Inspired living

Why detoxing from pharmaceutical drugs is a growing issue

Hands, health, healthy, safe, healing

Credit: iStock

This column is normally about “detox”, which is the buzz word for natural cleansing and supportive detoxification to optimise vitality and wellbeing. “Drug detox” is a related but different area. It’s concerned with supporting withdrawal from active substances of dependence. This can use an integration of pharmaceutical and natural methods, which may include counselling, nutrition and herbal medicines, to support the withdrawal from the drug and restore the body to balance.

Drug detoxification might conjure up Trainspotting-like images of pale, emaciated people sweating and shaking as they withdraw from heroin or crack cocaine. Or perhaps your mind darts to the discomfort and periods of denial when letting go of sugar, nicotine or alcohol for a period of time. Less likely is the image of someone coming off pharmaceuticals.

However, today detoxification from pharmaceutical drugs is a growing issue, and a prickly one at that! Rates of antidepressant prescription in Australia doubled between 2000 and 2011, making us the second-largest user in the world, second to Finland. The pharmaceuticals of particular concern are the psychoactive drugs, like antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-psychotics, according to Professor Peter Gøtzsche, a cofounder of the Cochrane Collaboration.

The Copenhagen-based Cochrane Collaboration is a not-for-profit group of independent medical researchers who critically analyse the scientific evidence base. Their findings provide the baseline for many healthcare policies throughout the world and are considered to provide conservative, strictly gold-standard, evidenced-based reviews on medicines.

Gøtzsche bravely spoke at the Victorian library in Melbourne in 2015, discussing the corruption and “Mafia”-style techniques used by pharmaceutical companies to market their products, in particular drugs that affect the brain for the treatment of depression, mania and ADHD. I think he is brave because, essentially, Gøtzsche is a whistle-blower on the powerful pharmaceutical industry, which is not known for its benevolence and ethics.

Detoxification from pharmaceutical drugs is a growing issue ...

“Scientific evidence is polluted to a devastating degree,” he said as he demonstrated some of the biases leading to much human suffering, suicides and even murder. He showed how the rampant over-prescription of psychoactive medications has been instituted into the diagnostic criteria. For example, someone is defined as “depressed” only two weeks after a major grief episode in the diagnostic manual of 2013. An antidepressant drug for this “depression” can be then duly prescribed. Previously, two years was allowed for someone to feel grief before being diagnosed a depressive.

In addition to the excessive prescription, people remain on the medication for long periods of time. Forty-five per cent of people in a depression study in Finland were still on the drugs five years later, despite the normal resolution of depression being between six and nine months. This in part is due to the difficulties many people have in coming off them, and how withdrawal symptoms are often mistaken for disease symptoms.

Withdrawal from any psychoactive medication must always be done in conjunction with a health practitioner, or a team of health practitioners, and with support from friends and family. Gøtzsche said that a good deal of determination, patience, support and education is required, and also suggested psychotherapy as a beneficial pathway towards health. When I asked if any successful protocols using herbs and natural supplements had been used in other pharmaceutical detox centres, he blankly said there was no evidence supporting these substances (I didn’t dare mention how “polluted” such evidence was, anyway).

During my practice years, I have supported clients to successfully withdraw from antidepressant medications. This was always done with the GP’s knowledge, often in conjunction with a psychologist or counsellor and initiated by the client’s own motivations to stop taking the medication. Often their GP plotted out a gradual reduction in dose to gently shift their system and lessen the withdrawal. It is not advised to abruptly stop such medications.

A primary step in withdrawing from these drugs is to maintain balance of blood sugar levels. Eating nourishing meals and snacks every 3–4 hours helps to balance blood glucose levels, which in turn helps to balance mood. Meals and snacks, in general, will be wholefoods and can be selected to follow the moderate-to-low glycaemic index (GI).

Another step is to nourish the nervous system, including the brain, with fatty acids, minerals and antioxidants. This can entail healthy eating plans with abundant vegetables, seeds, nuts, fish and seaweeds. Sometimes supplementation can help, particularly with quality omega-3 essential fatty acids, magnesium, calcium and other nutritionals.

Herbal medicines can be wonderful allies to prepare the body for withdrawal and provide support. These might be tonics to the nervous system, or to the liver or kidneys, depending on the person’s situation. Since a number of interactions can occur between herbal medicines, such as St John’s wort, and pharmaceuticals like antidepressants, it’s always best to have an individualised protocol developed for you.

In addition, people withdrawing from antidepressant medications need to be listened to compassionately. The issues that instigated the drug use in the first place must be worked through, which can be assisted by friends, family and health professionals.

Detoxing from pharmaceuticals is not a DIY activity. It’s best undertaken as a group effort to provide connection and support for the individual withdrawing.



Sally Mathrick

Naturopath and yoga teacher Sally Mathrick offers health courses, workshops, detox retreats and individual consultations that support fresh thinking and whole health. With her third university degree underway, Sally is passionate about sharing effective, wellness wisdom that makes life more wonderful.