Happiness in a Pill

By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness

As I was flipping channels last night, an odd thing happened. Ok, so maybe it just struck me as odd – but all three of the major networks were running commercials for anti-depressant drugs at the exact same time! Although each channel hawked a different drug – Paxil, Zoloft and Wellbutrin – the message was the same: this magic pill can sweep away all of your troubles and make you feel like yourself again.

Maybe they’re just gearing up for the holidays.

The Thanksgiving to New Year season is supposed to be a time of good cheer. But for many of us, the holiday season is a time of sadness. While most of us have experienced the “holiday blues” at one time or another, pharmaceutical companies see it as a golden opportunity to increase their profits. The key is convincing the masses that they aren’t just in a temporary funk. Instead, it’s their job to persuade us that we really do need help – help only they can give us.

“Normal” Therapy

Of course, depression has always been with us, and it can blight the lives of those affected, especially during the holidays. But the great boom in depressive illness didn’t come about until the advent and subsequent marketing of Prozac.

Prior to the 1990s, comparatively few people were thought to suffer from depression – maybe one person in 10,000. But, with the discovery of the Prozac family of drugs known as Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SRRIs), there came an explosive increase in diagnoses of depressive illness.

Current estimates claim that one in 10 people are clinically depressed. That’s a thousand-fold increase. In barely a decade, depression has gone from being a rare disorder to being classed as one of the greatest afflictions of humankind – requiring that millions of comparatively healthy people be treated with powerful medication.

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Even those of us who don’t fit neatly into the category of clinical depression can take advantage of these wonder drugs – thanks to diseases and disorders invented by the pharmaceutical industry to expand their sales. One that comes to mind is the new social anxiety disorder. Simply put, if you experience a rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking and an upset stomach whenever you’re at a party with strangers, at a job interview or when you speak in public, you’ve got social anxiety disorder. I think that covers just about all of us.

But instead of looking at this kind of physical reaction to uncomfortable situations as a normal response, Glaxco (the makers of Paxil) say it’s one of the most under-diagnosed anxiety disorders. The FDA agrees and – no surprise here – has approved Paxil CR to treat the problem. Think of it as a “no patient left behind” policy.

A Killer Cure

SSRIs might benefit some people in the short term, but there’s little evidence to suggest that they help things to turn out better in the long run. And if you read the ANM bulletin, “Prozac Nation” (6/6/03), you already know that these drugs come with major side effects that include decreased libido, impotence, tremors and an elevation in blood pressure.

But what’s really frightening is that SRRIs can trigger suicide and violence in some patients. Here are just a few of the documented cases: In 1999, the Washington Post confirmed that Eric Harris, one of the shooters at Columbine High School, was taking the SRRI Luvox at the time of the murders. Ten days after starting Prozac, William Forsyth stabbed his wife before killing himself. One morning in 1989, Joseph Wesbecker walked into work and killed eight employees before committing suicide. He too was on Prozac. Just 48 hours after his doctor put Don Schell (who had a history of poor response to SRRIs) on Paxil, he shot his wife, daughter and granddaughter before shooting himself.

The sad thing is that the pharmaceutical companies have known about this tragic side of SRRIs for years. In fact, an unofficial memo from Eli Lilly’s German headquarters in 1984 said, “Considering the benefit and the risk, we think this preparation totally unsuitable for the treatment of depression.”

There is no nice way of putting this: The drug companies have subordinated patient safety on the altar of blockbuster profits. Aggressive marketing has persuaded the medical profession to prescribe SSRI drugs to people who are simply struggling with mundane anxieties. Unwilling to risk the death of a goose that lays such golden eggs, the companies refuse to sponsor the kind of large-scale scientific research that would map out the true frequency and seriousness of side effects. Without such research, doctors and patients are unable to make properly informed choices.

Covering up the Evidence

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So what about all of the studies showing how safe SRRIs are? There may be only 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are at least 150 ways to design drug experiments so that they are skewed in favour of the sponsoring company’s products.

Want to eliminate evidence of dangerous side effects from your new anti-depressant? First, ensure that company scientists design the experiment and tabulate the data before it is turned over to the university scientist whose name will grace the eventual publication. Better yet, when volunteers enrolled in the experiment become agitated (and potentially suicidal or violent), code them as “failing to respond to treatment.” Amazingly, by this simple sleight of hand, the alarming side effects disappear.

The respected scientist whose name goes on the ghost-written publication – a widespread practice – seldom sees the raw data and is happy to collect a generous fee from the company along with the status that comes with having “his” research published in a prestigious journal.

Leading drug industry figures play an unsavory role in this story, but it can’t be said that either the medical profession or government regulators emerge with armour shining. Those charged with protecting the public from unjustifiable harm still haven’t learned the lesson of the 1962 thalidomide tragedy: All drugs are inherently risky. Only honest and well-designed research can tell us which drugs offer which patients the likelihood of more benefit than harm.

Because universities and hospitals float on a sea of drug company money, few are anxious to raise critical questions about unethical research practices. Moreover, when researchers do blow the whistle on drugs with harmful side effects, they often find themselves the subject of a lawsuit by the sponsoring drug company or worse, fired by the university.

One Last Thing . . .

If you’re suffering from the holiday blues, I urge you to explore the dietary and supplement options before you try an SRRI. St. John’s wort, SAMe and 5-HTP can all provide relief from mild to moderate depression – without the dangerous side effects.

And, when it comes to depression, you really are what you eat. In a joint study, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital found that people with major depression often have depleted stores of omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies have found that those who experience mild to moderate depression often find relief with an increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids (in fish or fish oil supplements). People who are depressed are often deficient in magnesium, as well, which is found in whole grains, nuts and leafy green vegetables.

High levels of B vitamins, particularly folic acid, have also been shown to relieve symptoms of depression, which isn’t surprising since stress and depression (both abundant during the holidays) deplete the body’s stores of the B vitamins. In addition to supplements, good dietary sources of vitamin B are tuna, salmon, avocados, bananas, mangoes, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, poultry and meat.

This Just In . . .

Worried about gaining weight during the holidays? For years, nutritionists have claimed that grape seed extract (GSE) could decrease dietary fat absorption. Now it seems that they were right. A new study in the journal Nutrition has found that GSE inhibits the fat-metabolizing enzymes pancreatic lipase and lipoprotein lipase, suggesting that GSE might be useful as a treatment to limit dietary fat absorption and the accumulation of fat in adipose tissue.

What’s more, the researchers noted that GSE may reduce the levels of circulating free fatty acids that have been linked to insulin resistance in obese patients. Their conclusion? GSE may provide a safe, natural and cost-effective weight control treatment.

Not that this news gives you the green light to go whole hog at the buffet table. But, if the holidays provide too much culinary temptation, GSE just might help you control both your weight and your blood sugar.

I hope this holiday season finds you healthy and safe. And, as always, you are in my thoughts . . .

References:

Healy D, et al. “Antidepressants & Suicide: Risk-Benefit Conundrums.”
Unpublished study. 2002. www.healyprozac.com/GhostlyData/JPCNDHealy.pdf

Mischoulon D, et al. “Docosahexanoic acid and omega-3 fatty acids in depression.” Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 2000;23:785-794.

Moreno DA, et al. “Inhibitory effects of grape seed extract on lipases.”  Nutrition. 2003;19:876-879.

“Paxil CR approved for Social Anxiety Disorder.” HealthScout. 17 October 2003.

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