Living on Pills
By “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles
“SLIM PILLS KILL BABIES.”
“BIRTH PILL KILLS MOTHER OF FOUR.”
Here in Britain such bold headlines confront us from time to time in our daily newspapers. In a country where we enjoy the benefits of a “free” National Health Service and where many people are living on pills, such tragedies are stark reminders of the dangers of drugs.
A recent survey by the popular motorists’ magazine Drive revealed that one British motorist in seven drives under the influence of drugs. Data published by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry show that in 1967 family doctors in England and Wales issued a total of 271 million drug prescriptions. And apart from doctors’ prescriptions, commonly used medical preparations such as aspirin are readily obtainable by almost everyone.
Reports indicate that not only in Britain but on the European continent, in the United States and in other parts of the world more and more people are resorting to the use of drugs. They are doing so to the extent that drugs have become an accepted part of their daily routine. Commenting on the situation in America, Dr. M. M. Wintrobe, Professor of Medicine, University of Utah College of Medicine, had this to say: “Some members of our modern society behave as if life were a process of existence which can barely be maintained or endured without taking a continuous series of wonder drugs.”
Why Increased Pill Consumption?
It is freely admitted that in the United States and in Britain some doctors are prone to over-prescribe. In a lecture on the “Use and Abuse of Drugs” Sir Derrick Dunlop commented on three of the causes for over-prescribing: “There are the insistent demands of the public . . . Secondly, there are insufficient doctors for the growing population: it is time-consuming to take a careful clinical history, to carry out a thorough examination, and to give wise advice, but it takes only a moment to write a prescription for a symptomatic remedy, and this often satisfies the patient . . . Thirdly, there is the formidable and skilled promotion of drugs by the pharmaceutical houses, some of which is subject to justifiable criticism in violating truth and good taste.” (Italics added.)
Similar factors apply in regard to self-medication. Some individuals have an insatiable desire for pills. They find it easier, quicker and cheaper to go to the drugstore than to determine the cause of their problem and deal with it. Others are undoubtedly influenced by radio, television and magazine advertisements that recommend remedies for every complaint.
Perhaps one of the most important factors contributing toward increased pill consumption today is the tremendous increase in the number of drugs now available for the treatment of disease. Some of these have been beneficial indeed. However, at the same time, the great increase in the number of drugs—what has been described as the “therapeutic explosion”—has brought its own hazards.
Dangers of Modern Drugs
Never before has the medical profession been so aware of the dangers that accompany the use of modern drugs as it is today. Largely responsible for this was the disaster of the early 1960’s that brought death or gross deformity to thousands of infants born to mothers who had taken what had appeared to be a safe sleeping tablet containing thalidomide.
Apart from teratogenic (or deformity-causing) effects, modern drugs prescribed by physicians can produce, directly or indirectly, a wide spectrum of adverse reactions and diseases, including skin rashes, bleeding into the skin, bleeding from the stomach or intestines, hemorrhages in the brain, infections of various kinds, endocrine disturbances such as diabetes, hyper- and hypo-thyroidism, gastric and duodenal ulcers, liver disease, kidney disease, diseases of bones and bone marrow, drug addiction, mental illness and even insanity. A truly formidable list!
During a symposium on the subject of drug-induced diseases, Dr. Louis Lasagna of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, stated: “It is apparent not only that a problem exists but also that, despite the fairly high frequency of reported trouble from drugs, the publicized cases constitute merely the floating tip of an iceberg, with much of the difficulty remaining hidden beneath the surface of our awareness.”
In discussing the toxic effects of drugs, Sir Derrick Dunlop gave some idea of the magnitude of the problem in Britain when he said: “It has been estimated that from 10 to 15% of patients in our general hospitals are suffering to a greater or less extent from our efforts to treat them—from iatrogenic diseases as they are called [that is, caused by the physician], or, more optimistically, from diseases due to medical progress.”
In view of the hazards of modern drug therapy it is understandable why many countries have now set up government organizations that supervise the introduction and use of drugs, as well as publish warnings and recommend withdrawal of a drug where necessary.
But what about those pills that people are taking every day without apparent harm, pills that some doctors are prone to over-prescribe or that can readily be bought without prescription from the local chemist or druggist? Are they to be classified along with those drugs that can induce disease? What would be the proper outlook toward the use of such pills? Let us consider a few.
Pep Pills and Slimming Pills
The drugs most commonly used in “pep” pills and slimming tablets are ones that belong to the amphetamine group of drugs, and which are available under a wide number of trade names. They act on the brain in such a way that feelings of tiredness disappear. The individual becomes mentally and physically more active, more cheerful and more confident, even though work efficiency may deteriorate. They also suppress appetite for a time. Their effect on the heart is similar to that of adrenaline released during bouts of anger, that is, there is an increase in the rate and force of the heartbeat and a narrowing of the blood vessels.
Is it safe to “whip” the heart and brain in this way? Is it wise to deprive the body of the proper care and rest that it really needs? Hardly so, and certainly not at the risk of developing serious disturbances of behavior, insomnia and even addiction. Some who take amphetamines for long periods of time become tense and strained; some have developed high blood pressure and heart failure, and others, an insanity closely akin to schizophrenia. With such risks involved, some medical authorities believe that these drugs have no place in the treatment of obesity.
Hypnotics; Sedatives; Tranquilizers
Drugs to induce sleep (hypnotics), drugs to quiet a patient in acute distress (sedatives), or drugs to reduce anxiety or tension (tranquilizers) are frequently prescribed by doctors and hence open to abuse. They merely provide transient relief of symptoms and can never cure the root cause.
While there are undoubtedly circumstances where the short-term use of such drugs is effective and beneficial, their long-term administration is usually undesirable.
Drugs in this category depress the central nervous system. An otherwise healthy individual can easily become physically and emotionally dependent upon such drugs, resulting in addiction to them. Also, driving an automobile can be very dangerous when the driver is under their influence. In combination with alcohol, some hypnotics and tranquilizers can have lethal effects.
Drugs for the relief of pain are readily obtainable in most countries without prescription, and are probably among the highest on the list of pills that people are ‘living on’ today. The name “analgesia” literally means “absence of the feeling of pain” and is a reminder that pain is a sensation, not a disease. Analgesics include aspirin (or acetylsalicylic acid), as well as other pain-killing drugs such as phenacetin (or acetophenetidin) and paracetamol, sometimes in combination with other drugs.
These drugs raise the threshold to pain probably by acting on a part of the brain called the thalamus. Being antipyretic, they also effectively reduce a raised temperature, hence are widely advertised and used as remedies for sore throats, common colds and influenzal illnesses. Aspirin particularly is regarded by some as a panacea for all sorts of complaints—indigestion, settling nerves, promoting sleep, and so on. But are these drugs entirely safe?
In recent years it has been discovered that aspirin frequently causes bleeding from the stomach. How frequently? It is reported that oozing of about a teaspoonful of blood per day occurs in 50 to 70 percent of the people taking aspirin. In certain individuals, the blood loss is greater and can lead to iron-deficiency anemia; in a few individuals it can endanger life as a result of massive bleeding. It is believed that aspirin interferes in some way with the mucus that protects the stomach lining. The gastric juices, or the aspirin itself, then damages the lining epithelium and causes small erosions or ulcers that bleed.
That the long-term use of phenacetin, which is commonly found in many pain-killing remedies, can be dangerous due to a damaging effect on the kidney is well recognized. In Sweden, phenacetin is obtainable only on a doctor’s prescription, and in Britain all diabetics and patients with kidney disease are warned to avoid phenacetin.
Paracetamol, a breakdown product of phenacetin, causes neither indigestion nor bleeding from the stomach and in this respect has advantages over aspirin. Even so, it is not yet known whether it has a damaging effect on the kidney.
Analgesics therefore are not entirely safe. Thus, where possible, the wise course is to treat the cause of the pain rather than simply mask the symptom by means of pain-killing drugs that act on the brain.
Balanced, Healthier Outlook
Although modern drugs can be dangerous, their wise use under medical supervision can be beneficial to health. Thus, for some individuals the regular use of drugs helps to maintain a reasonable standard of health. For example, for those suffering from epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease, drugs can be a valuable aid. They may even help to prevent disease, as in the case of those on antimalarial drugs in countries where malaria is still rife. For other patients ‘living on pills’ is even more vital and may have to be continued indefinitely because disease has led to some defect in the absorption or metabolism of substances essential to life, such as vitamin B12, thyroid hormone, cortisone or insulin.
However, for many today ‘living on pills’ has become a harmful habit rather than a healthful necessity. Most of these drugs act on the brain and are not without bad side effects. Is it wise to tamper with such vital parts of our body? Is it wise to take risks when it is unnecessary?
We need the same balanced outlook as does the medical practitioner who is truly conscientious and who therefore weighs the dangers of modern drugs against their benefits before he prescribes. By maintaining such an outlook we will restrict the use of drug-containing pills to those occasions when we really need them.
How much wiser it is to give proper attention to our health by providing our bodies with good nourishing food, adequate rest and sleep, rather than make a habit of filling them with unnecessary drugs! Important, too, is regularly feeding our minds with the health-promoting spiritual food contained in God’s Word. This can lead to spiritual health and blessings from God.