Ever done something dangerous and then regretted it?
Or maybe made a downright risky decision and later thought, “Why in the heck did I do that?”
I’m willing to bet most of us have. But it turns out it may not have been your fault. Disturbing new research has revealed something in your medicine cabinet could be to blame.
As wild as it sounds, scientists say acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is linked to risk-taking.
The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (try saying that three times fast), found the popular over-the-counter (OTC) painkiller could literally interfere with important decision making.
Acetaminophen can dull feelings
Now I know that might sound flat-out bizarre at first. But the truth is I didn’t find it all that surprising. And, in fact, long-time Healthier Talk readers might not either.
Nearly 11 years ago, in Finding relief from rejection in the bottom of a Tylenol bottle, I began warning folks to steer clear of Tylenol for a related reason. You see, this isn’t the first time that research has found this common drug messes with our emotions.
In those earliest experiments, volunteers were given high doses of acetaminophen and asked to report on their “social pain” in two different situations.
In the first, participants carried on with their everyday lives with either a hefty dose of the drug on board or a placebo. Then they used (and I SWEAR this was a real thing) the Hurt Feelings Scale to report back how they felt. The folks who got the real-deal acetaminophen had significantly fewer hurt feelings.
The second experiment doubled the drug dosage and pitted volunteers against a video game designed to make them feel socially rejected. And once again, I’m NOT making this up.
But this time, they also got hooked up to an MRI. That way, researchers could take a peek inside their brains at the same time.
The areas of their brains that register the discomfort from social anxiety put on a fireworks display in the folks taking the placebo. While the brains of those on the drug were as cool as cucumbers in comparison.
Over-the-counter pain killers mess with emotions
In the years that have followed, other research has confirmed that the Tylenol lots of us take to dull aches and pains could be dulling our emotions too.
A study in 2015 found over-the-counter pain-relievers like acetaminophen can blunt our feelings on both ends of the scale, making our highs and lows flatter. Another in 2016 showed the drug could turn us into real jerks, making us less empathetic to the pain others are feeling.
And a 2019 double-blind placebo-controlled study confirmed, once again, acetaminophen can shave the edges off our emotions, reducing “social pain.”
The spin on these experiments is usually positive. “Swallow a Tylenol and relieve your SOCIAL anxiety too!” But, if you’re anything like me, they look a lot more like a bright red blinking warning sign than a green light to pop more risky pain pills.
But the latest research really seals the deal. The study concluded that taking acetaminophen can increase our risk-taking behaviors. And that could lead to bad, and even dangerous, decision-making.
Acetaminophen comes with risky side effects.
Our brains have this neat and necessary mental shortcut they perform. It allows us to make good decisions and solve problems quickly and efficiently using our current emotions. Scientist types call it the affect heuristic.
A properly operating affect heuristic is critical for us to make the right choices for our own safety and those of others. But I bet you can see where this is going.
You need to access your current emotions for this process to work correctly and keep you safe. But since acetaminophen dulls your negative feelings, it could put you in harm’s way.
In other words, you may not feel the healthy fear of a risky behavior that would stop you from making a bad decision.
And, of course, there are plenty of other serious side effects linked to these drugs, such as stomach bleeding, kidney and liver damage, and increased heart attack risk.
Plus, the longer and more often you take acetaminophen, the more serious the side effects could be. For more on the dangers of these drugs, click here to see my earlier report.