For anyone who suffers from insomnia or debilitating allergies, when you’re in a pickle you probably treat it with the exact same medicine: Diphenhydramine. You and nearly every other American with a stash in their medicine cabinet probably know it better by its brand name, Benadryl. If you’re suffering from an allergic reaction or can’t get to sleep, it’s a miracle drug that rapidly makes you feel better and gives you a good night of z’s in the process.
We’ve known for years that Benadryl’s side effects are extremely potent. This medication will zap the energy right out of you, and the hangover you feel the morning after rivals a night of moderate drinking. Nevertheless, Benadryl is a godsend, especially for people who suffer allergies like me. Unfortunately, what we’re now learning is that over-the-counter and prescription drugs like Benadryl might cause brain damage.
A new bombshell study claims that the entire class of medications known as anticholinergic drugs, break down neurotransmitters in our brains and compromise our cognitive functions. The study found that many household brands of common medications may ultimately cause dementia, especially in older people.
Drugs in this class include medications we’ve all probably taken at one point or another: Benadryl, Dimetapp, Dramamine, Unisom, Toviaz, Paxil, and Seroquel. This class of drugs serves a variety of functions for many chronic conditions including heart disease, hypertension, as well as remedies for more day-to-day struggles like allergies and insomnia.
Previous studies had already established links between the use of these medications and cognitive impairment, but this latest study by Indiana University actually documents the underlying biology of those previously established links. In plain English, scientists discovered that these drugs may actually reduce the size of your brain and lower metabolic activity in certain critical regions of the brain. The study warns that these drugs are especially harmful to older folks, and advises doctors to find alternative therapies for their patients if possible.
These revelations were especially shocking to me, because during allergy season (read: right now), I pop Benadryl like candy. In fact, this article was written under the influence of Benadryl because I suffer from a combination of food allergies and seasonal allergies. When the air is thick with pollen in the springtime, I have little choice but to resort to copious amounts of Benadryl if I want to be functional and productive. As a child, I spent entire months in a Benadryl haze as I struggled to get through my day-to-day activities.
For anyone who has loaded up on Benadryl, it doesn’t take an advanced clinical study to realize that this class of drugs is extremely harmful if taken over long periods of time. When I take Benadryl for more than a week, I start to be more forgetful, my motor skills suffer, and my sleep patterns get out of whack.
In spite of all of these awful secondary effects, I probably couldn’t get out of bed during my allergic episodes if it weren’t for Benadryl. The newer, lower-impact allergy medications like Zyrtec, Claritin and Allegra are not nearly as effective for me. These second-generation allergy relief drugs work without crossing the blood-brain barrier, the activity that makes Benadryl and other similar medications in the same class have side effects on the brain.
Like anything else in life, there is no such thing as a free ride. All the substances we put into our body have real long-term effects, many of which we are only now beginning to understand. The latest study points to an old maxim that we can all live by–everything in moderation. We have to weigh the pros and cons of our regular medications, and understand the trade-off between improving our quality of life in the short-term, and long-term effects that will eventually catch up with us.
David is the Editor of Bold. He's especially passionate about millennial economic empowerment. A former local news reporter, David is originally from the Little Havana area in Miami, and later became a pioneer resident of the Disney-inspired town of Celebration, Florida. David holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.