Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means we may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that we have recommended. Please check out our disclosure policy for more details. Please also refer to our medical disclaimer
Once upon a time, if I had an ache or pain that I felt needed attention from a pain reliever, I thought Tylenol (acetaminophen) was a great option. Of course, with things like menstrual cramps I never relied just on Tylenol and usually went right for some form of ibuprophen instead. But for lesser ailments, my view of Tylenol was that it was the “lesser evil” and a safer choice, especially in situations like pregnancy.
But I was wrong.
Research that has come out in recent years has revealed that the words “completely safe” and “Tylenol” can’t coexist.
Acetaminophen can be found in over 600 over-the-counter and prescription products, from headache and cold remedies to cough syrups and sleep aids. With its prevalence in products so widespread, it’s definitely worth taking a look at potential safety issues to be sure that using acetaminophen isn’t causing more harm than good.
Tylenol in Pregnancy
This year studies have surfaced showing that taking either acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprophen while pregnant can impair the fertility of the child in utero by leaving epigenetic marks on DNA.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh looked at the effects of acetaminophen and ibuprophen on samples of fetal ovaries and testes in humans. Their study revealed significant results. Any exposure to either of the drugs indicated a reduction in the number of cells that “give rise” to sperm and eggs. Even more concerning, though, were the results from prolonged exposure.
Ovaries that were exposed to acetaminophen for only one weeks’ time had 40% less egg-producing cells. The same amount of exposure to ibuprophen resulted in a 50% reduction.
The negative results weren’t isolated to just female ovaries. After exposure to one day’s dosage amount of acetaminophen, the number of sperm-producing cells in the graft tissue used for the experiment had dropped by 17%, and after a week of treatment there were almost 30% fewer cells.
This isn’t the first time that research has shown this link. Previous research conducted doing studies on rats has proven a decrease in fertility in succeeding generations.
Dr Rod Mitchell was the doctor who led the human research at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Reproductive Health. His statement on these results was, “We would encourage women to think carefully before taking painkillers in pregnancy and to follow existing guidelines — taking the lowest possible dose for the shortest time possible.”
Autism and ADHD
Another concern related to taking Tylenol during pregnancy is the increased risk of Autism and ADHD. Recent observational research has shown up to a 30% increased risk for ADHD and a 20% increase for ASD in children whose mothers took acetaminophen during pregnancy, compared to children whose mothers did not. Evidence shows that acetaminophen has the potential to cause neuro-disruption, which could be part of the explanation for these statistics.
In addition to neuro-disruption, acetaminophen use during pregnancy and the child’s first year of life has been correlated with an increase of asthma later on in childhood, specifically around ages 6-7. Ezcema and rhinoconjuctivitis (symptoms like nasal congestion, runny nose, post-nasal drip, sneezing, red eyes – conjunctivitis – and itching of the nose or eyes) were also found to be related to Tylenol’s usage in the child’s first year of life. Although the reason for the onset of these health conditions due to Tylenol is unknown, there has been some theorizing about the role glutathione has in the body, and how that relates to acetaminophen usage.
Tylenol in Young Children
Post-Vaccination Glutathione Depletion
One of the biggest concerns with Tylenol is that it depletes glutathione. Glutathione is a tripeptide derived from the amino acids glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine. Our bodies manufacture glutathione and it functions as an antioxidant in the body. Gustavo Bounous, MD, retired professor of surgery at McGill University in Montreal says, “It’s the [body’s] most important antioxidant because it’s within the cell.”
Why are “antioxidants” important?
Oxidation is a natural process that occurs when our cells use energy to create oxygen. The by-product of this process is the creation of unstable molecules, or “free radicals”. Free radicals can damage cell DNA, but this is where glutathione comes in. Glutathione works as an antioxidant that protects against these free radicals, preventing the free radicals from causing damage to the body. Since Tylenol depletes this “master antioxidant” glutathione, there is potential for damage to take place when the body is overloaded with foreign material that it has to detoxify.
Vaccine adjuvants stimulate the child’s immune system to mount a response to the bacteria or virus in the vaccine. One of these adjuvants is aluminum. Aluminum is a known neurotoxin, and the central nervous system is particularly susceptible to its negative effects. This metal is an ingredient in most vaccines given to children.
The premise of vaccine safety is built on the body’s ability to detoxify the adjuvant included in the vaccine. If a child has side effects after being vaccinated, such as fever, headache, or inflammation, it is a common procedure to provide comfort and ease symptoms with Tylenol. This choice of medication could be a dangerous one. When glutathione is depleted, damage can occur, and the heavy metal adjuvants like aluminum may not be detoxed correctly.
It’s been observed that children with autism have a harder time detoxifying toxic metals than neuro-typical children. Aluminum is one of the toxins that has been found in autistic children’s brains, causing inflammation. In a survey of parents with autistic children, they were asked if they administered acetaminophen after the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Acetaminophen use after MMR vaccination was significantly associated with autistic disorder in the 5 years and under age group.
Negative Impact on Fighting Sickness
Tylenol is most often used during childhood illnesses with a fever. As the thermometer rises, parents may fear the damaging results of a high fever we’ve all heard about. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognizes that fever is a sign that the child’s body is doing what it’s supposed to do to fight infection.
Their website states:
“The fever itself is not the disease, only a sign that the body’s defenses are trying to fight an infection.”
The AAP does not recommend primarily treating your child with fever-reducing drugs:
“Fevers generally do not need to be treated with medication unless your child is uncomfortable or has a history of febrile convulsions. The fever may be important in helping your child fight the infection.”
Tylenol in the Adult Population
Sometimes I wonder why everyone my age is tired these days. Yeah, we’re parents, we’re busy, we probably expect too much of ourselves. But why do we get exhausted from doing half the physical labor of our grandparents?
I know there are probably a number of facets to this, but one could be the effect that medications like acetaminophen have on our mitochondria that we don’t even think about. The purpose of mitochondria in our cells is to produce energy and regulate cellular metabolism. Acetaminophen has the potential to cause mitochondrial dysfunction, leading to lower energy levels and chronic illnesses. Illnesses associated with a lowered mitochondrial function include:
Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Friedreich’s ataxia; cardiovascular diseases, such as atherosclerosis and other heart and vascular conditions; diabetes and metabolic syndrome; autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and type 1 diabetes; neurobehavioral and psychiatric diseases, such as autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar and mood disorders; gastrointestinal disorders; fatiguing illnesses, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and Gulf War illnesses; musculoskeletal diseases, such as fibromyalgia and skeletal muscle hypertrophy/atrophy; cancer; and chronic infections.
Accidental liver poisoning and death from acetaminophen affects about approximately 150 people per year in the US, but 150 is a small margin compared to the total number of people who experience damage to their health due to this drug. Approximately 25,000 people in the US are hospitalized annually due to accidental acetaminophen overdose.
In 2006, there was a study done at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that looked at the results of taking a Tylenol/hydrocodone combination, compared to just taking Tylenol on its own. They were surprised to find that the people in both categories (Tylenol/hydrocodone combo and the people who just had Tylenol) had elevated liver enzymes, compared to no one in the placebo group experiencing extra stress on the liver.
Part of the reason for the high statistics of injury may be because Tylenol has a pretty narrow safety margin in place. This means that you don’t have to take much more than the recommended dose to be in a “danger zone” where injury is likely to take place:
Data from both FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS) and the Acute Liver Failure Study Group (ALFSG) show that the median daily dose of acetaminophen related to liver injury was 5 to 7.5 grams/day, very near the current maximum daily dose of 4 grams/day. 1
If you’re used to popping a Tylenol or two after a night of drinking, you may want to re-think your hangover strategy. Both alcohol and acetaminophen are metabolized by the liver. An over-taxed liver won’t be able to perform at the level needed to break down your headache remedy. This impairment could lead to liver damage at smaller doses than the recommended dose. Choosing to supplement with nutrition to help your body metabolize the alcohol may be effective in mitigating the hangover altogether, or at least lowering the negative side effects.
Alternatives to Tylenol
I know what you may be thinking.
“So I’m just supposed to watch my child suffer (or suffer in pain myself) and not give them anything to make them more comfortable?”
No, that’s now what I am saying at all! You have safer, healthier, and sometimes even more effective options!
My first line of safe intervention for pain during pregnancy, symptoms in early childhood, and discomfort in adulthood is homeopathy. Homeopathy is safe, effective, and becoming more readily available at neighborhood pharmacies or big-box stores like Wal Mart and Target. Homeopathy works with your body to create a healing response rather than just covering up symptoms.
Some people find effective relief for various ailments through essential oils. I am not a proponent of ingesting oils, and appreciate Robert Tisserand’s information on oil safety. Topical essential oils can be very helpful for pain management. My favorite oil retailer is Plant Therapy:
A skilled chiropractor is a great resource to help your body through various ailments. If you look carefully for someone who you resonate with and is gentle with you and your children, they can be a great asset to have on your healthcare team. A chiropractic adjustment can increase your immune function and reduce pain:
One of the most important studies showing the positive effect chiropractic care can have on the immune system and general health was performed by Ronald Pero, Ph.D., chief of cancer prevention research at New York’s Preventive Medicine Institute and professor of medicine at New York University.
Dr. Pero measured the immune systems of people under chiropractic care as compared to those in the general population and those with cancer and other serious diseases.
In his initial three-year study of 107 individuals who had been under chiropractic care for five years or more, the chiropractic patients were found to have a 200% greater immune competence than people who had not received chiropractic care, and 400% greater immune competence than people with cancer and other serious diseases.
The immune system superiority of those under chiropractic care did not diminish with age. Dr. Pero stated:
“When applied in a clinical framework, I have never seen a group other than this chiropractic group to experience a 200% increase over the normal patients. This is why it is so dramatically important . We have never seen such a positive improvement in a group.” 2
Acupuncture has increasingly become a primary method of pain management for many people. My favorite acupuncturists have been doctors trained in China’s medical system who then come to the US and practice as acupuncturists. Having a combined knowledge and experience in the clinical setting, with the ability to accurately place needles and recommend specific herbs as needed, is an art that not every acupuncturist possesses.
An interesting pain management technique is emotional clearing. Studies have shown that chronic pain might not only be caused by physical injury but also by stress and emotional issues. There are a number of therapies that provide options to deal with “trapped emotions” in our bodies. Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, is one that people have used successfully with amazing results. Some people even see a complete healing of their chronic pain issues.
Other pain management and overall beneficial health interventions include PEMF therapy, low level laser therapy, using a TENS unit, and massage.