Have We Become A Nation of Pill Poppers?

By Janet Williams, Legends Report Writer

“Over the course of a lifetime, each person on average will be prescribed more than 1400 pills”.

BBC Documentary (Horizon – Pill Poppers, 2019/10)

Add in the many over the counter medicines we all take at different times and it is thought this figure rises to an amazing 40,000 pills each!

While these figures may initially seem far-fetched, over the course of my 30-year career as a nurse in the NHS, I have seen a huge change in the amount of pills patients take and am surprised it's not higher. Patients now request a pill for every ailment as they become increasingly unwilling to tolerate the slightest discomfort before reaching for instant gratification from a tablet.

Pharmacies in England dispensed approx.1.04 billion items in 2019/20 – a significant increase from the 813 million items dispensed 10 years previously. 

In her Oxford London Lecture in 2012, Professor Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Population ageing said;

“I think we may be entering a world where preventable chronic disease will not be prevented by public health measures tackling lifestyles, but increasingly by drug therapies which will control and reduce symptoms of chronic disease.'

You only have to look in any home medicine cabinet to see that pills are a modern-day panacea, which is probably not surprising given what they can do in the right circumstances.

But what exactly are tablets, what do they actually do for us, are we relying on them too much and if so, is there another option?

What Are Pills And Why Do We Use Them?

"Disease is the biggest moneymaker in or economy"

John H Tobe (Naturalist)

Pills are simply a powdered form of any medicine that allows it to be taken orally.

The first pill references date back to Egyptian times, (when they were known as katapotia, meaning something to be swallowed), and were made from bread dough, honey or grease, with herbs, plant powders or other active ingredients mixed in (2).

In medieval times, pills were coated in slimy plant substances to make them taste better or slide down easier. They were even rolled in silver and gold, although that meant they passed straight through the digestive system without releasing their medicinal benefits, but this did not stop people from continuing to gild tablets until well into the 19th century. (2)

Nowadays, the powder is mixed with a filler or a plastic substance of some sort to allow it to be rolled into the desired form, compressed into a round or oval mass and then coated in a varnish-like substance.

Unlike medieval times, the pills we use today contain mainly man-made ingredients rather than being derived from plants. As our knowledge of the workings of the human body increases, researchers can now create medications that do things that plants based ones could not. Which in turn means that the big drug companies now have a huge investment in our health!

Pills are mainly used to cure, halt or prevent disease and ease symptoms. 

But are we using them correctly and should we be questioning their use more?

Side Effects, Misuse And Overuse

‘The only difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose".

Paracelsus, 14th-century physician

While pills may give temporary relief to whatever ails us, they do need to be taken with care. All medicines should be approved for use - meaning their benefits far outweigh their known risks – but they will still have side effects, and we owe it to ourselves to be aware of these and take any pills appropriately.

Side effects are unwanted effects that happen when you take tablets. Not everyone will have them but for anyone who does, there can be many and varied ranging from being minor or just an inconvenience to the serious or even strange. The most common side effects are ones affecting the gut – such as nausea and vomiting – which is perhaps not surprising when we are putting a foreign compound into our body. But they can also include anything from rashes, allergic reactions, dizziness, dry mouth, headache and muscle aches and pains, to the more serious such as the risk of bleeding or liver damage.

One way to reduce the risk of any side effects is to be more aware of what pills we are taking and make every effort to ensure we are not misusing or overusing them. Misuse of a drug is basically just the use of a drug in a way that it is not intended to be used and includes things such as not taking them at the right time, not taking the correct dose, forgetting a dose, taking tablets not meant for you, not completing a course properly or taking pills when not needed (such as antibiotics).

It is also vital that we are aware of how many tablets we are taking to avoid the effects of overuse. Overuse is defined by the amount of acute medication taken over a month and can lead to something known as MOH (medication overuse headache).

While some diseases can be managed more efficiently with a combination of medicines, taking too many at once can be counterproductive. Throughout my 30 years as a nurse I have seen many patients who ended up having to take more pills to counteract the side effects of the ones they were already taking, resulting in some patients taking a mountain of pills. Towards the end of his life my father often said he took so many pills he felt that if someone picked him up and shook him, he would rattle!

Do You Know What You Are Taking?

We all take medicines of some sort at some point in our lives, even if it’s just an over-the-counter painkiller. But do you really know what you are taking?

Let’s look at two different, but popular, tablets – antibiotics and paracetamol.

Firstly antibiotics – the very name of which literally means “against life”. Their discovery was hailed as one of the most significant medical achievements of the 20th century and they are powerful medicines that have eased human pain and suffering for many years and even saved lives.

But did you know that antibiotics are:

  • Only effective against bacterial infections and not against viral ones like Covid 19.
  • Unable to differentiate between the good or bad bacteria in our bodies. So, when fighting an infection, they can often end up killing all the good bacteria in our gut as well (which are needed to keep your immune system strong and healthy).
  • Have been known to have quite severe side effects such as allergies, diarrhoea, breathing difficulties, swelling of the throat and neck.
  • Can actually weaken the immune system - by overusing or misusing them, antibiotics can actually make you more susceptible to re-infection and at a higher risk of developing resistant bacteria.

How about paracetamol? It’s been around for over fifty years and it is estimated that 6,300 tonnes are bought each year! As it is available over the counter many people assume it is a ‘safe’, go-to option for any sort of pain. But is it?

Did you know?

  • Most people have no idea of the safe maximum daily dose (it's 8 tablets in 24 hours by the way!)
  • It is found as a component in other medications – such as cold and flu remedies – so you may not realise just how much you have taken.
  • It is only effective for certain types of pain (i.e. not for arthritic pain).
  • It is the most common medication taken in overdoses
  • Many people actually underestimate its strength – paracetamol is known to cause liver damage not only in overdose but also in people taking standard doses for pain.

 What Are The Alternatives?

‘Surgeons can cut out everything except the cause’

Herbert M Shelton (American Naturopath and alternative medicine advocate)

So, if you think you are taking too many tablets or simply want to make sure you don’t take too many in the future, what can you do?

Let me say here that I am just sharing my personal experience, not giving medical advice. You should always discuss any changes with your GP beforehand.

Firstly, try to always be aware of why you are taking any medications. Pills not only ease our symptoms but can also mask them leading us to believe that whatever ails us is ‘cured’ when in fact we are just no longer aware of it. So, try to look at the underlying reason why you need to take the pills - not only will you understand your own body better but you may possibly be able to reduce the amount of medication you need to take

For example, many years ago, a friend of mine was literally drinking anti-reflux medicine like it was water. He was complaining that nothing worked and he needed stronger and stronger medicine. Together we looked at what he was eating and worked out which foods were causing the reflux. By avoiding these foods, he was able to reduce and eventually stop the anti-reflux medicine and even ended up eating a much healthier diet.

N.B - taking too many of certain pills can actually cause reflux- another reason to check what you are taking!

Another example is a patient I saw who was regularly laid out with severe migraines and again was asking for stronger and stronger tablets. Over the course of a few weeks, we tracked when she got the migraines and worked out any common denominators that may have caused them. She continued taking some medication in the meantime to stay functioning but not as much. Eventually, we discovered the migraines were directly related to red wine. Once she eliminated this, the migraines literally stopped.

But what if you have an ailment that you have to take medications for – what then?

An option then is to use alternative or complementary medicines/treatments alongside any conventional ones.

Complementary And Alternative Treatments

'Always laugh when you can, it’s the best medicine'

Lord Byron

In recent years have seen a rise in the use of complementary and alternative treatments. It is often assumed that these two terms mean the same thing and they are usually grouped together and known as CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). But they are very different.

While there are no universally agreed definitions of these terms, it is generally accepted that complementary medicines are those used together with conventional medicine while alternative is anything used instead of conventional medicine.

Alternative medicine is not used much and many doctors will advise against it but complementary treatments are being accepted more and more into mainstream medicines and often overlap.

The use of complementary treatments - things such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, homoeopathy, chiropractic, osteopathy, reiki, herbal medicine, pilates and yoga - is gradually increasing in the NHS. Many hospitals now employ Reiki practitioners and GP’s are referring patients for treatments such as yoga or osteopathy.

NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has even recommended the use of the following in a limited number of circumstances:

  • The Alexander technique for Parkinson’s
  • Ginger and acupressure for morning sickness
  • Manual therapy for lower back pain

How To Use CAM’s (Complimentary And Alternative Medicine)

There is much debate around the safety of CAM treatments. Unlike conventional medicine, much of it is not research-based (although there is more research being done) so people think it is not safe. But does everything have to be research-based? There is much anecdotal evidence that things such as reiki etc., work. Many people will talk about the ‘placebo effect’ of complementary medicine, but does it matter if it is a placebo effect as long as it works? 

The general advice when beginning to use CAM’s is to do your research. Talk to your GP about what is available for you - some GP’s are actually complementary therapists as well or may be able to put you in touch with some safe practitioners. Also, talk to friends to try to get recommendations of who to use. By doing some research initially you will be able to find the best practitioner for you.


So, while pills are very much a part of our life nowadays and do bring amazing benefits, we can’t rely solely on them to heal all our ailments. We do still need to take responsibility for our own health and be aware of what we are taking and why. 

To recap, you can:

  • Be fully aware of what you are taking - talk to your GP to understand why he is prescribing something, find out how it interacts with other medications or even food etc. Ask him if he can help you to reduce the number of pills taken.
  • Try to get to the root cause of an illness as well as looking for a quick fix. This may require some work on your part as well as working with people who can support you (see below).
  • Think about using complementary and alternative therapies alongside your conventional medicines and treatments.
  • Review medications regularly - whether conventional or complementary. Our bodies are constantly changing so may need different treatments.

If you or anyone you know would value the support of a mentor, coach, counsellor in relation to anything in this article, please see below... 




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