Most of us swallow our pills with a glass of juice or a swig of water. We rarely think twice about when we take our medicine or what we eat with it. Yet food and drug interactions can be dangerous or even deadly.
A reader of this column recently described why these combinations must not be overlooked:
“I just wanted to thank you for some information that, in all likelihood, saved my mother’s life. She was taken to the emergency room two weeks ago because she was afraid she had suffered mini-strokes or something similar. It turned out her blood pressure was high (212/110) and her potassium was very low.
“She was treated and released, but terrified that this would happen again. She is 79 and doesn’t deal with medical issues well at all.
“The day she was discharged, I read in your column that someone had inquired about licorice. You said it can cause high blood pressure and low potassium.
“My mother had been eating lots of black licorice (about half a pound the day before the ER visit). She takes a diuretic and has high blood pressure to begin with. We were so relieved to have an explanation.
“After she got home from the hospital, she was planning on going to get more black licorice (her comfort food) as soon as she felt up to going out. Now that she isn’t eating licorice any more, she feels much better. She relayed what I read in your column to her doctor and pharmacist. They had never heard of any connection!
“Such ignorance is very scary. I wonder how many other people could be endangered by such an interaction. Your timely information was a Godsend.”
Most food and drug interactions are not nearly so dramatic. In some cases, taking a thyroid pill or an antibiotic with milk, yogurt or calcium-fortified orange juice could reduce its effectiveness.
In other cases, a glass of grapefruit juice could lead to unexpected toxicity from a cholesterol-lowering medicine or a blood pressure pill.
Physicians and pharmacists are often too busy to review with patients exactly how they should swallow their prescriptions. So it is up to individuals and their family members to ask specific questions and do their own homework on food and drug interactions.
We have prepared an up-to-date Guide on Grapefruit Interactions to facilitate communication with health professionals on these issues. Anyone who would like this Guide along with our paperback book, Dangerous Drug Interactions, may send $9.99 to: People’s Pharmacy, Dept. J-DDI, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.
Keeping up with food and drug interactions can be a challenge. For example, the British equivalent of the FDA recently issued a warning about Coumadin (warfarin) and cranberry juice. This combination may lead to unexpected and potentially lethal bleeding.
The herb ephedra has been removed from many over-the-counter natural diet aids. But it is being replaced with bitter orange. This dietary supplement can interact with many medicines in a manner similar to grapefruit. A person who was not aware of the potential for danger could end up in the hospital as a result.
Licorice candy seems like such an innocent treat. But for anyone on a diuretic or a heart medicine like Lanoxin, too much licorice could be lethal.

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