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We’re being devoured by pills

I was munging around in a friend’s house well past midnight, seeking a corkscrew in their tastefully renovated kitchen.

I was munging around in a friend’s house well past midnight, seeking a corkscrew in their tastefully renovated kitchen.

I pulled open what I thought was a silverware drawer, except it was filled with vitamin pills, herbal remedies, supplements….

When I opened the next drawer of vitamins, I started thinking about this.

That’s a hell of a lot of gelatin capsules to woof down every day.

Then I remembered our own drawer full of vitamins and health supplements at home, and more in my office desk, next to my many medications.

Welcome to the age of the pill.

How did we end up with a culture that now consumes more fat, salt, and sugar than any in history, yet believes that a few pills will compensate for a coffee-and-bagel breakfast?

By 1981, a New York Times article stated that 75 million Americans were “excreting the most expensive urine in the world.” And that’s before the vitamin hysteria escalated.

I recently stumbled upon an article by an advocate of vitamins who calls attacks on vitamin megadosing: “the standard drivel — get your vitamins from food.”

He’s right.

Real food? How primitive. How Neanderthal.

This same article notes: “The average 75-year old American swallows eight prescription drugs a day.”

And adverse drug events harm more than 1.5 million Americans and kill several thousand a year, even when taking the proper dosage.

This is regarded as proof we need to take more pills, vitamins and supplements, to counteract our medications? Sheesh. We are in trouble.

The same article notes that Americans bought $12 billion worth of dietary supplements in 2000. It also notes the sales of cholesterol-lowering statins alone surpassed the sales of all dietary supplements combined..

Yup. We’re being buried under a tsunami of pills.

Compulsive vitamin consumption is turning into a particularly virulent remedy for life. The business is so unregulated that some vitamin formulas have been shown to provide vitamins more than 1,000 times the necessary dosage.

Would you take a thousand times the recommended limit of salt, lead, mercury, or other toxic substances? A few vitamins in excessive dosage are toxic. They can kill.

Many of us are victims of the same skewed logic that makes pesticides so dangerous.

A farmer studies a formula for a pesticide to kill aphids, and then triples it “just to make sure.”

Hundreds of thousands of people perform the same deed every day, only on their own bodies. Up to 50 per cent of prescribed medications are not used according to direction.

The recommend daily limit of Vitamin A is 750 micrograms. One supplement provides as many as 4,500 micrograms.

That’s because most vitamin formulas are based on market demand and ingredient costs, not their actual benefits.

Overdosing Vitamin A can lead to osteoporosis.

Take a sugar pill. It’s probably less dangerous, and the chances are slimmer that it comes from China.

A glance at the internet will reveal breathless articles, (almost always on websites advertising supplements), denouncing unfavourable research.

One writer shrilly stated, accurately, that today’s supermarket vegetables have less nutrients, minerals, vitamins, etc. So she needed to take supplements.

It didn’t occur to her that she was spending thousands of dollars a year on dubious supplements rather than supporting local farmers by buying healthier, organic vegetables.

Why? Taking a pill is easier.

Most researchers will admit a standard multi-vitamin might be helpful if you live a hectic life and eat badly. It’s the megadosing that’s dangerous, and the unregulated, untested substances in those pretty bottles.

The first clue to watch out for is exotically named ingredients.

This usually means they come from China and their notoriously under-regulated pharmaceutical and herbal industries.

Just this week, the news tells us that 200 people became paralyzed due to a contaminated Chinese cancer medication, produced by the same company that makes the major abortion pill used in North America.

Not only do we think pills are better than natural, whole-grown food, we also think pills will cure our ailments.

People with colds demand antibiotics.

Rather than quarrelling with their patients, some doctors prescribe the antibiotics, knowing they won’t work, and the patient will generally toss the pills into the sewers as soon as the cold goes away, building up antibiotic-resistant bacteria the environment.

Now antibiotic-resistant diseases are overwhelming our hospitals.

But we have a headache, we are stressed, our jobs are killing us, or the mortgage, or our latest girlfriend.

Whatever. Rather than dealing with our lifestyle, yup, we take a pill. One psychiatrist in Washington prescribed Prozac for every patient.

It couldn’t hurt, could it? he asked.

Now we know better.

Prozac is being prescribed for preschoolers. There are 150 million anti-depressant prescriptions issued every year.

Last week we learned how dangerous a few little pills could be.

It’s too early to confirm, but it appears Heath Ledger, the so-promising, the so-beautiful actor died of a misadventure with pills.

A young, robust 28-year-old falls naked onto his bed, and dies. Possibly suffering from pneumonia, overworked, jetlagged, living hard at the peak of his power, he can’t sleep, he takes a few sleeping pills and his heart stops.

It can be as simple as that.

We don’t know if that’s what occurred, but it certainly happens often, only to less famous people.

Take that pill and die.

Of course, you could always adopt the Tom Cruise approach, which believes in no pills, but his Mel Gibson meltdown moment on YouTube extolling Scientology was even scarier than taking pills.

Someone give that man a pill.

What are you putting into your mouth?

I watch my friends, now mostly middle-aged, haul out their packed medication dispensers.

They open the second compartment at lunch and out spills all the supplements and medications.

I watch them wolf them down with water or wine, one after the other.

What happened to us?

It’s terrifying.

And if you disagree with me, well, you can always take a pill.

Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.

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