By Dr. Mercola
About 40 percent of Americans have trouble swallowing pills, even though in most cases these same people report no trouble swallowing food or beverages.1
For some, the difficulty is severe enough that it prevents them from using pills altogether, which can be problematic if you’re interested in supporting your health with supplements or in the cases where medications are truly necessary.
In a minority of cases, the problem may be physical. Dysphagia, or underlying swallowing difficulties, stroke, or surgery for gastroesophageal reflux can all make it difficult to swallow pills. In most cases, however, the difficulty is psychological in nature, often related to a fear of gagging.2
One Harris Interactive poll found, in fact, that among people who have problems swallowing pills, 80 percent describe the unpleasant sensation of having a pill stuck in their throat, 48 percent describe having a bad aftertaste in their mouth, and 32 percent describe gagging.
This isn’t to say that the difficulty is all in your head… there may actually be a mind-body reason why swallowing pills is different than swallowing a similarly sized piece of food…
Swallowing Pills May Throw Off Your Body’s Natural Swallowing Process
Stephen Cassivi, a thoracic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, who specializes in esophageal disorders, spoke with the Wall Street Journal about swallowing pills, and explained why so many people may find it difficult.3 There is a natural, three-phase process that your body goes through when swallowing:
- Oral (chewing, moistening, and deliver food to the back of your mouth)
- Pharyngeal (closing the larynx by your epiglottis and vocal cords and temporarily inhibiting breathing while food passes)
- Esophageal (the rhythmic contractions of the esophagus as it delivers your food to your stomach)
The latter two phases are largely instinctual while the oral phase is the voluntary phase. However, you must swallow a pill without chewing it first, which is why it feels so unnatural. As noted in the Wall Street Journal:4
“’We have an unconscious ability to know when food is moistened and masticated enough to be delivered to the back of the throat,’ Dr. Cassivi says.
For instance, no one chews yogurt—typically one just swallows it—but not being able to chew a hard substance like a pill can throw the mind-body connection in swallowing off, he says.”
According to the Harris poll, drinking lots of liquid is the most common way that people try to make swallowing pills easier. Less clear, however, is how effective these other options actually are:
- Drinking water in big gulps
- Tilting your head back
- Placing the pill on the back of your tongue
- Trying to swallow the pill multiple times
- Splitting the pill in two
Two Techniques to Make Swallowing Pills Easier
Given how common pill-swallowing difficulties actually are, researchers from the University of Heidelberg in Germany set out to determine a way to help. They recruited 150 and had them try one of two methods for swallowing a variety of differently shaped pills: the “pop-bottle method” for tablets and the “lean-forward technique” for capsules). According to the researchers:5
“Both techniques were remarkably effective in participants with and without reported difficulties swallowing pills and should be recommended regularly.”
In fact, the pop-bottle method improved swallowing of pills in nearly 60 percent of those who tried it, while the lean-forward technique worked in nearly 89 percent! NPR gave a clear re-cap on how to do them:6
The Pop-Bottle Method
Designed for swallowing large, dense tablets, first put the tablet on your tongue. Then close your lips tightly around a plastic bottle filled with water. Suck the water from the bottle and tilt your head back as you swallow.
The Lean-Forward Technique
This technique is designed for swallowing capsule-style pills. Place the capsule on your tongue, take a medium sip of water, and lean your head forward as you swallow. By tilting your head forward, the capsule naturally moves toward your throat, making swallowing it easier.
3 More Pill-Swallowing Tips
Dr. Cassivi listed several other tips that can make pills go down easier.7 Ideally, try practicing these methods with a pill-size piece of food to see which one works best for you and become comfortable with it before trying an actual pill.
- Positive Reinforcement: Remind yourself that you can do it. Think logically, reminding yourself that the pill is probably smaller than the last piece of meat you swallowed.
- Look to the Side: By turning your neck, the upper esophageal sphincter opens more, which may make swallowing easier.
- Use Distraction: Place the pill in a type of food you don’t normally chew, such as a spoonful of raw kefir. This makes it easier to swallow the pill without chewing it first.
Try EFT for Fear of Gagging
Do you tense up at the mere thought of swallowing a pill? Are you fearful of gagging and choking, or did you have an unpleasant experience swallowing a pill in the past?
This can make your throat muscles tighten, making it much more difficult to swallow anything. In this case, overcoming the emotional barrier will make swallowing easier. Using relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, can help with tension, but my favorite technique for overcoming anxiety and fear is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer specializing in healing and self-improvement. It’s akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.
By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional “scarring” and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well. In the following video, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman discusses how to use EFT.
Do You Need to Reduce Your Reliance on Pills?
When speaking of pills, I am primarily referring to nutritional supplements, but, unfortunately, many people taking pills daily are actually taking pharmaceutical drugs. Over the course of a lifetime, the average person may be prescribed 14,000 pills (this doesn’t even include over-the-counter meds), and by the time you reach your 70s you could be taking five or more pills every day, according to Pill Poppers, a documentary.
Many people assume that the medications they’re taking are exerting carefully designed effects on specific biological pathways in their bodies. In reality, these effects were not designed but rather observed – often simply as a matter of sheer dumb luck – and the medication was then “discovered.” While these may sound like beneficial “mistakes,” the surprises can work both ways. Often, drugmakers and scientists are “surprised” to learn that their new blockbuster drug leads to unknown (or undisclosed) side effects, altering and disrupting far more functions in your body than was first realized.
The truth is, no drug is side effect-free – a fact that many loyal pill takers are not aware of. These side effects are then often treated with… even more drugs, perpetuating a vicious cycle. You don’t have to fall victim to the drug industry’s hype and find yourself taking a handful of pills every morning. Most chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, are largely preventable with simple lifestyle changes. Even infectious diseases like the flu can often be warded off by a healthy way of life.
On the other hand, staying well naturally, without the use of drugs or even frequent conventional medical care, is not only possible, it may be the most successful strategy you can employ to increase your longevity. Even most nutritional supplements can be avoided by eating right, getting daily sun exposure and taking other positive lifestyle steps. For the cases when a supplement is warranted, however, you can often find them in non-pill versions, such as liquid, healthy gummy or even airless pump technology, which comes out in a fine spray.