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Women Are Turning To Flu, Asthma And Thyroid Medication To Lose Weight


In this age of quick fixes, many women use over-the-counter solution like slimming teas, diuretics and laxatives to lose weight. Others seek help from doctors for cosmetic procedures, like mesotherapy and liposuction, or prescribed weight loss medication, like appetite suppressants or fat blockers.

But for some, this isn't enough. They want faster, cheaper, more dramatic results. And so with no pre-existing medical conditions, they're turning to prescription drugs for asthma, thyroid, flu and even psychiatric medication just to reap the benefit of their side-effect - weight loss.

"It's No Big Deal"

Mary is a 28-year-old masseuse who comes from what she describe as a "big and fat" family. For 10 years, the 1.58cm and 80kg tried dieting, exercising and over-the-counter slimming pills to lose weight. A few years ago, a general practitioner, whom she saw for weight loss advice, introduce here to thyroxine, a drug commonly used to treat hypotheroidism.

Even though she didn't have the condition, Mary agreed to take it because she was told it would boost her metabolic rate to burn more calories. Every day for two years, she'd pop 25 to 50mg of the pill (half of what a person with a thyroid condition takes). Sometimes, she'd take it with 30mg of Pensbasy, a prescribed appetite suppressant that was given to her by the same doctor.

Today, she's 40kg lighter. "No one knows I'm on it. I suffer from the side effects, like irritability, an irregular menstrual cycle and insomnia but it's no big deal. Look good is important, I'm going to keep taking it till I lose another 3kg."

Risky Business

Doctors say that only a minority of women, around two out of 10, resort to such desperate and dangerous measures to lose weight. They range from teenagers to middle aged women. Some work in the airline or modelling industry where they're under constant pressure to stay slim. Male models have also been known to abuse these drugs.

A 25-year-old part-time physical trainer and model, who declined to be named, confessed to stealing diuretic pills from his grandmother who took them to lower her high blood pressure. "Before a photo shoot or runway show, I pop a few of these to get rid of excess water. It makes me go to the toilet a lot, but I look leaner and my muscles look more defined:"

Aside from diuretics, other drugs of choice include thyroid medication, theophylline, which is used to treat asthma, and ephedrine, which can be found in allergy and hayfever medication. These help to boost one's metabolism. Migraine as well as psychiatric drugs like Prozac help to suppress one's appetite.

A GP, who wished to remain anonymous, says that people find out about such controversial and dangerous pill popping tactics through the Internet or friends. It's a far cheaper alternative to going for cosmetic surgery or other prescribed weight loss medication. They also work faster than regular weight loss pills, especially when taken in combination with diuretics and laxatives.

Some doctors have been known to package such drugs together as a weight loss cocktail. Patients can take up to eight pills a day, and lose up to 3kg a fortnight. Normal weight loss, through a combination of diet and exercise, averages from half to one kg a week. Needless to say, popping prescription drugs without a valid medical reason poses a multitude of long-term health risks.

Consuming an excessive amount of a drug or mixing it with others can lead to toxicity, says Dr Andrew, medical director. "If the doses are large enough, the side effects may overwhelm the body's proper functioning and result in death. For example, a woman with a weak heart could get a fatal heart attack if she took an overdose of theophylline." 

Long-term abuse of any drug can also cause far reaching and, sometimes, irreversible damage. Theophylline gives rise to heart palpitations, increases your risk of cardiac arrest and, if you're pregnant, trigger a "forced" abortion as it causes the uterus to contract. Thyroxine consumption can result in side effects like irritability, sweaty palms, intolerance to heat and bulging eyes.

The abuse of ephedrine can lead to high blood pressure, psychosis, anxiety and depression. Psychiatric drugs like Prozac and Bupuprion can lead to long-term psychological addiction as there is a fear of weight gain once you're off them. "Yes, you can lose weight if you abuse a drug like thyroxine. And you will see more dramatic weight loss if you take a cocktail of these drugs.

But you have to be fully aware of the high price that you'll have to pay," warns Dr Daniel, a plastic surgeon and medical director. There is also no guarantee that such prescriptions will work. One of Dr Daniel patients, a 21-year-old salesgirl, had heard from a friend about the "fat burning" properties of ephedrine. She went to her neighborhood GP who prescribed her a six-month supply of Fedac (which is used to treat the flu and allergies) and laxatives.

Not only did they fail to work (she lost just 1kg after six months), she suffered from diarrhoea, heart palpitations and fell asleep during the day. She sought the help of Dr Daniel after that, who put her on a more acceptable and less risky diet and exercise plan, as well as a daily prescription of the appetite suppressant Reductil. The 1.58m and 70kg patient has since lost 6kg in two months.

Weighing In

Should doctors be allowed to prescribe drugs not meant for weight loss to those without any pre-existing medical condition? In Dr Daniel opinion, "It's not right for any doctor to dispense such drugs to their patients for the sake of losing weight. Doctors should always advise their patients on safe, proven weight loss methods backed up by scientific evidence. This is especially important when it comes to keeping one's weight off in the long term:"

So why do doctors, knowing the danger they're putting patients in, prescribe such drugs? The GP who declined to be named and who occasionally dispenses thyroxine to women who request it, says, "Often, it's a situation where a woman asks for specific pills like thyroxine or theophylline to lose weight as opposed to a doctor who recommends such drugs. If a doctor won't prescribe it to them, they will look for one who will:'

He adds that there was no harm in consuming these drugs in small amounts and over a short period of time. He says he limits his patients' supplies to not more than three months, and monitors their weight regularly. "If they have lost more than a kilo a week, I won't prescribe it to them anymore," he says. "Doctors might mention the possible dangers of taking such drugs, but most of the time patients are willing to take the risks to lose weight:"

An aesthetic doctor, who declined to be named, says he dispenses Prozac on occasion to patients as an appetite suppressant. "Such drugs are only given out in extreme cases to those who can't control their appetite. They usually involve a two-week dosage so there aren't any long-term health risks involved:"

For the patient, it's often a case of vanity over health. Betty, a 41-year-old unemployed woman, says she was discriminated against at job interviews because of her weight. At 1.62m and 80kg, she suffers from depression and hypothyroidism. Already on antidepressants and thyroxine, Betty wants to take other prescribed appetite suppressants to lose weight, even if it means going against her doctors' advice.

"I was told that I could get heart palpitations and other dangerous side effects if I combined all those medications. But I don't care. I'll lie to the GP if necessary to get those pills because I want to be thin:" Dr Ken, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, who specialises in eating disorders, says, "Women who go to such extremes and risk their health to be thinner are suffering from an unhealthy preoccupation with being thin. Such women can benefit from counselling, proper weight loss or psychiatric medication, lifestyle changes and religion. They should seek professional help and not feel ashamed about it:"

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