Thursday, June 28, 2007

Let’s Get Clinical About Drugs

Start by thinking about the mandate: first do no harm

Let’s face it, almost everyone in the Western World (if you’re sitting at a computer reading this, that’s probably you) uses some form of medication every single day. A medication is essentially anything that alters the state of cellular structures. So whether you wittingly ingest multivitamins on a daily basis, whether you’ve been prescribed anti-depressants for life, or whether you brush your teeth, you’re exposed to chemicals and potions human beings would otherwise not be exposed to.

The consensus is, of course, that medicine does far more good than harm. I’m going to challenge that perception, and as I do, I will no longer use the term ‘medicine’, but instead make use of the familiar American term ‘drugs’. I also prefer the frankness of a ‘Drug Store’ than the more subtle ‘Pharmacy’.

Let’s starts at a basic level. The foods consumed in America are controlled by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Thus we can see that even in what we eat on a daily basis, there are medically/laboratory derived chemicals (preservatives etc) that we consume, apparently without harm. Except over time we do discover that sodium (think Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and sodium benzoate)is present in just about all processed foods to enhance flavour, but what it does is it essentially loads our bodies with excess salt. The addictive effects of MSG are well known, but it is the widespread use of it that may in part explain why heart disease is one of the leading causes of death, and has never been more prevalent in human history than now. It is common knowledge that too much salt interferes wirth homeostasis, causing high blood pressure. High blood pressure causes heart disease and many other health problems.

Saccharin – used as a sweetener – also turns out to induce cancer in Lab animals, but no one is willing to hazard a guess how many people have died from cancers directly or indirectly related to the use of saccharin. Saccharin is often found in conventional juices and sodas. Avoid coffee creamers (deadly bacteria) and eating too much dairy ice cream (yucky yobs of artery clogging fats) too, if you want what's good for you.

Moving from food to treating our consumption of food, it’s been demonstrated that fluoride (used in all toothpaste) is carcinogenic. Move to vitamins and anti-oxidants, and particularly in men, aggressive cancers (including pancreatic) have been proved to occur. This is a particularly ironic area, since isn’t the purpose of taking multivitamins and associated chemicals/drugs to boost the immunity, not compromise it? Yet it has not been proved that multivitamins pose any benefit to already healthy people. It has been demonstrated though that a balanced diet does produce this effect.

Other drugs used conventionally are anti-depressants. There is a very high statistic for the number of people who commit suicide after being on a course of anti-depressants. My mother is one such statistic. Thus, if having started using these drugs, one is literally facing a death sentence when offered the choice, or making it independently, to wean dependence on these mood enhancers.

Generic medicines like aspirin, while useful, when used even for moderate periods cause inflation and even ulceration of the stomach lining. Aspirin is also just one example of a drug that is highly susceptible to being abused by those seeking a recreational benefit, as opposed to treatment-specific results.

Without a medical background, it is not easy to go through the list of what might be termed the Higher Order of Medicine. But even these medicines aren't all silver lining without cloud. So let us consider just three examples: Corticosteroids. These are used to treat arthritus, and thus reduce pain. But like many drugs, even moderate use can be poisonous or harmful. To maximize the benefits of a corticosteroid, but minimize potential side effects, corticosteroids are usually prescribed in low doses or for very short durations. My grandfather had severe arthritis and died in his late forties of a cortisol overdose. He death was as a result of medical people simply not knowing how much was safe to prescribe, and this lack of appreciating how sensitive the human apparatus is to interference continues. And it is far more prevalent than we imagine.

Treating Parkinson's with Dopamine over the short term may radically reverse symptoms, but over the longer term, it may accelerate the disease. These are vital distinctions.

Thalidomide (causing foetuses to be born with shrunken arms the size of chicken wings) is the most obvious example of medicating without sufficient circumspection. We need to be very sensitive about how and why we pour the chemicals we do, into our bodies.

At this point, one must remember the imperative all doctors are supposedly taught: the Hippocratic Oath. Ironically one of the most widespread misconceptions about medicine possibly lies here. Primum non nocere, ‘First do no harm’ does not come from the Hippocratic Oath but is sort’ve indirectly construed from it, specifically according to the following ranslation: "Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things — to help, or at least to do no harm."

Declaring the past and diagnosing the present means that when treating an affliction, we take some time and care in looking at the source (what causes it). Far too many treatments are interested only in relieving symptoms. This is much like a margarine advertisement currently on South African television, which features a person running with a warm and fuzzy voiceover about ‘taking care of one’s heart’.

Some research may suggest a link between cholesterol reduction and heart disease, and so this epithet is overemphasized to suggest that consuming tubs of margarine is actually ‘healthy for one’s heart'. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, but without due consideration for the source of an affliction (and not just a detail extracted and iconized), treatment can be harmful rather than effectual.

In the movie City of Angels, the character played by Meg Ryan demonstrates a reality that more doctors and patients need to be aware of. At the end of the day, it is neither the doctor nor drugs (prescribed or otherwise) that cause the body to heal. In fact, healing happens spontaneously. The body heals itself, but the value in a doctor or drug lies in the sense that the body might be worn out or unable to extricate itself from a disease causing scenario, and especially in these cases the body should then be assisted and supported in its own healing process.

Once again, how harm has come to the body in the first place is far more important than any other step, as finding the behaviour or circumstance that is causing pain/depression/illness provides the body with an opportunity to heal on its own. Indeed the psychosomatic link to illness can't be overemphasised. At some point we consent to the overburdening of our immune systems, and sickness (for example a cold)is a response to that unhealthy choice.

In the world today, smoking, drinking, the consumption of various foods, the conventional culture of self-medication and other common lifestyle choices add up to an unhealthy response. In this sense, the responsibility to remain healthy is ours, especially since we instinctively know what is healthy. Drugs, while sometimes useful, are a double edged sword. They help and they harm, they heal and they wound. It is when we are aware of this, and no longer choose to medicate weaknesses, addictions and dependencies, that we can begin the process of healing ourselves, and finding the road to long and abundant life.

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