Often, when we think of medication, whether prescription or over the counter, we focus solely on the positive, healing impacts manufacturers claim meds have on the body. After all, that’s exactly why we reach for medicine—we are confident, or at least hopeful that drugs can help us heal and become healthier, more vibrant versions of ourselves.
However, it is less common to discuss the downsides of frequent or long-term medication use, including side effects. Unfortunately, not all side effects are minor. Although pharmaceuticals can be relatively benign in controlled doses over limited spans of time, they can become detrimental when taken long-term. Long-term medication is not always necessary, but frequently occurs without much consideration from the patient or the prescriber.
The immune system is a highly complex set of mechanisms that are designed to kill pathogens and get rid of waste debris to keep the body healthy. But the immune system can go awry, either not working efficiently enough, (weakened) or working too actively (super-elevated). Both of these conditions can contribute to or result in autoimmune and degenerative diseases.1,4,5,11,13,16,19,23,26,30
Long-term medication use can lead to a dysregulated immune system. This may create either a weakened or an overstimulated immune response. Immune suppression from prescription medication can go unnoticed until symptoms of lowered immunity, such as increased infections, begin to surface. The effects of a supersensitized immune system, however, can be drastic and immediately observable. For example, Stevens-Johnson Syndrome is a life-threatening immune system reaction that is caused by medication in 80% of cases.13 Patients experience the top layer of skin burning away and peeling off in sheets, accompanied by inflammation, swelling, painful blistering of mucous membrane tissues, and many other symptoms. The condition is rare and can be lethal, and is associated with medications such as Lamictal®, Tegretol®, anticonvulsants, and some antibiotics.
Have you ever seen or heard of a person who is allergic to bees get stung? Prescription medications can also cause an anaphylactic (life-threatening) allergic reaction by super-stimulating the immune system. Such drugs can include atypical antipsychotics, steroids, and antibiotics.12
According to the FDA drug labels, drugs that are associated with lowered immune response include psychotropics such as Seroquel® and Risperdal® that carry a risk of lowered white blood cells (lowered immunity) leading to increased infections. Many drugs used in psychiatry are linked to a condition called agranulocytosis, an extremely low white blood cell count.14-18,27 Drugs can also elevate white blood cells to a dangerous level, as in leukocytosis associated with anticonvulsants and NSAIDs for example.16 A weakened immune system as well as an over-activated immune system can both lead to serious health problems and should be closely monitored to prevent such outcomes. Where possible, reducing or eliminating prescription medications with these side effects may be preferable. This article will cover both these phenomena, with the main focus on the weakened immune response that is associated with prescription drugs.
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In order to keep our bodies as healthy as possible, keeping our immune systems healthy and functioning should be one of the top focuses. By combating environmental risks and dangerous pathogens, our immune systems are working hard to combat the detrimental effects of the world around us.19 With a weak or damaged immune system, it is considerably more difficult for our bodies to combat disease and serious illnesses.21,22,24,25
However, it can be fairly difficult for the average person to determine whether their immune system has been weakened. In fact, most people aren’t aware of immune deficiencies until they have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. However, it is still advisable to remain aware of your own immune system’s shortcomings even if you haven’t been formally diagnosed with an immune-suppressing condition. Lack of a diagnosis doesn’t mean that your immune system is currently functioning at peak health; in fact, sometimes the opposite is true.
Education is key. To keep your immune system healthy, an important first step is to be aware of some of the most common signs of a weakened immune system. Many of these symptoms can seem fairly innocuous or easy to overlook, but they can all be signs of a much more severe issue with the immune system. After you identify an issue, it is much simpler to make improvements through lifestyle changes or considering tapering off your long-term medication regime.
Some of the top suppressed immune system symptoms are:
Digestive Health Issues
A wide variety of common diseases are either caused by or can result in poor digestive health. Diet plays an important role in supporting gut health. A robust digestive system supported by the necessary microbiota provides a protective barrier from invaders and pathogens.2,3 An unhealthy gut from poor diet, chemical overload, or other causes can truly compromise the immune system. While digestive issues are broad, they often exhibit a number of common symptoms, including constipation, bloating, and regular instances of diarrhea. If you’ve begun to notice any of these symptoms, be sure not to overlook their potential connection to your immune system. Even if they don’t take a significant toll at present, they could still be signs of a far more serious condition that could develop. According to research published in the Journal of Drug Safety, there are over 700 drugs known to cause diarrhea.18 Other CDC research tells us that TD (traveler’s diarrhea) is the most prevalent medical issue that up to 70% of international travelers experience, and that antibiotics provide relief for those with a competent immune system, but not for those who are immunocompromised.21 If you have experienced this common phenomenon and found antibiotics were ineffective, this could very well indicate a weakened immune system.
Susceptibility to Colds and Other Infections
Susceptibility to colds is an indicator that can be easily overlooked. After all, colds are a common condition that nearly everyone experiences at some point. However, it isn’t a good sign to develop colds and other infections frequently. According to the CDC, a healthy adult will average two to three colds (or similar infections), each year. In each instance, it should take between a week and ten days to recover.7-9,20
Unfortunately, in individuals who are immunocompromised, this often isn’t the case. Not only can an impaired immune system lead someone to develop colds and infections more often, but the resulting impact may slow your recovery. If your colds are too frequent, overly lengthy, or both, you could be looking at a primary sign that the immune health is in a dysregulated state, either too weak, or too aggressive. The immune system works best when it strikes a delicate balance of how it responds to a safe or a dangerous environment to keep us healthy.
Do not lose hope if you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. It is entirely possible to be proactive and work to improve your immune health, even after being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. In fact, being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease is an excellent reason to re-assess your prescription medication regimen and other lifestyle factors including correcting the diet for healthy gut microbiota, adequate nutrition, and reducing processed foods and exposure to other toxic elements.
Autoimmune diseases are the result of the immune system targeting healthy cells, rather than pathogens or faulty cells. The immune system is made up of many different kinds of white blood cells. These cells exist throughout the body, and as such, autoimmune conditions can develop in all regions of the body, with varying levels of severity. When an immune system isn’t functioning at its peak, such as with prolonged medication use, it can either become weakened or overactive.17,23 In either instance, an impaired immune system is too broken to support health and wellness. Be vigilant in finding ways to begin to repair it, including considering tapering off medications that may have contributed to the condition.
Difficulty Healing Wounds (Slow Healing)
Slow healing is another sign of a weakened or impaired immune system. This is especially concerning because the individual is at an increased risk of developing infections, thus placing additional stress on an already dysfunctional immune system.22,23
Drug-Induced Immune System Dysregulation
Symptoms of drug-induced immunocompromise may include:
Frequent fatigue 24
Skin infections 25
Swelling or deformations in the joints 26
Blood disorders, including leukopenia, agranulocytosis, immune-thrombocytopenia, destruction of blood platelets 27
If you are experiencing any of the signs we’ve mentioned, consult with your physician to determine whether your immune system needs support.
What Can Cause a Weakened Immune System?
Unfortunately, immune problems aren’t always obvious. Immune system issues can be caused by a multitude of different factors. In particular, an array of different medical conditions can lead to impaired immune function in the affected individual.1,4,5,16,19
Broadly speaking, a weakened immune system can exist due to four major conditions.
Those conditions are:
Primary immune deficiency. This deficiency occurs when someone is afflicted by a weak immune system from birth.
Acquired immune deficiency. If someone is affected by acquired immune deficiency, they were not born with their immune condition. Instead, they have developed a suppressed immune system disease including a drug-induced condition at some point in their life, leading to their immune impairment.
Allergies. Allergies are also a common form of immune impairment. An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system overreacts to a particular trigger and causes an unpleasant or dangerous response.
Autoimmune conditions — when the immune system begins to attack healthy cells. Some examples are Lupus, Type 1 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis.26
Examples of factors that can suppress the immune system include these:
Chronic disease (such as severe chronic kidney disease)
Chemotherapy or other cancer treatments
Certain rare genetic conditions
A common cause of a weakened immune system, tragically, is pharmaceutical drugs.28,29 Whether prescription, over-the-counter, or illegal drugs, prolonged use of certain drugs can also result in immune impairments.
Drugs That Suppress the Immune System
While medications generally address health conditions the immune system may not address on its own, some popular medications are either designed to actively suppress the immune system or inhibit the immune system as a side effect. These drugs are known as immunosuppressants.
Obviously, medications taken to respond to an overactive immune system are meant to weaken the immune response. For instance, if someone has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, physicians commonly prescribe immunosuppressing medication to address the inflammatory symptoms. However, a number of other medications result in a suppressed immune system and are known immunosuppressants even though their primary purpose is not to inhibit the immune response.1,11
Unsure whether or not the medication you’re currently taking falls under the immunosuppressant category? Speak to your doctor and ask, or research on your own to be sure.
Some examples of immune weakening medications include:
Monoclonal antibodies (including rituximab, bevacizumab, and trastuzumab)
Anti-TNF medications (such as infliximab, etanercept, and certolizumab)
This is far from a comprehensive list of the drugs and medications that lead to a suppressed immune system. Before you begin any new medication regime, make sure you’re aware of the effect it may have on your immune system. Ensuring your immune system is functioning as it should can make a substantial impact on your overall health and day-to-day life.
Can a Weak Immune System Cause Infections?
Yes, a weak immune system can elevate the risk of developing an infection. One of the primary goals of the immune system is to fight off and prevent infections. When the immune system is functioning as it should, it can be successful at preventing infections from spreading within the body. However, a dysregulated immune system is not able to mount a sufficient defense to many infections, allowing them to grow and spread within your body.
Immunocompromised individuals will struggle to fight off unwanted pathogenic invaders, viruses, bacteria, and conditions that develop internally, such as cancer.1,11,30
Can Drug Abuse Cause Autoimmune Disease?
Research shows that even if you are taking medication as prescribed by a doctor, it is still possible for your immune system to become impaired. However, what about instances of drug abuse? Yes. Persons who abuse drugs (both prescription pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs) are at an increased risk of a weakened immune system.13-15,28
Dehydration, lack of nutrients, poor rest, and other characteristics associated with drug abuse can have a severe impact on the immune response.
Some methods of consuming drugs (particularly by injection) may lead to a higher risk of infections. Then, paired with the body’s lowered immune response, the resulting infection will often escalate more severely than if the individual had a healthy immune system. Over time, subsequent infections can recur, sometimes resulting in incurable infections. Infections that result from a lowered immune response can be fatal. This is an often-overlooked reason why IV drug abuse can be so dangerous to the individual.
Illicit Substances That Can Impair the Immune System
Many addictive substances can impair the immune system.6 Some of those substances include:
Cocaine has been shown to alter immune cells called natural killer cells and to increase infectivity rates of HIV when tested on human cells in vitro.33 When an individual snorts cocaine, they are damaging the membranes of the throat, nose, and lungs. Due to this damage, an increased risk develops for upper respiratory infections. Smoking crack cocaine will damage the lungs and reduce the immune response to lung infections, including pneumonia and bronchitis.
Opioids are some of the most addictive, and most commonly abused, prescription medications available. These highly addictive painkillers can also lead to an impaired immune system. This applies to synthetic, semi-synthetic, and natural opioids like heroin or morphine.
Intravenous injection increases the individual’s risk of developing an infection at the injection site as well as throughout the body, even if their immune system were functioning as it should. In addition, crushing and snorting opioids can increase the person’s risk of serious upper respiratory infections. Certain opioids, including morphine, stifle white blood cells, suppressing the immune system directly. When this occurs, it will be more difficult for the immune system to respond protectively against diseases.29
When consumed in excess, especially in younger individuals, high THC content in marijuana can affect a variety of different kinds of cells within the body. Animal research has suggested that some cannabinoids may decrease host resistance to microbial infections. CBD may have a therapeutic effect as an immune modulator, as suggested by in vitro and other clinical studies.30 More research is needed to understand exactly how cannabinoids such as THC, CBT, or others may affect the immune system.32
Can You Reset Your Immune System?
You may have heard physicians and other health professionals refer to an intriguing way to address a suppressed immune system after prolonged drug or pharmaceutical use—an immune system reset. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of “resetting” one’s immune system, this could seem like a confusing concept. However, it’s actually quite simple.
Intermittent fasting is a suggested method of reducing autoimmunity, according to the research of Buono et al published in Cell Journal.31 If caloric intake is reduced for a period of time, immune cells are likely to be recycled (removed) as the fasting provides a signal that they are not needed.6 This recycling takes place, at least in part, because your body is attempting to conserve energy, which it isn’t currently receiving from food. The therapeutic effects of fasting have been researched in relation to infectious diseases, showing promise as a tool for priming the immune system.10
If a person fasts for around 72 hours, the white blood cell count will drop as a result of this recycling. During fasting, a person’s body will utilize stored fats and glucose (as well as freshly produced ketones) and flush out materials the body doesn’t need to keep running. This includes toxins, as well as damaged cells. Once the person resumes eating once again, the white blood cell count will rise with newly generated cells.1,10,31
In essence, when the body enters regenerative mode following the fast it is essentially rebuilding and rejuvenating the immune system. In this way, it is actually possible for someone to “reset” their immune system. However, it is important to remember that this isn’t a cure all for immune issues. Rather, the individual should continue to live a healthy lifestyle and avoid long courses of immunosuppressive drugs, rather than relying upon occasional fasting to keep their immune response in shape.
Improve Immune Health Using Natural Alternatives to Prescription Medications
Without a thriving, active, immune system, your overall health can quickly fall apart. Your immune system is the key defense against disease and infection, and if it isn’t working as it should, you are far more susceptible to a wide range of undesirable medical conditions.
Prescription pharmaceuticals are vastly overlooked for causing negative impacts on your immune system. If you’re seeking natural alternatives to prescription drugs, the Alternative to Meds Center is available to help you on your journey. We provide each of our clients with an integrative and transformative program, which they can use to make the switch from medications and drugs to holistic, natural remedies to resolve unwanted symptoms and conditions, without the risk of a further drug-induced weakened immune system.
To learn more about Alternative to Meds Center and our admissions process, view the resources on our site. Or, reach out to speak with an Admissions Representative.
This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.
Dr. Michael Loes, M.D.
Dr. Michael Loes is board-certified in Internal Medicine, Pain Management and Addiction Medicine. He holds a dual license in Homeopathic and Integrative Medicine. He obtained his medical doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 1978. Dr. Loes performed an externship at the National Institute of Health for Psychopharmacology. Additionally, he is a well-published author including Arthritis: The Doctor’s Cure, The Aspirin Alternative, The Healing Response, and Spirit Driven Health: The Psalmist’s Guide for Recovery. He has been awarded the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s “Excellence in Research” Award.
Lyle Murphy is the founder of the Alternative to Meds Center, a licensed residential program that helps people overcome dependence on psychiatric medication and addiction issues using holistic and psychotherapeutic methods.
Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken as medical advice. The information provided on the website is intended to encourage, not replace, direct patient-health professional relationships. Always consult with your doctor before altering your medications. Adding nutritional supplements may alter the effect of medication. Any medication changes should be done only after proper evaluation and under medical supervision.