Full Circle: A Bitter Pill
How I got a bad dose of my own medicine

The first and last time I saw a fortuneteller was 45 years ago on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. I was there, on a dark and dismal day, to write a story on how casino gambling would save the town.

Madame Rue, a gypsy with a gold-capped tooth, held my hand and traced my lifeline. First she smiled, and then she frowned.

“You will live very long,” she said. “And you will be very ill.”

So far, she’s been right. I’ve accumulated enough strange maladies to fill a full season of “House.” High blood pressure is the most common of these. To treat it, I eat a reasonable diet and take a lot of pills. My numbers stayed in check until my annual physical.

My doctor looked at the cuff and his eyes got wide. “Your pressure is 169 over 115,” he said.

“That’s pretty high,” I said.

“That’s stroke/heart attack territory,” he nodded. Then, like any good doctor would, he asked me a lot of questions. Was I eating food that was very salty? Was I under a lot of pressure? No and no. Then he went over all my meds to make sure I was taking everything in the right dose.

“Well,” he said, “let’s put you on a more powerful pressure pill. I’ll see you again in two weeks.” I took the pill, I cut out pizza, cheesesteaks and all the other food I loved and went back to the doctor. No change. Still sky-high. The doctor asked me more questions, put me on a water pill. Two weeks later, nothing had changed. So he sent me for blood tests. The tests came back fine. No problems, no issues. Just really high blood pressure. This went on for a couple of months.

Then, I see this magazine story on the downside of taking supplements. And look, there’s melatonin. I had been having some trouble getting to sleep and a friend told me that melatonin was great for that. And it’s a natural substance. Couldn’t hurt a fly.

But the story said it could raise blood pressure in people who are taking certain blood pressure meds. And it can compromise the effectiveness of those meds. I look down the list and there’s nifedipine. Hey, that’s what I was taking. But, according to this, it wasn’t doing its job because I was taking the melatonin.

So, I stopped the melatonin. That day. A week later, I went back to my doctor. My pressure was fine. I told my doctor what had happened.

“You didn’t tell me you were on melatonin,” he said. He was right. It was herbal. How could it hurt?

The doctor looked it up on his iPhone app. “Melatonin,” he said, “can also increase blood sugar.” Did I mention I was diabetic? And it can make symptoms of depression worse, increase the risk of getting seizures. The list goes on and on.

Wow, shouldn’t they have to tell you this?

Well, the FDA regulations for dietary supplements are different and way less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

 When I told this story to another one of my doctors, he got even angrier with me. “Why do you take this crap?” he asked. “Supplements are all dangerous. There are so many companies making them. There’s so little quality control. And there’s next to no regulation. This stuff could kill you.”

Maybe I should just take my multi-vitamin pill. “You don’t even need that,” he said. “If you eat a decent diet, you get enough vitamins from the food. You don’t need twice the vitamin C and vitamin E or three times the B6.”

So, I looked at my Centrum. “Designed to support heart and eye health,” it says, right on the label. But wait, there’s this tiny print at the bottom. “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA.”

“It’s all a con job,” my doctor said. “But some people will fall for anything. Like horoscopes and fortune tellers.”

Did I mention I’m a Gemini?

November 2014
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