There is always a question of what is making the world so crazy. And it’s not exactly a new question. “Cancer, like insanity,” Stanislou Tanochou wrote in 1843, “seems to increase with the progress of civilization.” Or go back earlier to 1809, the year Thomas Paine died and Abraham Lincoln was born, when John Haslam explained how common had become this concern of civilization going off the rails: “The alarming increase in Insanity, as might naturally be expected, has incited many persons to an investigation of this disease.” (For background, see: The Crisis of Identity.)
Was it changes of diet with the introduction of sugar, the first surplus yields of wheat, and a high-carb diet in general? If not the food itself, could it be the food additives such as glutamate and propionate? Was it the pollution from industrialization such as the chemicals in our food supply from industrial agriculture and industrial production, the pollution in the air we breathe and water we drink, and the spikes of toxic exposure with lead having been introduced to new products? Was it urbanization with 97% of the world’s population still in rural areas at the beginning of the 19th century followed by the majority of Westerners having moved to the cities a few generations later? Or was it the consequence of urbanization and industrialization as seen with increasing inequality of wealth, resources, and power that put the entire society under strain?
I’ve entertained all those possibilities over the years. And I’m of the opinion that they’re all contributing factors. Strong evidence can be shown for each one. But modernity saw another change as well. It was the era of science and that shaped medicine, especially drugs. In general, drugs became more common, whether medicinally or recreationally, even some thing so simple as the colonial trade of sugar and tobacco. Then later there were hardcore drugs like opium and cocaine that became increasingly common over the 19th century.
The 20th century, of course, pushed this to a whole new level. Drugs were everywhere. Consider the keto diet that, in the 1920s, showed a promising treatment or even cure for epileptic seizures, but shortly after that the drug companies came up with medications and the keto research dried up, even though those medications never came close to being as effective and some of them caused permanent harm to the patient, something rarely admitted by doctors (see the story of Charlie Abrams, son of the Hollywood produce Jim Abrams). Drugs seemed more scientific and modern humanity had fallen under the thrall of scientism. Ascie Dupont’s advertising slogan went, “Better Living Through Chemistry”.
It was irrelevant that most of the drugs never lived up to the hype, as the hype was endless. As research has shown, the placebo effect makes each new pharmaceutical seemingly effective, until shortly later the drug companies invent another drug and unsurprisingly the old drug stops showing the same benefits it did previously. Our hopes and fantasies are projected onto the next equivalent of a sugar pill and the placebo effect just goes on and on, as does the profit industry.
That isn’t to dismiss the actual advancements of science. But we now know that even the drugs that are beneficial to some people, from antidepressants to statins, are overprescribed and may be harming more people than they are helping. Part of this is because our scientific knowledge has been lacking, sometimes actively suppressed. It turns out that depression is not a neurotransmitter deficiency nor that cholesterol is bad for the body. Drugs that mess with the body in fundamental ways often have severe side effects and the drug companies have gone to extreme lengths to hide the consequences, as their profit model depends upon an ignorant and unquestioning population of citizen-consumers.
This is not a minor issue. The evidence points to statins making some people irritable to the point of violence and there is a statistically significant increase of violent death among statin users. That is on top of an increase of neurocognitive decline in general, as the brain requires cholesterol to function normally. Or consider how some painkillers might also be disrupting the physiological mechanisms underlying empathy and so, heavy regular usage, might contribute to sociopathy. It’s unsurprising that psychiatric medications can change behavior and personality, but no one expects such dire consequences when going to the drugstore to pick up their medication for asthma or whatever.
We are living in an era when patients, in many cases, can’t trust their own doctors. There is no financial incentive to honestly inform patients so that they can make rational choices based on balancing the benefits and harms. We know the immense influence drug companies have over doctors that happens through legal forms of bribery, from paid vacations to free meals and supplies. It’s related to not only why patients are kept in the dark but so are most doctors. It just so happens that drug company funding of medical school curriculum and continuing education for doctors doesn’t include education for effective dietary and lifestyle changes that are inexpensive or even free (i.e., no profit). This is why most doctors fail a basic test of nutritional knowledge. That needs to change.
This problem is just one among many. As I pointed out, there are many factors that are throwing gasoline on the fire. Whatever are the causes, the diseases of civilization, including but not limited to mental illness, is worsening with every generation and this is a centuries-old trend. It’s interesting that this has happened simultaneous with the rise of science. It was the hubris of the scientific mindset (and related technological industrialization) that has caused much of the harm, but it is also because of science that we are beginning to understand the harm we’ve done and what exactly are the causal mechanisms behind it. We must demand that science be turned into a tool not of private interest but of public good.
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The medications that change who we are
by Zaria Gorvett
They’ve been linked to road rage, pathological gambling, and complicated acts of fraud. Some make us less neurotic, and others may even shape our social relationships. It turns out many ordinary medications don’t just affect our bodies – they affect our brains. Why? And should there be warnings on packets? […]
According to Golomb, this is typical – in her experience, most patients struggle to recognise their own behavioural changes, let alone connect them to their medication. In some instances, the realisation comes too late: the researcher was contacted by the families of a number of people, including an internationally renowned scientist and a former editor of a legal publication, who took their own lives.
We’re all familiar with the mind-bending properties of psychedelic drugs – but it turns out ordinary medications can be just as potent. From paracetamol (known as acetaminophen in the US) to antihistamines, statins, asthma medications and antidepressants, there’s emerging evidence that they can make us impulsive, angry, or restless, diminish our empathy for strangers, and even manipulate fundamental aspects of our personalities, such as how neurotic we are.
In most people, these changes are extremely subtle. But in some they can also be dramatic. […]
But Golomb’s most unsettling discovery isn’t so much the impact that ordinary drugs can have on who we are – it’s the lack of interest in uncovering it. “There’s much more of an emphasis on things that doctors can easily measure,” she says, explaining that, for a long time, research into the side-effects of statins was all focused on the muscles and liver, because any problems in these organs can be detected using standard blood tests.
This is something that Dominik Mischkowski, a pain researcher from Ohio University, has also noticed. “There is a remarkable gap in the research actually, when it comes to the effects of medication on personality and behaviour,” he says. “We know a lot about the physiological effects of these drugs – whether they have physical side effects or not, you know. But we don’t understand how they influence human behaviour.” […]
In fact, DeRubeis, Golomb and Mischkowski are all of the opinion that the drugs they’re studying will continue to be used, regardless of their potential psychological side-effects. “We are human beings, you know,” says Mischkowski. “We take a lot of stuff that is not necessarily always good in every circumstance. I always use the example of alcohol, because it’s also a painkiller, like paracetamol. We take it because we feel that it has a benefit for us, and it’s OK as long as you take it in the right circumstances and you don’t consume too much.”.
But in order to minimise any undesirable effects and get the most out of the staggering quantities of medications that we all take each day, Mischkowski reiterates that we need to know more. Because at the moment, he says, how they are affecting the behaviour of individuals – and even entire societies – is largely a mystery.