NSAIDs are everywhere — physicians annually write nearly 100 million prescriptions for them in the United States alone. And people buy billions of nonprescription NSAIDs over the counter each year.
But NSAIDs can also increase the risk for illness in many different parts of the body, and they can interfere with the body’s natural healing process. Overuse can trigger a spiral of inflammation that results in autoimmune disease.
That’s not all: Some people who take NSAIDs over a long period of time may actually worsen the underlying condition that causes their pain and inflammation.
- NSAIDs made their debut back in the 19th century, when the active ingredient for aspirin was isolated from a family of shrubs that ancient Egyptians used for aches and pains. By 1969, demand for stronger painkillers produced ibuprofen, followed by naproxen in 1976.
- NSAIDs reduce pain and fever and reduce inflammation by inhibiting the action of two enzymes: cyclooxygenase 1 and cyclooxygenase 2, referred to as COX 1 and COX 2. These enzymes create lipids called prostaglandins, which regulate gastrointestinal, renal, vascular, and other physiological functions.
- These prostaglandins have many other important jobs within the body, and NSAIDs can block them all. So when we treat our pain, fever, and inflammation, we also negatively affect other critically important functions throughout the body.
- People who take NSAIDs are five times as likely to develop ulcers as people who do not.
- NSAIDs-inflicted damage can extend to our small intestines, leading to leaky gut syndrome.
- Leaky gut syndrome can lead to autoimmune disease, including celiac disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, scleroderma, and thyroiditis. (For more on autoimmune disorders, see “Autoimmune Disorders: When Your Body Turns On You“.)
- A study in the journal Lancet found that people who take high daily doses of NSAIDs increase their cardiovascular risk by a third; the exception was naproxen, which is kinder on the heart but harder on the gut. Another study in the journal Circulation found that for people who had had one heart attack, taking NSAIDs increased their risk of death by nearly 60 percent and of a second heart attack by 30 percent.
- NSAIDs are often prescribed for people with arthritis, but some research suggests that while these medications can reduce patients’ pain and inflammation in the short term, use can make their arthritis worse in the long run.
- Animal studies have shown that taking NSAIDs soon after a bone breaks can interfere with healing.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation. Seek out plants such as flax, chia, hemp, and algae. Wild-caught fish, grassfed meats, and pastured eggs also contain Omega-3s.