Just Say No: When It Makes Sense Not to Take Your Medicine


Story at-a-glance -

  • Positive lifestyle changes are often extremely effective at preventing and even treating acute and chronic health conditions
  • Many physicians neglect to ‘prescribe’ their patients healthier diets, exercise or stress management, instead only relying on medications
  • Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, high blood pressure, insomnia, and some mental health conditions are examples of diseases that can be prevented and sometimes managed via lifestyle changes
  • Viewing drugs as a last resort rather than a first-line defense will go a long way toward keeping you healthy, as will embracing positive lifestyle choices

By Dr. Mercola

You’ve probably heard the advice that eating healthier, exercising and relieving your stress – all facets of a healthy lifestyle – can help you to prevent and even treat diseases.

But perhaps you haven’t really taken it to heart. The problem is that this knowledge doesn’t always translate into actions, and rather than starting an exercise program or drinking a freshly prepared green vegetable juice, many visit their physicians and receive a prescription for medication.

Even many physicians neglect to tell their patients about the simple and, oftentimes, free changes they can make to dramatically improve their health, simply because they have been brainwashed by the conventional system and are convinced that drugs are part of the, if not the sole, answer for virtually any health condition.

Sometimes It Is Better to Skip the Medication

There are clearly some cases where medications are useful and even lifesaving. I am not opposed to medication – provided it is used correctly and only when necessary. And that latter point is key. Medications are often promoted as necessary when they actually aren’t.

Take type 2 diabetes. A new systematic review and meta-analysis combed through data of nine randomized, controlled trials of patients who were at risk of developing diabetes.

The study revealed that ‘comprehensive lifestyle interventions,’ which included factors like exercise and dietary changes, effectively decreased the incidence of type 2 diabetes in high-risk patients.1

Or consider cancer. Another study found that women who walked, cut their breast cancer risk by 14 percent, and those who exercised vigorously cut it by 25 percent, compared to those who didn’t exercise.2 Similarly, men with prostate cancer had more longer-lived cells if they ate right, managed their stress and lead healthy lifestyles.3

And in one particularly revealing study, researchers found that simply being married was associated with significantly greater survival among people with cancer, compared to those who were separated, divorced, widowed or never married.

The implication is that social support appears to have a large impact on your ability to survive a disease, and this study even found that the survival benefits of marriage for cancer patients were greater than those from chemotherapy!4

Still, the dangerous misconception persists in the US, among both patients and physicians, that when you're sick you virtually always need a drug to feel better.

Examples of additional health problems that typically don't require drug intervention include short-term conditions like colds and flu, headaches and minor aches and pains to chronic conditions like:

Be Prepared: The ‘Health Care’ System Is Set Up to Prescribe Drugs

The business of being a doctor in the US has been largely reduced to being the front man for a multi-billion dollar drug business whose primary mission seems to be enriching their bottom line by keeping you sick and dependent on drugs to relieve -- but not cure -- your health complaints.

The system is carefully orchestrated to sell the quick fix, the drug, and that is precisely why so many Americans equate prescription medications with wellness. In reality, in many cases, the "cure" merely adds new problems to a patient's list of complaints…

During your last appointment with a physician of any sort, specialist or primary care, what happened?

  • Did you have a discussion about diet, exercise, nutrition, eating plans, sleep or stress management?
  • Were you cautioned not to consume too much refined sugar or flour, trans fats or processed meats?
  • Were you given advice on natural supplements or lifestyle changes that can help you achieve optimal health?

Or did the entire appointment simply address the symptoms you came in with or a screening for an illness you might have? And did it end with the doctor giving you a prescription? Unless your physician specializes in nutrition or holistic medicine, the prescription was probably the main focus of your appointment. That's because treating symptoms and diseases -- and prescribing drugs for them -- is what modern doctors are trained to do. As reported in TIME:5

“The U.S. health care system is designed to react to disease and treat it once symptoms set in — the reimbursement structure is founded on doctors diagnosing problems and treating them, for example, most often with medications. ‘The focus of our system is embedded in disease treatment. People make a lot of money off the way it was built, so we give lip service to prevention. But exercise is free.’”

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Do You Really Know the Power of a Healthy Lifestyle?

I regularly scour news feeds to find out about the latest research that may be relevant to improving health, so I’m continually amazed and impressed by the power of lifestyle interventions. But perhaps you haven’t heard some of the recent revelations that show just how powerful a player your lifestyle is in your overall health.


  • A growing body of research suggests there may be a powerful connection between the foods you eat and your risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, via similar pathways that cause type 2 diabetes.
  • Chronic stress results in alterations in your brain-gut connection, which can cause or worsen numerous gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, GERD and more.
  • Exercise is one of the safest, most effective ways to prevent and treat chronic diseases such as heart disease. After reviewing 305 randomized controlled trials, researchers found no statistically detectable differences between physical activity and medications, such as statins and beta-blockers, for pre-diabetes and heart disease.6
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation for just four days affects pain responses in your brain. Brain activity decreases in areas devoted to monitoring a painful body part and also in areas responsible for relaying sensory information.

Not to Mention, Medications Can Be Deadly

No one wants to treat any disease only to find that their treatment has caused a new problem that may be even worse than their initial disease… but prescription drugs now kill more people than illegal drugs. Death by prescription drugs is a 21st century epidemic, now killing even more Americans than motor vehicle accidents.

Drug fatalities more than doubled for teens and young adults between 2000 and 2008, and more than tripled among people age 50 to 69. It’s estimated there are 450,000 preventable adverse events related to medications in the US every year, accounting for a substantial proportion of emergency room visits. And when you add in deaths from hospital-acquired infections, unnecessary medical procedures, and adverse surgical outcomes, conventional medicine should top the list of the leading causes of death in the US. The average annual prescription rate for children, adults and seniors in the US is now:7

  • More than 4 prescriptions per child (age 0-18)
  • Nearly 12 prescriptions per adult
  • 28 prescriptions per senior, aged 65 and over

Does this sound excessive to you? If so, it’s important to remember that you are the only one who can be fully responsible for your health. You can choose to believe that this responsibility rests on someone else's shoulders, but at the end of the day, you are the one who has to live with the consequences, for better or worse. This is why some of the most important common-sense questions you need to ask before you take any drug include:

  • Do I really need it?
  • What are the alternatives? (lifestyle-based or otherwise)
  • Is it prescribed appropriately, or is it being prescribed for an off-label use?
  • What are the side effects? (Both common and uncommon side effects)
  • Is it addictive and is it known to interact with any other drugs, supplements, or foods that I'm taking?

Ready? Set… Go! Take Control of Your Health

Viewing drugs as a last resort rather than a first-line defense will go a long way toward keeping you healthy, as will embracing positive lifestyle choices. You CAN take control of your health, and this trend appears to be catching on. TIME reported on one excellent program being used by New York City physicians to encourage patients to eat more produce:8

“At Lincoln Medical Center and Harlem Hospital in New York City, doctors are starting to focus more on prevention by making diet changes a priority for patients — before they find themselves diagnosed with a disease like diabetes or heart trouble. The hospitals have launched the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription, a four-month pilot program, which allows patients with prescriptions — written by their doctors — to get coupons for fresh produce at farmers’ markets and the city’s green carts.”

It certainly helps to have a physician who thinks beyond drugs… but if yours doesn't, it's up to you to find one who does. And it’s also up to you to embrace the healthy lifestyle that can make you feel better. An excellent starting point is my free nutrition plan, which virtually anyone can follow starting right now. What are you waiting for? TIME summed it up well:9

“It’s not that prescription medicines… don’t have a place in modern medicine. They do… But if it’s possible to avoid disease altogether, and if patients can do it without expensive medications that can cause complications, why wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t you?”