All women who take medication need to know this

Ever had side effects from your medication that you weren’t told about? There’s a very good reason for it, and every woman who takes pharmaceutical drugs needs to know.

Emergency medicine doctor Alyson McGregor recently gave a TED talk on why medicine often has dangerous side effects on women, and it has started a new conversation about the trust we put in doctors and science.

We believe medications we’re prescribed will work and help us but, as Dr McGregor reveals, medical science has only been based on half the population for the last 100 years. That’s right – popular medications that many of us take have only ever been lab tested on men.

A recent Government Accountability study revealed that 80 percent of the drugs withdrawn from the market are due to side effects on women. So let’s think about that for a minute. Why are we discovering side effects on women only after a drug has been released to the market? Do you know that it takes years for a drug to go from an idea to being tested on cells in a laboratory, to animal studies, to then clinical trials on humans, finally to go through a regulatory approval process, to be available for your doctor to prescribe to you?… What’s happening?”, Dr McGregor asked.

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She explains that the cells used in the lab are male cells, as are the animals. She gives the example of popular sleeping pill Ambien.

It was released on the market over 20 years ago, and since then, hundreds of millions of prescriptions have been written, primarily to women, because women suffer more sleep disorders than men.

But in the last year, the FDA recommended cutting women’s dosage as women metabolise the drug at a slower rate than men, said Dr McGregor, causing them to wake up in the morning with more of the active drug in their system.

This can mean if you take this medicine and are a woman, you can be drowsy the next day – a huge risk if you are getting behind the wheel of the car.

It makes you wonder: how many other things need to be analysed by gender? What else are we missing?

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Dr McGregor explains that one of the historical reasons women don’t participate in medical research was due to post-WWII where guidelines protected women of childbearing age from entering into any medical research studies. There was the fear of something happened to the foetus during the study and who would be liable. On top of that, men have less fluctuations of hormones and present clean data. 

And unfortunately for women, at the time there was a general assumption that men and women were alike in every way (except genitalia), so therefore it was decided: medical research was performed on men, and the results were later applied to women.

Another interesting area of medicine is cardiovascular health and the huge difference in male and female heart attacks. “Heart disease is the number one killer for both men and women, but more women die within the first year of having a heart attack than men. Men will complain of crushing chest pain — an elephant is sitting on their chest. And we call this typical. Women have chest pain, too. But more women than men will complain of “just not feeling right,” “can’t seem to get enough air in,” “just so tired lately.” And for some reason we call this atypical”, she said. 

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It is also not often realised that while you can give aspirin to healthy men to help prevent them from having a heart attack, if you give aspirin to a healthy woman, it’s actually harmful.

Dr McGregor believes “the first step towards change is awareness. This is not just about improving medical care for women. This is about personalised, individualised health care for everyone. This awareness has the power to transform medical care for men and women. And from now on, I want you to ask your doctors whether the treatments you are receiving are specific to your sex and gender”.

Tell us, did this shock you? Have you had strange side effects to some medications you’ve taken?