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Do you know where your medicine comes from? No, I mean truly derives from? What if I told you that the origin of some of your much-needed Medications came from some truly bizarre or cringe worthy and even controversial places? Yep! Throughout the centuries, ancient healers, apothecaries and even modern day pharmaceutical companies have explored different ingredients and even some ummm unusual resources for getting their much needed medicine to heal people. From Horse urine, reptile venom and even fish sperm, chances are some common medications you’ve taken in your life may have derived from truly unusual places. Here are brief origin stories for 8 medications that may just shock you!

8. Strange Source for a Medication for Diabetes

Did you know that some 18 million Americans have diabetes? Yeah and a good majority of those diabetics are type 2. Where the body loses its ability to turn blood sugar into energy because it either doesn't produce enough insulin or doesn't use it correctly. Type 2 diabetes is often associated with obesity and can potentially lead to serious health complications like stroke, amputation, kidney failure, heart attack, heart failure, and so on. Pretty serious stuff.

Now what if I told you that one of the most successful ways to control diabetes is from a shocking component… lizard spit. Yes, you heard that correctly. And I’ll repeat it for the people in the back, Lizard Spit.  And not just any lizard, a large venomous lizard found right here in the United States and Mexico. Introducing the Gila Monster. I know what you’re thinking there's no way this wild-looking reptile is treating chronic health issues like diabetes. Oh contraire my friend, here’s what's so cool about it. The Gila Monster's saliva contains a very important 39-amino acid peptide called Exendin-4. 

This hormone is almost exactly like a hormone that humans produce called glucagon-like peptide-1, or GLP-1. GLP-1 increases the production of insulin when blood sugar levels are high.

Fast Forward a bit, nowadays you may have commercially heard of the Gila hormone by its prescription names of Byetta or Bydureon BCise. These are both the synthetic versions called simply Exenatide.

It’s in a class of medications called incretin mimetics and it's given by way of injection.  It works by stimulating the pancreas to secrete insulin when blood sugar levels are high. Insulin helps move sugar from the blood into other body tissues where it is used for energy. Exenatide also slows the emptying of the stomach and causes a decrease in appetite. So all in all it’s wild to think that more than 2 million people now use Exenatide worldwide and it all started with this little cuddly Gila Monster.

7. Unusual Medicine Origin - for Osteoarthritis

Have you ever seen a Rooster’s comb? It’s the fleshy red mohawk-looking growth on top of the rooster, chicken, or any game foul type of bird’s head. While roosters use this to help cool themselves down, we of the human variety may have had a very different use for this comb. And it all has to do with Osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is an inflammatory disease that affects more than 30 million American adults. On a very basic level, it’s the most common type of arthritis that happens when joint cartilage breaks down or is damaged. It can be very painful, causing stiffness and reduced function in your joints and even breaking down and changes to the bone underneath. How many of you out there have arthritis pain? Let me know in the comments. 

Alright, so how does one treat this degenerative “wear and tear” type of arthritis? Well, there is a treatment that has been around for decades. It’s called visco-supplementation or Hyaluronic Acid injections. Now you’ve probably seen Hyaluronic Acid as an ingredient in skincare and cosmetic products before but did you know that your body produces this clear, gooey substance naturally? Yes, this helpful acid is mostly found in your skin and connective tissue and has multiple functions in the body. It helps your skin retain moisture, maintain flexibility, soothes dry eyes, and helps in wound healing among many other uses. 

But, circling back to the earlier rooster convo, you may be interested to know that cartilage from rooster combs contains very high levels of Hyaluronic Acid. It can be given in a series of injections to patients who are suffering from osteoarthritis. These injections help to not only lubricate the joints but also decrease their overall pain, increase mobility, and even delay the need for joint replacement surgery.  Now although Hyaluronic Acid used to be extracted from the cartilage of the rooster's comb, scientists have thankfully since developed a synthetic version that they now use to treat patients.

6. Bizarre Medicine Origin is for Hypertension

It’s been called a potential silent killer. (or at least a precursor)  And nearly half of US Adults or around 116 million have this issue. Hypertension. Defined as a systolic blood pressure greater than 130 mmHg or a diastolic blood pressure greater than 80 mmHg. Or if you are not sure the numbers but are taking medication prescribed by your doctor for hypertension.  No matter how you define it, the most important thing to note is that high blood pressure is very concerning to doctors. As it forces the heart to work harder to pump blood to the rest of the body and can damage one’s arteries by making them less elastic, potentially leading to heart disease. Which I might add, Heart Disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. So nothing to take lightly.

Typically high blood pressure usually develops over time. Majority of the time, we do know exactly what is the main cause of it but we do know It can happen because of unhealthy lifestyle choices like not getting enough physical activity or having other health conditions such as diabetes. And obesity can also increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. (Especially if it runs in your family, this can certainly put you at higher risk). 

Now what if I told you that another potentially silent killer may just…. Be the treatment to said scary hypertension? No really, It’s truly one of the most unusual derivations of a now highly effective drug. Meet the venomous Brazilian Jararaca Pit Viper. (pronounced: Hara-ra-rocka) That’s right, a medication derived straight from this hair raising snake. And can I say, let’s just all be glad we weren’t the researchers that had to figure this medication snake situation out. I digress.

But, patients who have hypertension are sometimes given a drug named Captopril. Captopril is an ACE inhibitor that was developed in the 1980’s. ACE stands for Angio-tensin-converting enzyme. Put simply, ACE inhibitors work by helping to relax veins and arteries, so the heart can pump blood more efficiently.  And Captopril specifically was one of the first ACE inhibitors and it was created using the venom from this deadly snake. Crazy right? On any other day one bite from a Pit Viper like this can cause blistering, bleeding, renal failure and even death. But now secured the right way, this snake’s venom or the synthetic form nowadays truly contains the secret sauce to help combat hypertension. Specifically, Peptides. which are made up of strings of amino acids and are essentially the building block for protein. And these peptides found in Captopril act as an ACE inhibitor for folks with hypertension as I mentioned before but what's also cool is that  it's also been used for other serious conditions like: heart failure, Kidney disease and is sometimes given to patients who have suffered a heart attack. 

5. Anti-Venom

You’ve probably heard of Anti-venom, right?  For instance you go hiking and surprise! You get bit by a rattlesnake. I often see this here in southern california where I work in the emergency department. People come into the hospital needing a high dose of anti-venom. Now all that being said, have you ever wondered to yourself, how exactly do we get Anti-venom? You may be surprised to find out that it’s not as cut and dry as you may think. 

To go back a few years, it was first developed in 1895, using venom from a cobra. However true antivenom as we have it now was not available until 1927. And although the technique for making it has not changed much over the years it's pretty involved so to speak. First off, Donor animals, usually horses, sheep and even goats, are injected with a non-lethal dose of venom. That animal’s immune system triggers a response and produces antibodies. These animals typically have robust immune systems, and produce powerful antibodies that can bind to snake venom components. So from there blood is then drawn from the animal and the antibodies are separated from the blood, in plasma. The plasma is concentrated and then purified into high pharmaceutical grade anti-venom before being given to patients. Today, there are multiple antivenom treatments available for specific snake bites and even spiders. But it’s important to know that not every hospital carries it. So if you find yourself bitten by a snake or other venomous critter. Make sure you go to the right medical facility that can truly treat your wound. You don’t want to be wasting time when minutes and hours could literally mean life and death when it comes to combating a venomous bite. 

4. Urine from Pregnant Horses

Ok, Disclaimer this next one is kind of a gross one. But definitely necessary… Alright, Did you know that there is a medication made from a pregnant horse's urine? (SFX: Record Scratch) Yeah you heard that right, a medication made from a pregnant horse’s urine. This is true. You see, when women begin menopause, a period of time that marks the  end of their menstrual cycles. They have low estrogen which causes a variety of symptoms, including changes in metabolism, difficulty sleeping, mood changes and other problems associated with this.  Oftentimes, to help treat some of these issues,  a doctor will prescribe estrogen to help boost their levels, and alleviate symptoms. This is called hormone replacement therapy. Now one of these hormone replacement therapy medications is known as Premarin. It is a highly prescribed orally administered estrogen that is also available as a topical cream and has been used since 1942.

But here’s the thing. Premarin comes from mares' urine. A mare is a pregnant horse. And mare urine contains high levels of estrogen, and is similar to the estrogen that humans produce. Premarin does have some controversy attached to it. Some ethical concerns have been raised due to treatment of the mares. It’s been reported that mares are kept in smaller pens during their pregnancy, so that urine can be collected in bladder bags.

After 6 months, they are let out of these smaller pens so they can have their foal or baby horse. There are very few Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) farms left in the US and Canada, however most farms have been moved overseas. There have also been some recent studies showing an increased risk of cancer for patients who were on premarin. 

3. Pig Pancreas

This one isn’t exactly kosher, but it is very useful in treating patients that are having trouble with their pancreas. For example, if a patient is suffering from chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis or some sort of blockage between the pancreas and intestines, they likely do not have pancreatic enzymes that help with digestion. Why is this a major deal? Well not only does this affect how your body breaks down food but the pancreas also makes the hormones insulin and glucagon that control your body’s blood sugar level. And about 1 in 5 cases are severe and can result in life-threatening complications like multiple organ failure. And could even potentially be deadly. 

But here’s the silver lining: there is medication to help with this, it’s called Pancrelipase. Pancrelipase works by replacing the enzymes that your pancreas is lacking, and decreases fatty bowel movements. It also improves nutrition by breaking down fats, proteins, and starches into smaller substances that can be absorbed in the intestines. 

But the million dollar question, where does this pancreas supporting medication come from? To be specific It comes from the pancreas of pigs. The same pigs that are often consumed as pork. So whether you have a religious aversion or if you have any allergies to pork, you should probably let your doctor know if you suffer from any pancreatic issues. 

2. Aspirin

This is one of the most common medications found in almost every medicine cabinet on the planet, and not only that but it’s been used for over 3500 years! Aspirin. A Nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drug, very commonly used to treat pain and swelling, reduce fever and so on. It’s also used as a blood thinner, helping to prevent strokes and heart attacks. We all use it right, but you may not have known about it's oh so subtle beginnings. Over 3500 years ago, bark from a willow tree was a traditional medicine used by Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and more for pain relief. Fast forward to the mid 1700’s when an English cleric by the name of Edward Stone was investigating willow bark and its effect on the sick. He gathered some willow bark and left it outside of a baker’s oven for 3 months, and once dried, would grind it into a powder. He reported in a letter written to the Royal Society that he gave the ground up powder to fifty different people, and with the exception of a few chronically ill patients (that may have had malaria), he reported that all his patients' conditions improved. It was later discovered that the crystals isolated from the willowbrook could produce a stronger compound called salicylic acid.

And, after further research and development in 1897, Bayer produced acetylsalicylic acid or what we know today as Aspirin. It has been in use since before WW1, and was widely used in alleviating symptoms from the influenza epidemic of 1918. Among the many plant products that have clinical utility, salicylates and aspirin are probably the most broadly used, estimates suggest about 100 Billion tablets are consumed each year are used to alleviate pain and other issues.

1.Weird places we derive medications from…has to go to a Heparin Reversal agent

And finally we Protamine. This origin story of this med is certainly a bit fishy but it may just save the life of you or someone you love. Alright let me paint the full picture here. In a nutshell, Heparin is a medication used to prevent blood clots from forming in people who have certain medical conditions or who are undergoing certain medical procedures that increase the chance that clots will form. For instance during open-heart surgery or say kidney dialysis. Although it sounds super helpful and it can be, don't get me wrong, but sometimes excessive bleeding can occur with Anticoagulants, or “ blood thinners,” as they are commonly referred to like heparin. This you don’t want. This could be a major issue.  So in order to stop the excess bleeding after say renal dialysis or after open heart surgery, a medication called Protamine sulfate is used to counteract the anticoagulant or blood thinning effect. It acts as an antagonist that neutralizes heparin bleeding complications. Great, right? Well what if I told you that the goods that make up Protamine, amino acids, arginine etc,  were derived from Salmon Sperm.  Yes the swimmers of a swimmer,  potentially life saving to the patients who require a reversal of heparin. So long as you don’t have a fish allergy.

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

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Find yourself searching for a "hospital near me"? If you are looking for a sign to go to the hospital this may just be it. Or maybe you have a headstrong, stubborn family member who is flat-out ignoring their own health issues, and you’re worried, go ahead and send them this video. Actually, while you’re at it, save this video for reference and keep watching because what I am about to tell you may just save your life one day.

And of course if you think you are experiencing a true emergency, please call 9-11 (Or your country's emergency equivalent) and or get to the hospital immediately.

10. Trouble Breathing

Are you huffing and puffing? Having difficulty breathing suddenly, wheezing or having any kind of out-of-the-blue shortness of breath? Well, you may want to have 9-11 on speed dial because this sudden onset of shortness of breath may indicate something much more serious that requires immediate medical attention. Definitely get to an emergency room if this is the case. As an ER Doctor, when I hear a patient is having sudden breathing trouble: there is a laundry list of medical conditions that could cause this we need to rule out the bad ones ASAP. Things like heart attack, blood clots in the lungs, problems with your aorta, other lung problems like a collapsed lung, asthma complications, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD), heart problems like cardiovascular disease, heart failure, infections in the airways like croup, bronchitis, pneumonia, the list goes on and on. Not to scare you but Trouble breathing is very serious and we need to rule out the potential life-threatening causes for your sudden shortness of breath.

A normal level of oxygen in the body is usually 95% or higher. Some people with chronic lung disease or sleep apnea can have lower normal levels around 90%. You can measure it on things like this oximeter that you can buy easily online on like amazon or something. But if your oxygen level drops below 90-95% or you just feel uncomfortable and are having trouble catching your breath, definitely get to the hospital now. I repeat definitely go to the hospital.

9. Chest Pain

If you have chest pain that lasts longer than 5 minutes and doesn't go away, I repeat chest pain for 5 minutes and doesn't go away. Even when you rest or take medication, this could be seriously life-threatening. Especially if you find that your chest pain is paired with shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness, or any other pain that radiates out to other body parts like your arm for instance. This is definitely caused for major concern and you need to get to the hospital ASAP.

Your chest pain could be due to things like a heart attack (coronary occlusion), aortic aneurysm dissection, myocarditis, esophageal spasm, esophagitis, rib injury, and anxiety, among many other serious life-threatening issues. The moral of the story, is if you or one of your loved ones thinks they can just ignore their sudden chest pain or quote "work through it." Like I’ve heard a million times before, I’m telling you don’t be that person. Get to the hospital. Chest pain is your body's internal warning system to seek medical attention. So listen to it. Get to the Emergency Department.

8. Displaced or Open Wound Fractures

In layman's terms: Broken bones. Fractures in doctor’s speak just mean broken. And displaced fractures can either be open or closed. In other words, when you break a bone, the skin is sometimes intact (aka it’s a closed fracture) or if the bone breaks through the skin that in doctor's speak is called an open fracture). But no matter what you call it, if you break something in your body, or have a suspicion you or someone you love broke a bone, seek medical attention right away.

In the Emergency department, we’ll first assess the injury and take x-rays to see just how bad of a break it is. Then we’ll decide whether we need to splint it, sling it, or whether you may require a reduction procedure or surgery to put the bones back in place. It's also important to get checked out because you want to make sure that the displaced bone isn't doing anything bad like cutting off the blood supply somewhere or pinching a nerve for instance. And it's also important for pain management, even if you don't really have pain now. Not properly taking care of a bone fracture can cause major issues down the line. Get treated today and you’ll minimize things like growth issues, arthritis, osteoporosis or other pain in the future. Have you ever broken a bone? Let me know which one and what that experience was like for you in the comments below.

7. Fainting or Dizziness

Fainting is when you suddenly lose consciousness for a short period of time. You're talking, for example, doing something, and then boom the lights just go out, and maybe you fall to the floor. This is usually caused by a sudden drop in blood flow to the brain. These types of fainting episodes usually last a few seconds or even minutes. Usually, right before the temporary loss of consciousness, a person will feel dizzy, lightheaded, maybe even nauseous, cold, or clammy. Then your field of vision just sort of goes blank.

Passing out or Fainting can be caused by many different things: pain, being overheated, the sight of blood, and anxiety. Lots of different causes. But If a person you know faints in front of you, lie them down on the ground, definitely don’t get back up too quickly because this could cause a person to faint again. Remember it’s that sudden blood pressure change. So stay low to the ground to avoid further injury. Also make sure you call your doctor or head to the hospital because medically we need to investigate whether or not there is a more serious underlying medical issue going on that is causing the fainting episodes..

6. Reason to go to the ER: Sudden Numbness or Weakness

Numbness in the body usually happens when there is a lack of blood supply to an area, nerve compression, or even nerve damage. You know maybe you sit down for too long and your legs go all tingly. It kind of feels like pins and needles in your body. Well, that sudden feeling or numbness can also result from infection, inflammation, trauma, and other life-threatening issues like stroke. If this is happening to you or someone you know, pay close attention. If you feel numbness particularly that is occurring on just one side of the body. You need to get to the ER immediately.

Certainly, there are other neurological conditions that may cause numbness, but my concern when I hear sudden numbness or weakness on one side of the body is always stroke. This is very serious and could be potentially life-threatening. Stokes is the number 5 cause of death in the US. They can occur when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When this happens, blood and oxygen can’t get to that area in the brain and brain cells start to die. So to avoid further complications or other potentially disabling outcomes. If you feel numbness or weakness in your body, play it safe and call 9-11 or seek immediate medical attention. (adlib about medicine if you want)

5. Bleeding That Cannot Be Stopped

If you have Bleeding that you can't stop after 10 minutes of the firm and steady pressure on it. Or if Blood is spurting out of a wound anywhere from say a trauma, accident, or other unknown reason. You need to get to the hospital. This also goes for symptoms like coughing or vomiting blood, blood in the urine, bloody diarrhea or you're pregnant and experiencing bleeding or you have any other abnormal bleeding that you are concerned about this is definitely a reason to come to the Emergency department.

Besides an obvious trauma that comes with its own set of possible complications and risks, there are so many reasons why a person could be potentially bleeding and none of them have good outcomes If the blood loss isn't stopped. Also keep in mind that a good rule of thumb is if you are trying to stop bleeding and wrapping it isn't doing the trick, place a finger or two straight onto the area and apply firm pressure, it may need a more direct approach to stop the bleeding rather than just say a wrap or bandage on the injured area. Nevertheless If severe hemorrhaging isn't stopped, a person can bleed to death in a short window of time. So call an ambulance and or get to the hospital immediately.

4. Abdominal Pain

This is the single leading reason people come to the emergency room, actually about 12 million annual ER Visits in the US, each and every year for Abdominal Pain. But just because a person has stomach pain doesn't always mean the underlying issue is actually a stomach problem. Your abdomen houses many other organs which could be causing the pain. Your intestines, pancreas, liver, kidneys, and appendix. Or is the pain caused by a gastrointestinal issue? Kidney stones? Did your Appendix burst? I mean the list goes on and on for possible reasons your stomach could be upset or in pain. So when to go to the hospital?

If you have constant or severe abdominal pain, or any pain paired with a fever. Go to the hospital. Or if you have changes in pain intensity or location. For instance: does the pain go from a dull pain to a sharp stabbing pain, or does your pain radiate to another area? If you answered yes: go to the hospital.

Also increasing pain in a very specific spot is worthy of an ER Visit as well. I’ll give you some examples: if the right lower quadrant of the abdomen hurts that usually indicates appendicitis which needs to be seen in the hospital immediately. Right upper quadrant: that could be an inflamed gallbladder or infection. The left lower side of the abdomen that usually could indicate diverticulitis or some issue or infection with the colon. So any specific area or any pain accompanied by another symptom like difficulty breathing, fever, or changes in pattern behavior, Get to the hospital stat.

3. Intense Fever

First let’s define what a fever is. A body temperature of over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 37.8 degrees celsius is considered a fever and often a sign of an infection in the body.

Now If a child is under the age of 3 months and experiencing any elevated temperature, call your healthcare provider or head to the ER immediately. For anyone older than an infant typically patients are told to come to the hospital when a fever is hitting or heading towards the 103 degrees Fahrenheit or (39.4 degrees Celsius) mark. Any Higher body temps than that definitely come to the Emergency department. Also if you or your loved one’s fever also has other symptoms that accompany it like: Fever plus severe headache, Fever plus rash, or fever plus convulsions or febrile seizures. Get to the ER. and of course If you’re still unsure just be safe and head to the hospital.

2. Confusion or Changes in Mental Status

Several serious medical conditions or even outside factors can cause changes in a seemingly healthy person and this is definitely causing for concern.

Serious medical conditions like stroke, infections like meningitis, brain injury, low oxygen levels, medication side effects, psychological issues, or even drug or substance intoxication. So if you see any sort of acute confusion or sudden mental changes in a person you care about, definitely seek out immediate emergency treatment because it could be a matter of life or death.

1. Anything You Are Concerned About

Listen I get it sometimes it is super obvious when it's an emergency situation, for instance, you get into a car accident and there are injuries, or you and I don't know inhaled poisonous fumes or have burned to any part of your body, these seem pretty obvious, right? Get to the emergency room.

But Hear me out. Sometimes serious medical issues aren't that obvious. Maybe your symptoms are a little vague or maybe someone is telling you to just ride it out. This is where I have to disagree and add context on when to go to the hospital.

Things: like severe onset headache (especially if the individual is on blood thinners), seizure, sudden inability to speak, see, walk, or move, sudden dropping on one side of the body, pain in the arm or jaw, car accident, kitchen knife accident, Anything at all that seems suspicious and or is getting worse over time. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum symptoms or pain that just comes on out of the blue, that’s what we call acute symptoms. They just pop up and cause a person sudden pain and discomfort. This could be your body’s sign telling you that it's time to seek medical attention.

Here's what it all boils down to the symptoms I've listed out are not a complete listing, but rather an overview or guideline to try and help you assess whether you or your loved one is at risk, it's better to get to the emergency room and be wrong but have the reassurance that the symptom was not life-threatening than to completely ignore the symptoms and put yourself at risk.

Believe me I've seen people sort of ignore their symptoms and the situation turns out to be a lot direr than they originally thought. “Headaches” that turned out to be brain bleeds or “allergy and shortness of breath symptoms” that turned out to be a heart attack. All the time I see this in the Emergency room. So give yourself peace of mind and either reach out to your health care provider, call 9-11 for an ambulance or get to the hospital immediately if you have any of these symptoms I've mentioned or any doubt in your mind.

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