Medications and digestive system

How medications can affect your digestive system – and what to do about it

In 2018, NPS MedicineWise reported that 9 million Australians take a prescribed medicine every day with 8 million of us taking two or more prescribed medicines every week. More than 2 million take an over-the-counter medicine daily and more than 7 million take complementary medicine daily. 

That’s a lot of pills! While they may do an excellent job at managing the condition they’ve been prescribed for, medications can have other consequences too. With the right information and support, you may be able to mitigate those side effects. 


Digestive side effects of medications

All medications can have side effects ranging from the minor to the major. They might trigger headaches, a mild rash or something more serious. 

Any medication that you swallow also has to pass through your digestive system and be broken down by your liver.  

Some medications can trigger digestive-related side effects including: 

  • Reflux
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Irritation of the stomach lining. 

Then there’s your liver, a vital organ that performs over 500 functions every day. It cleans and processes virtually everything you eat, drink, breathe or rub on your skin. That includes any medication you take. 

Drugs may damage your liver by directly damaging liver cells, by blocking the flow of bile out of the liver (cholestatic), or by doing both.

Mostly, your liver does an excellent job of processing medications without problems. Sometimes, though, we see elevated liver test results or liver damage as a result of medications such as:

  • Paracetamol – it’s in so many different medications that some people overdose without realising, making paracetamol the leading cause of acute liver failure
  • Statins (cholesterol-lowering medications)
  • Supplements and herbal medications. 

Symptoms of a drug-induced liver injury may include nausea, itching or loss of appetite. More severe symptoms include jaundice, an enlarged liver, pain in the upper right abdomen, and confusion or disorientation. 


Minimising the digestive side effects of medications

So, how can you minimise the troubling side effects of medications? Here are a few tips. 


1. Consider whether the medication is really necessary

Would a cold compress or a glass of water ease your headache rather than paracetamol? 

Has your overall condition improved? Could your doctor now put you on a lower dose? 


2. Review your medications with your pharmacist

As noted above, many people take multiple medications. And sometimes, those medications can interact with each other. 

Your doctor can refer you for a Home Medicines Review by a pharmacist who will assess the medications you’re taking, including prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, vitamins and supplements. They’ll check that your medications are in date and ensure you’re taking and storing them correctly.  


3. Follow advice

Your doctor or pharmacist may tell you to take your medication in the morning or the evening or with/without food. They may advise cutting out alcohol while you’re on a certain medication. They may tell you what to do if you miss a dose. 

Follow those instructions. Taking your medications correctly means you’re more likely to experience the benefits while reducing the risks.


4. Adjust your treatment plan 

If you’re experiencing digestive problems as a result of your medications, then talk to your doctor. Sometimes, your doctor may be able to swap you to a different medication that treats your condition but is easier on your stomach. 


5. Make other changes

Behaviour changes may also help to ease the side effects of some medications. 


Problem Strategies
  • Stay upright for a while after taking your medications
  • Cut back on fried and fatty foods
  • Cut back on alcohol and caffeine
  • Quit smoking
Stomach irritation
  • Take coated tablets (talk to your doctor or pharmacist)
  • Take your medications with food or a glass of milk
  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Exercise regularly
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about taking a laxative

(talk to your doctor if this persists for more than a few days).

  • Replace lost fluids by drinking plenty of water
  • Avoid foods that irritate your stomach
  • Improve your gut health by taking probiotics or consuming fermented foods like yogurt with active cultures, kefir, kombucha or sourdough bread.  


6. Test regularly

If you’re on long-term medications known to affect the liver (e.g. statins), then it’s wise to have regular blood tests to check your liver function. 


How can Moonee Valley Specialist Centre help?

A gastroenterologist can assess your gut health and help improve your overall well-being. 

Sometimes, we find an underlying digestive issue such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or inflammatory bowel disease. Once these conditions are diagnosed, we can prescribe medications to ease symptoms. 

We also see many patients concerned that medications may have damaged their digestive system, including their liver. 

Moonee Valley Specialist Centre is the only private practice in Melbourne to conduct liver scans using a state-of-the-art FibroScan® 502 Touch device. This is a quick and non-invasive way to assess the health of your liver if you’re concerned about the effects of your medications. Please contact us or book an appointment (no referral needed). 

If you have other concerns about your digestive system or liver, then we recommend an appointment with Dr Nathan Connelly, our gastroenterologist, who has a keen interest in helping patients with liver disease. Please ask your GP for a referral.  


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All information is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Moonee Valley Specialist Centre can consult with you to confirm if a particular treatment or procedure is right for you. Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. A second opinion may help you decide if a particular treatment is right for you. 

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