.
As you might imagine, this is a new concept. Patients are conditioned to trust their doctors, who have convinced them of the absolute necessity of taking drugs to lower blood sugar. However, once they hear the truth about diabetes drugs, most of our patients opt to stop their medications and adopt a much healthier treatment approach targeted at lowering blood sugar and reducing risk of heart disease and other complications.
Why Is the Natural Approach Ignored?
Numerous scientific studies support this safe, natural approach. Yet the vast majority of physicians continue to ignore the research—and jeopardize the health of trusting patients—by focusing strictly on lowering blood sugar, no matter what the cost.
Part of the problem can be laid at the feet of human psychology. When a doctor sees a patient with type 2 diabetes, he may give lip service to diet and exercise. But to be really effective, he must become a counselor who encourages and monitors his patient’s activity level, diet, and weight. Obviously, lifestyle changes require work on the part of both physician and patient, and who wants to put forth that much effort?
So the doc pulls out his prescription pad and discharges his responsibility. And patients accept this because it’s an easy out for them as well. What could be simpler than taking a “magic pill,” especially if adverse side effects are glossed over, as they usually are?
The pharmaceutical industry also shoulders much of the blame. These companies currently control the bulk of medical research, treatment guidelines, and physician “education.” As a result, not only is the effectiveness of drugs overstated and the risks minimized, but the emphasis on medication draws attention away from safe, natural therapies that truly improve the health and longevity of people with diabetes.
You Should Be Alarmed
The fallout from ACCORD has been predictable. In an effort to allay concerns, study organizers assert, “Patients with type 2 diabetes should not be alarmed by these findings of the ACCORD trial.”
Yes, they should be alarmed! The University Group Diabetes Program study discussed earlier compared drugs to a placebo, proving that the drugs themselves caused harm—a two-and-a-half to three-fold increase in deaths from cardiovascular disease!
You may be thinking, what about the other complications of diabetes? Diabetes is the number one cause of blindness, amputation, kidney failure, and painful and debilitating peripheral neuropathy. Surely these drugs offer some protection. According to Norton Hadler, MD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as quoted in BusinessWeek, no oral diabetes drug “has ever been shown to do anything really good for any patient. No leg, eye, kidney, heart, or brain has ever been spared.”
In my opinion, you’d be better off with no program at all than with these drugs. Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 is not inherently fatal. It just means you’re walking around with an above-average level of blood sugar. Taking medication that lowers your blood sugar may make you think you’re doing better, but these pills are clearly making you worse.
- Talk to your physician about options to oral diabetes drugs. If your doctor isn’t willing to work with you, find one who will. The Whitaker Wellness Institute has a proven track record of helping patients with type 2 diabetes get off their drugs and onto a program that treats and prevents heart disease and other diabetic complications. For more information, call (800) 488-1500.
- Carey, J. “Surprising new diabetes data.” Business Week. 2008 Feb. 6. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Questions and answers: Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes (ACCORD) Trial. 2008 Feb 6. www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/prof/heart/other/accord/q_a.htm#drugs. Accessed April 1, 2008.
- Warner R, et al. Off Diabetes Pills: A Diabetic’s Guide to Longer Life. Washington: Public Citizens’ Health Group, 1978.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Copyright 2008. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.