Why the “Magic” Wonder Pill Syndrome is Making Americans Sicker than Ever
The human weakness for a “quick fix” isn’t new, but the modern sickcare industry encourages us to take it to new levels.
And, as people naturally looking for the easy way out, we want to believe in what’s easy and overhyped instead of what’s effective.
It’s in the best interest of the pharmaceutical industry to encourage that weakness. The delusion of overnight health boosts its perceived credibility and, therefore, its profits.
As much as the alternative health industry sells supplements by attacking (often with great justification) “Big Pharma,” much of it is pulling the same scam.
The Historical Roots
When sick or injured, Og the Caveman was probably impatient to stop feeling hurt and weak, even as the medicine man gave him a smelly hot tea to drink.
Nobody enjoys pain, and his people needed him to help gather roots and hunt game.
No matter how sick or tired, Ms. Og has a demanding baby to feed and care for on top of finding leaves and berries.
Still, it’s unlikely their healer or shaman encouraged them to believe they would get over their illnesses overnight. “Magic potions” existed only in fairy tales.
And disappointed cave people may have filed a “malpractice suit” with a spear through the gut.
Medicine Advanced in Fits and Starts Across the Globe
Healers discovered useful herbs and developed many various theories and metaphysical systems to explain and cure diseases.
However, for the average person who was not a lord or lady, rest and a few good herbs were probably the most efficacious cures available.
(Only lord and ladies could afford to pay for doctors.)
The ancients created “nostrum remedium,” which is Latin for “our remedy.” That lead to the English word “nostrum.”
As early as the late 1600’s, the English crown would grant a “letter patent” to the inventor of a secret remedy to cure sick people, giving them the exclusive right to sell the nostrum they invented.
Soon, the term “patent medicine” was applied to all such drinks, whether protected by patent or not. Most nostrum “creators” didn’t bother. It was probably easier for these “alternative health” entrepreneurs to mix up their own concoctions than to bother copying anybody else’s.
Obviously, the patent medicine industry preyed on people’s desires for fast results. Orthodox medicine didn’t really have much to offer people except a kindly bedside manner.
That bed-rest probably did the most good. Some people did know European or Native American herbal remedies.
Patent medicines filled the gap by giving people a mix of good herbs, dangerous herbs, useless herbs, opium, cannabis, cocaine and alcohol.
It usually didn’t cure what ailed them, but the customers felt too good to care.
Meanwhile, Medical Research did Make Progress
The discovery of microorganisms by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1676 eventually led to the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the 19th century. They determined the actual cause of infectious diseases was bacteria.
However, nobody knew how “cure” disease by directly reversing the cause.
Rest and herbs that strengthen your immune system or your body in general basically help you heal by bolstering your body’s natural immune defenses.
Some substances relieved symptoms, especially pain.
Pain relief is not a cure, but we don’t care because we feel so much better.
To a large degree, doctors and nurses still treat medical problems by relieving symptoms, preventing infections with good hygiene and dealing with physical injuries (setting bones and cutting out infected appendices).
Penicillin Changed Everything
It’s now hard for us to imagine, but less than a hundred years ago, infections from a small scratch could and often did kill people.
Having a reliable way to cure bacterial infections was a revolution in medical science.
Penicillin was the original “wonder drug,” but the public soon began to take the miracle for granted.
Why couldn’t science come up with a cure for the common cold? many people wondered.
(Because colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Antibiotics kill only bacteria, not viruses. So far, vaccines are the best way to deal with viral diseases.)
Why Not Come Up With Wonder Drugs to Cure Every Disease?
That’s the goal of pharmaceutical companies, and I can’t really blame them for seeing every disease as a nail they wish to sell the hammer for.
Even if the disease is shaped more like a screw or a bolt.
After World War II, the use of prescription drugs skyrocketed.
According to the Task Force on Prescription Drugs, the number of prescriptions in the United States rose from 363 million in 1950 to 930 million in 1969. The amount of money spent on prescription drugs went from $736 million in 1950 to $3.25 billion in 1967.
That’s nearly 13 prescriptions for every American.
And somebody’s using more than 13, because in 2018 I took no prescription drugs.
Are we healthier because we take so many drugs?
Or is our use of drugs another symptom of how sick our sickcare system is?
(Another sign we have a bigger problem than we care to admit: We spend the most per capita on healthcare. That’s over $11,559 for each of us, expected in 2019. That’s 17% of the country’s total GDP, by far the largest in the world. But we rank #47 in life expectancy, just ahead of Cuba.)
Common Problems of Modern Medications
This applies both to deriving medicines from natural sources and to how medical science views a given disease.
Here’s the simple truth:
Life is complicated.
Nature is complicated.
Plants are complicated.
WE are complicated.
Scientists (including doctors) know this better than anyone because they discover, document and study these complications in great detail.
Halfway down this page I’ve linked to, there’s a diagram of the Krebs Cycle. That’s one small sample of how complicated our bodies and biologies are.
Despite that, however, drug researchers love to examine a natural substance, break it down into its 100’s of compound components, including many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols — then say ONE (and only one) is the “active”ingredient.
Both pharmaceutical and supplement companies love to synthesize that ONE “active ingredient”, then sell it to you inside a pill for 1,000 times the cost.
And we keep buying their pills.
One example is cannabis.
For many years, we were told the “active ingredient” was THC.
And that is what makes you “high.”
Now, though, we’ve discovered CBD is also useful.
A pharmaceutical company in Great Britain now sells a drug containing CBD to treat a kind of childhood epilepsy.
And CBD is a booming health craze. Companies are adding it to gummies, hamburgers, chocolate, granola bars, coffee and even pet shampoos.
Cannabis also contains many other compounds. Researchers will probably keep finding useful cannabis-derived substances for many years yet to come. (As long as the legal environment remains favorable.)
Plus, who’s to say other parts of cannabis, besides THC, don’t also contribute to the high? Cannabis smokers have known for many years that different strains of cannabis produce different experiences.
Medical science also tends to oversimplify the diseases themselves. It takes a tubercular bacteria to cause tuberculosis. Kill those bacteria with an antibiotic and the tuberculosis is cured.
However, there’s no “high blood pressure” bacteria or virus. It’s strongly associated with consuming sodium, lack of exercise, stress, age, obesity, smoking tobacco, consuming excess alcohol, diabetes, consuming excess cholesterol and more.
But doctors continue to treat it by prescribing drugs as though high blood pressure were tuberculosis.
2. Addressing a Symptom, Not the Problem’s Cause
Everybody with high blood pressure gets prescribed a diuretic. These medications do help prevent damage from a spike in blood pressure, but they do so in a mechanical way. By forcing your body to pee out large quantities of water, they keep the fluid in your blood at a low level.
This makes sense for the short term, but it doesn’t “cure” your high blood pressure. It doesn’t make your blood vessels any wider or more flexible.
High blood pressure is NOT caused by drinking too much water. If it were, you could “cure” it by not drinking so much.
Instead, high blood pressure is “caused” by the many factors I listed just above.
And usually not just one of them, but many of them, working together.
But that’s complicated. Doctors want to say here’s THE cause, and then prescribe medicine that “fixes” that cause.
Actually, all those factors affect things like your body’s balance of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium.). And how thick and inflexible the linings of your blood vessels are. And how much plaque, cholesterol and calcium they’re holding.
Is all that caused by age, lack of nitric oxide or what?
So let’s just prescribe diuretics to prevent an immediate heart attack, stroke or kidney damage. And hope the calcium channel blockers, alpha blockers, beta-blockers or ACE inhibitors do something worthwhile.
3. Side Effects
Is there any drug that comes without side effects?
Look on the box or label. All of them come with warnings.
If you don’t notice any problems with occasional use, great. But if you continue taking a drug on a regular basis, sooner or later it will probably increase your risk of something you don’t want.
Many people take many medications every day — and many of them are to treat the side effects of their main medication.
If your main medication causes nausea, constipation and dizziness, you need three additional medications (at least) to deal with that.
One of the oldest over-the-counter drugs still in use is acetylsalicylic acid — aspirin.
You’ve probably heard how Native Americans used willow bark to treat pain and fever, and the Bayer company developed acetylsalicylic acid from willow bark.
However, while willow bark is a concentrated source of the natural salicylic acid, it’s far from the only source.
Salicylic acid is actually quite common in vegetables and fruits. The spice cumin contains so much, one teaspoon of cumin is equivalent to a baby aspirin.
Because aspirin is an anti-inflammatory and anti-platelet medicine, doctors have routinely recommended their patients take a baby aspirin every day to prevent heart attacks, strokes and cancer.
However, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recently reversed that advice, especially for people over 70.
That’s because aspirin irritates your stomach and intestinal linings. It can cause serious — even fatal — gastrointestinal bleeding.
But you can get the same health benefits of a daily baby aspirin — without the risks — just by eating plenty of fruits or veggies.
Or by consuming a simple teaspoon of cumin every day.
When you get salicylic acid from food, instead of swallowing a pill of acetylsalicylic acid — guess what?
NO side effects. NO stomach irritation. NO gastrointestinal bleeding.
So, Let’s Take Supplements Instead, Right?
I’ve picked on the conventional medicine industry enough.
Thanks to its shortcomings, many Americans have turned to “alternatives,” and many millions more will in the near future. Especially as us baby boomers keep growing older, and discover modern medicine is another aspect of “The Man” or “The Establishment.”
However, in a way it’s weird to call vitamin and mineral supplements “alternative.” We need vitamins and minerals.
The problem: taking supplements as an “alternative” to healthy food.
With both pharmaceutical drugs and supplements, the person’s life is unconsciously taken for granted as an unchanging constant.
When ill or in pain, most people go to the drugstore or their doctor to get an over-the-counter or prescription drug.
Or they turn to the health food store. I’m guilty of swallowing huge quantities of Vitamin C and goldenseal when down with a cold.
Everybody expects the pill to work magic.
It’s like believing a plumber can fix your leaky pipes by just tightening one valve.
To Be Fair, At Least Some of the Original Popularizers of the Supplement Industry Considered Them True “Supplements” — NOT Replacements for Living a Healthy Lifestyle
One of the most prominent in days past was J. I. Rodale.
Rodale was one of America’s many eccentric geniuses and polymaths. If you’ve ever wanted to use a thesaurus that was in alphabetical order, you can still buy the one he wrote.
Rodale coined the use of “organic” in relation to farming and gardening, founding magazines devoted to both. Unfortunately, they’re no longer published.
He also founded PREVENTION magazine to inform people about staying healthy. When I first saw it in the 1970’s (LONG before it was available for sale in ordinary supermarkets), it already carried a large amount of advertising from the supplement industry.
I’ve no doubt Rodale Press has always sincerely believed supplements have health benefits.
However, it’s also probably true that without that advertising revenue it received from those supplement manufacturers, it would not have been a financially viable business.
J. I. Rodale died of heart failure June 8, 1971 while taping an interview for the talk program The Dick Cavett Show. He bragged: “I’m going to live to be 100, unless I’m run down by some sugar-crazed taxi driver.”
He also allegedly said his hawthorne berry supplement would protect his heart (he had heart murmurs.)
The segment never aired, so only the studio audience, Dick Cavett and his crew heard the interview.
After making way for Cavett’s next guest, Rodale appeared to fall asleep. But at the hospital he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Adelle Davis Died of Bone Cancer
Davis was the bestselling author of four books.
She documented the health claims in her books with extensive footnotes. That made her work look extremely authoritative.
This was decades before the Internet, so the average person did not have access to scientific journals. Therefore, most readers (including myself) had no idea she was misrepresenting some of the studies.
That is, she would make a claim about the health value of a vitamin — then back that up with a citation to a study which — in reality — said something different than she wrote.
However, in addition to recommending people swallow many handfuls of vitamin and mineral pills every day, she pushed whole wheat bread, raw milk and brewer’s yeast. (Long before whole wheat was a staple in conventional supermarkets.)
People just didn’t realize how difficult to digest supplements in that era were.
Thanks to reading Davis, I wasted money on tablets of dolomite for the calcium and magnesium. Dolomite is basically limestone — rocks.
Yet people are still taking them now.
She died at the age of just 70. She blamed the cancer on the junk food she ate while in college and x-rays she had to take to get life insurance.
Do Supplements Address the Causes of Medical Problems?
Vitamin C cures scurvy, which is caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C.
Vitamin B3 cures pellegra, which is caused by a deficiency of Vitamin B3.
Vitamin D cures rickets, which is caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D.
Beyond these obvious examples, it’s difficult to pinpoint how vitamins cause or “cure” any particular medical condition.
We need them. That’s been scientifically established. They play complicated and multiple roles in our complicated biochemical processes.
It’s safe to say vitamins and essential minerals are fundamental to maintaining good health.
Without enough of them, your health goes downhill.
What’s more difficult to evaluate is the connection between the “super-sized” supplements you take and optimal health.
The government recommends minimum amounts to avoid a deficiency disease.
The first basic premise of the supplement industry is you need far more than the just-squeaking-by minimum. That is, if you want optimal health and anti-aging benefits, instead of just avoiding a deficiency disease.
I for one believe they’re probably largely correct. Especially when it comes to nutrients which aren’t officially “essential.” That is, you won’t die or suffer from a deficiency without them, but having them does boost your health.
Polyphenols from plants are great examples.
No, you won’t die if you never consume anthocyanins (such as from blueberries), but they do boost your general health.
The Second Basic Premise of the Supplement Industry
You can’t get optimal nutrition just from your diet.
Sadly, I must agree that, on average, Americans do eat very poorly.
Don’t expect optimum health from hamburgers.
Modern agriculture and the food processing industries are giving us food that is less nutritious than it could be.
But are supplements the answer?
The Third Basic Premise of the Supplement Industry
It’s safe for people to take supplements of vitamins, minerals, herbs and other nutritional substances.
There are a few recognized exceptions. Taking too much Vitamin A, for example, is toxic to your liver.
However, I suspect most supplement manufacturers and sellers believe that if someone takes more of a substance than they really need, they’ll just pee out the excess.
However, some years ago studies came out demonstrating supplementation with beta carotene actually INCREASED the mortality rate of smokers.
That’s a shocker the supplement industry doesn’t want publicized.
Other studies have also shown that supplementation with antioxidants such as beta carotene, Vitamin E and Vitamin C may actually be harmful. Or, at best, ineffective.
Supplements are as Reductionist as Prescription Drugs
Whole, unprocessed foods contain hundreds to thousands of biochemical substances that have yet to be isolated, analyzed, studied and tested.
What are their health effects? Are they too “active ingredients?”
Who knows? Nobody.
But when the supplement industry isolates one particular substance and sells it to you in a pill, you do not get the health benefit of its natural environment — the food it’s a part of.
The way I see it, too many people believe they can get away with their lousy diets and sedentary lifestyles because they take vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in a pill.
But you’re not only taking in the toxic substances in a typical American diet (cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium, refined sugar, refined oils, refined grains), you’re missing the rest of the nutrition in real, whole foods.
Don’t waste your money on a beta carotene supplement. Eat sweet potatoes. They taste good, and contain many carotenoids you won’t find in a beta carotene capsule.
Taking large amounts of a single antioxidant (such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E and beta carotene) may also throw your body off-balance.
Supplements Can Have Side Effects Too
Overall, supplements are a step above pharmaceutical drugs.
But some of them are powerful. Make sure you understand what you’re taking. If you are also on prescription medications, make sure you understand the possible interactions.
It Takes a Lifestyle to Maintain Health
The discoveries of vaccines and antibiotics were tremendous medical advances. They allow us to defeat the viruses and bacteria that cause the infectious diseases that killed so many people through the early 20th century.
However, infectious diseases are simple compared to the chronic diseases that now threaten us.
One germ causes one particular disease. Kill the germ or teach your immune system to kill the germ, and you have defeated that disease.
Unfortunately, that “cure the disease by eliminating its one cause” model doesn’t work with heart disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes and a zillion other conditions.
A multitude of factors are tearing away our health. Some are external, such as pollutants.
Many others are related to how we live our lives. How we eat, how we (don’t) exercise, how long we sleep, how we manage stress and so on.
For your own health, stop believing the racketeers who prey on your desire for the easy fix.
Drugs and supplements have their place, but they won’t make up for your unhealthy lifestyle.
Focus on keeping yourself healthy through diet, exercise, stress management and sleep — and you’ll eliminate almost all need for drugs and supplements.
You’ll also feel much better.
And will probably live much longer.