Release Thy (Pill) Burden

Apr 7, 2017 by

You can have me read this article to you instead of reading it yourself…


Or you can read it the old-fashioned way below…

Pill burden is a somewhat ridiculous-sounding term.  In fact, when one of my editors read my book, he drew a cartoon character with an enormous capsule strapped to his back that was so heavy he could barely stand up straight.  If I had even an ounce of artistic skill, I’d include a similar sketch here, but alas, I really don’t!

So What is it?

Anyways – back to the topic at hand!  Pill burden may sound like a ridiculous term, but it is a real thing.  And the idea of someone having a huge pill strapped to their back isn’t the worst analogy, either.  The official definition is:

The number of tablets, capsules, or other dosage forms (including liquids, powders, suppositories, and more) that a person takes on a regular basis

So let’s stop for a moment and break that down.  This means that no matter what is inside of a pill – whether it is a prescription medication, a nutritional supplement, an herb, an oil, or even a placebo (!), it is still considered a “pill”.  And all of those pills put together total up to that overall burden.

And why does this pill/treatment burden matter?  Well this name wasn’t created just for fun.  In fact, a high pill burden can be bad for a number of reasons.  These could include any (or all!) of the following…

1. When and how to take the pills can become difficult to remember

This may sound a little bit ridiculous, but I promise it is not.  Certain medications must be taken in certain ways (with food, without food, with water, etc).  The more pills there are, the harder it is to keep this straight.  And not keeping it straight can sometimes lead to bad outcomes, such as too much or too little of that product getting into your system.

2. It becomes easier to make a mistake

Believe it or not, it is not at all uncommon for us to see elderly people in the ER because they were not taking their blood pressure/diabetes/heart failure medication.  Instead, they were taking their Vitamin C.  They got confused as to what was actually important, and took the wrong one instead.  In the same way, when I worked in pediatric hospitals, we saw many overwhelmed parents that accidentally gave their kids the ‘less important’ pills instead of the important ones, which landed them back in the hospital.

3. It is just flat-out tedious

I’m a pharmacist – my entire career is based around pills.  And I will be the first to admit to my tendency to not take what I’m supposed to take on a regular basis.  It’s just human nature and no one enjoys taking pills (or drinking less-than-delicious liquids).


The medical community officially considers pill burden to be an issue because “it can make it difficult to adhere to a treatment regimen”.  Which is really just a concise way to summarize what I just said.  The concern is simply that people won’t take the treatments that are most likely to make them healthy, and this is bad for everyone involved.

I spend a lot of time talking about how A Treatment is a Treatment, no matter what label we put on it.  And pill burden is one of the reasons that this is so important!  Herbal, nutritional, medicinal, whatever.  A pill is a pill.  It’s also a reason that More is Not Better when it comes to managing your health.  But I won’t repeat what I’ve already said in those other articles.  Feel free to check them out if you haven’t gotten to yet.

How Do I Release It?

Organize and Manage

One of the parts of the ‘burden’ is the issue of storing and organizing the pills.  One great way to manage this piece is to use pill organizers.  There are a few different versions of these, which include weekly and daily organization (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…  / Morning, Noon, Evening).

There are shortcomings to these pill organizers, such as not allowing you to use them for liquids, powders, inhalers, or whatever else you may find yourself using (even topical creams!).  However, if you do find that most of what you are taking comes in pill forms, I highly recommend using an organizer.  I’ve seen far too many cases of people pouring all of their pills in one bottle and then accidentally overdosing on a certain medication because they mistook it for another.  I swear – I’m not making this up!  And some of these medications look awfully similar, so it’s not all that surprising.

If pill organizers aren’t an option or simply just don’t do the trick for you, there are a lot of apps becoming available now that can help to remind you to take your medications.  One that is very flexible and that isn’t tied to any other companies is called MangoHealth.  It sends you a nice friendly alert any time anything is due, and even shows you a picture of the product you’re taking!  This app is particularly useful because it lets you add all kinds of products, including herbal and nutritional supplements. [No disclosures here – I have nothing to gain by discussing this product]

Each of the major pharmacy retailers also has their own app, like Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid.  Those are mostly only helpful, though, if you are getting all of your pills filled at their pharmacies. And then, of course, they’re going to advertise other products and persistently remind you to refill your medications.  Just a warning, since I know those types of reminders can get annoying…

Kick it to the Curb

But of course, the best way to manage pill burden is to reduce it!  Changing the way that we think about the things that we are using to ‘treat’ our conditions and to make us healthier is the first step to simplifying our health.  Recognizing what is and is not working, and then taking away those things that are not, is crucial.

Placing all of these treatments on an even playing field and evaluating each one is a great way to start.  I discussed this in more detail in this article.

But another great way to reduce pill burden is to incorporate many of the ingredients that may be found in those pills and products into your actual diet or lifestyle.  Here you will find 3 creative strategies to make this happen for your treatment plan.

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