Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Planned 1080 Aerial Drop in Wellington’s Back Yard 2012

There’s a lovely little forest loop walk near my house called the Gum Loop Walk, about 40 minutes long if you ramble, that is enormously popular with dog walkers, runners, families, young kids learning to ride their bikes and the like. I probably walk it 3-4 times a week, and I can’t remember the last time I walked it and didn’t see others doing the same. Yesterday this sign appeared at the start of the walk.

It says that the Greater Wellington Regional Council have targetted this area “to be treated with 1080 poison to control possums” sometime mid-May, and warning dog owners to keep their pets out of the area for up to six months. If you look at the map, and read the fine print, you can see that this is to be an aerial drop, and the drop area includes not only this track and others like it, a five-minute walk from the nearby Wainui suburb of Homedale, but also over one of Wellington’s primary watershed areas! (That's the bluish coloured area on the map; the drop area is the area encircled by the blue line.) You’ve got to be kidding!

I have written several posts about 1080 before[i] but in brief: 1080 was originally developed as an insecticide. It is such a toxic poison that it is banned in all but half a dozen countries. New Zealand uses about 85% of the total world production on its forests. 1080 is toxic to all living things that depend upon oxygen for survival, although some, such as dogs[ii], are more susceptible than others. There is no antidote. In their agony—death by 1080 is neither quick nor kind—some observers suggest that animals seek water in a vain attempt to ease their anguish, dying in or near that water. Possums and rats may be primary targets, but wild deer and pigs are common by-kill. Secondary poisoning—caused when another creature eats the carcass of a poisoned  animal—is common and affects morepork, hawks, and weka, (and dogs) as well as the myriad of insects and worms that would normally hasten the decay process. Those poisoned insects and worms, in turn, may be consumed by other animals and birds—breaking the forest ecological life cycle. “Vegetarian” birds such as tui (nectar-feeders) and wood pigeon (foliage browsers) are generally unaffected.

The documentary Poisoning Paradise: Ecocide New Zealand is an excellent documentary  available--if you live in New Zealand--from your local video store or library. Below is a 6-minute you-tube compilation from the documentary (don’t click out during the first minute just because it starts like a cheesy ad for NZ), or you can go to you tube and download the whole thing for free.

The Department of Conservation defends the use of 1080, saying it is essential to reduce predation on native birds.  They claim 25 million native birds a year are killed by predators[iii]. Where do they get this astounding number? And given the possum is almost exclusively vegetarian, how does this add up to a need to use 1080 to kill possums? It doesn’t even make sense! They also make 1080 sound harmless by noting it is biodegradable (but very slowly in cold weather) and a natural form of it can be found in some toxic plants. DOC says “waterways must be closely monitored”[iv] but the Wellington City Council is planning to drop this stuff in Wellington city’s watershed. Unbelieveable! And the public hasn’t been consulted. It’s just fait accompli.

I’ll end this blog with a couple of photos I took on the Gum Loop walk this morning.

You can see why this is such a popular walk--it's pretty! The tarmac road in the second-to-last photo leads to the water treatment plant and the watershed, both in the drop zone.

POSTSCRIPT FEBRUARY 2013:  I've posted a couple of other articles regarding this since this blog post was written, linked here:

1080 Drop Near Wellington August 2012 Update
1080 Update (25 February, 2013)

[i] See http://susan-thrasher.blogspot.co.nz/2011/10/1080.html for information about 1080, http://susan-thrasher.blogspot.co.nz/2011/10/possums-in-new-zealand.html for information about possums and the threat they pose in New Zealand, http://susan-thrasher.blogspot.co.nz/2011/10/oh-deer.html for my thoughts about by-kill and water contamination from 1080, and my very first blog post inspired by hearing a possum at http://susan-thrasher.blogspot.co.nz/2011/10/of-possums-and-serendipitous.html

Monday, 23 April 2012

Are Electromagnetic Fields Linked to Autism?

The spectacular rise in the incidence of autism—an increase of something like 1500% over the past twenty years[i]—has left parents, clinicians and researchers scratching their heads in bewilderment. Often-heard claims that increased awareness and recognition of the disorder account for this rapid rise seem naive at best. Something must be causing it.

Because symptoms of autism most often develop in toddlers, suspicion has often fallen on childhood vaccinations, particularly the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) and the use of the heavy metal mercury in vaccines. However, no one has managed to firmly establish a causality link between vaccine uptake and the development of autism.

In 2007, Mariea and Carlo[ii] proposed that our increased use of wireless technology may be a significant factor—along with other environmental factors and genetics—in this dramatic rise in the incidence of autism. It seems odd that few other researchers have followed this line of inquiry.

One who has is Swiss researcher Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt. In this interview, he talks about some of the work he is doing and the effects ambient electromagnetic radiation may have during pregnancy on the development of the unborn baby that may lead to autism.

Tamara Mariea, one of the researchers in the 2007 study mentioned above, works with autistic children. In a summary of her talk at a technology conference in 2006[iii] she describes how autistic children are particularly susceptible to stress caused by electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and are unable to detoxify the heavy metals that build up within their systems unless they are in an EMF-neutral environment. In her talk, she shares several success stories of significant improvement in autistic children following EMF and heavy metal detoxification.

I’d like to end this blog post with another video link, this to cardiologist Dr Sinatra speaking in 2011 on the relationship between wireless technology and learning disabilities such as autism and ADHD. He reminds us that autism frequency in North America today is an unprecedented 1 in 67 male births, a little over 1 in 100 for girls. He calls our growing passion for, and reliance on, wireless technology “The greatest experiment ever...You can’t see it, you can’t feel it, you can’t taste it [but] it is a silent killer.” He also notes that conventional medicine cannot recognize EMF damage because it has no biological markers, and conventional lab tests do not pick up the DNA damage. Watch.

I’ve also written two related posts on wireless modems (EMFs): my experience, and one on general EMF sensitivity which you may find of interest.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Why We Believe the Hype About Flu Shots

Last Wednesday, the same day I published my previous blogpost on flu shots, John Campbell did a story on flu vaccinations on CampbellLive (TV3). He asked people on the street what they thought about flu shots. It seemed a pretty even mix between those who think they’re worthwhile, and those who don’t, and most folks he interviewed expressed pretty strong opinions. Here’s a link to the video.

In this post, I’d like to look a little closer at how flu shots are marketed to influence consumers to want to get them, and how numbers are fudged and manipulated to tell the story pharmaceutical manufacturers want you to hear.

Let’s start with a quick 15-second New Zealand ad for flu shots.

This pretty basic little ad has a catchy, rhyming slogan presenting flu as “dangerous” and “trying to get you” “even if you are fit and healthy”. Then you are told—grammatically, as a command—to “get immunised now”, implying [but, significantly, not SAYING] that immunisation[i] will protect you from catching the flu. The possibility of vaccinations being free is offered (everyone likes to get something for nothing) and “free” also suggests that the vaccinations are government-supported, which is a high stamp of approval, as is the little logo for the Ministry of Health at the end. As you can see, there’s a lot more going on in this ad than just giving you information.

TV ads are expensive, hence 15- or 30-second spots are common, and it’s hard to cram much information into such a short piece. But enforced brevity also allows plenty of wriggle-room for half-truths and implications.

I’m bothered by the implication in this ad and others that immunisation will protect you from catching the flu. As noted in my previous post, immunisation may increase your antibodies towards particular strains of flu virus, but it won’t necessarily prevent you from catching the flu. I haven’t read Osterholm’s 2011 meta-analysis[ii] of some 17 studies on the effect of flu vaccines, but Mike Adams’ article[iii] summarizing the findings says Osterholm found in these studies 2.7% of unvaccinated adults caught the flu while 1.2% of vaccinated adults caught the flu, and from that is derived a 60% protection level offered by immunisation. And in the case of the 2009 outbreak of swine flu, immunisation was correlated with an INCREASED risk of infection[iv]. (Did you catch that the above ad claims that vaccination protects against swine flu?) No study shows flu vaccines offering actual “immunity”.

I’m bothered by how these numbers are presented too. Notice that advertising for consumers suggests you have a 1 in 5 chance of catching the flu or “up to 20% chance of catching the flu”[v] (not 2.7%). The only supportable statistics that report a 20% risk rate are those referring to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which was an unusual event. See my previous post. This overstatement of infection risk, while not a blatant lie (since 2.7% certainly falls within the category of up to 20%), is misleading. And nowhere in the advertising does it suggest that vaccination increases your protection level by (just) 60%.  Advertising implies you will be “safe” if you get the vaccine.

Another statistic that bothers me is the claim that around 25,000 people die each year (in the U.S.) from flu and “flu-related complications”[vi]. The most common “complication” is pneumonia, a bacterial (not viral) infection. The Center for Disease Control in the U.S. defines influenza-related deaths as “deaths that occur in people for whom seasonal influenza was a likely contributor, but not necessarily the primary cause of death.”[vii] The U.S. Bureau of Statistics lumps influenza and pneumonia together in their general stats, but then splits them out in the tables. For example in 2009, 2,808 people died of influenza in the U.S. and 50,774 died of pneumonia[viii] but the combined total is an alarming 53,582, which is the number generally reported. Given that the majority of ‘flu and flu-related’ deaths occur in the elderly and those who already have compromised immune systems[ix], and the vast majority of these people died of pneumonia, suggesting that they “caught the flu and died from it” is misleading.

So what we have here is an overstatement of the risk of catching the flu, an overstatement of the value of the vaccine to prevent catching the flu, and an overstatement of how many people actually die from the flu. Twist the figures enough and, like any torturer will claim, they’ll tell you what you want to hear. Or just be vague enough, and the consumer will fill in the gaps with what they think it all means.

[i] The word immunize means “to render immune” (dictionary definition), meaning you won’t get it. Many of us also interpret this word as a verb that means to get a vaccination. So this is kind of a “slippery” word. Advertisers like slippery words.
[v] http://www.fightflu.co.nz/influenza-facts/ If you read the fine print on the home page, although this looks a little like some sort of “official”—e.g., government--website, it’s actually drug giant GlaxoSmithKline’s puppy. This is also the website promoted in the above tv advert.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Flu Shots -- Are They Worth It?

It’s fall in New Zealand, so it’s probably no surprise that the annual ads reminding us to get our flu shots (free for anyone over 65, pregnant, or diagnosed with cancer, heart disease or diabetes)[i] have started to run on our television screens. Promoted, apparently, by the National Influenza Specialist Group (NISG) and the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC) in co-ordination with drug giant Glaxo-Smith Kline[ii], they present flu vaccines as a safe, sensible precaution to prevent “a serious disease that is sometimes fatal,” that can “keep you in bed for a week or more,” and that may “infect up to 1 in 5 of us each year.”[iii] So, is flu truly a serious risk to our health, or is this a scare tactic to get us to spend money on an unnecessary and potentially harmful pharmaceutical product? And can flu vaccines do the job?

Influenza, or “flu”, is a viral infection similar to a common cold (but often more severe) that is characterized by chills, fever, a sore throat, headache, muscle pain, fatigue, coughs, and general discomfort. It can be “caught” by aerial transmission (coughs, sneezes) or through contact with contaminated surfaces.  Good hygiene and sunshine reduce the risk of infection[iv].  Flu strains mutate regularly, so one year’s primary virus may be different from the primary virus the next year. In 1918, the “Spanish” flu pandemic may have killed as many as 100 million people, with a mortality rate of 10-20%. Surprisingly, most of those affected were young, healthy adults because that particular flu strain caused healthy immune systems to “over-react.”[v] Usually, it is the elderly and infirm who are most at risk of flu. Around 25,000 people each year die of flu and flu-related complications (usually pneumonia) in the U.S., and 90% of those individuals are over 65.[vi]

Flu vaccinations increase the body’s ability to deal with flu viruses by increasing antibodies. It is difficult, however, to measure how effective flu vaccinations really are because they don’t necessarily prevent catching the flu, they just help the body fight it off, and it is difficult to differentiate between a common cold and the flu if symptoms aren’t severe. Unless before and after blood tests are taken and examined, it is impossible to know how much a vaccine has increased antibodies (how “effectiveness” is measured in most flu vaccine clinical trials).  If the vaccination matches that year’s flu strain well, then it is expected that 50-70% of those who receive the vaccine will have increased protection against that year’s flu strains. If the vaccine for that year isn’t a good match for that year’s strain—and it IS a matter of prediction—then little if any effect can be detected.[vii] One recent Canadian study published in PLoS Medicine examined the 2009 swine flu outbreak data and found that individuals who had received flu vaccines were MORE LIKELY to have contracted swine flu than those who had not been vaccinated[viii].

The “official” line on flu shots is that they rarely cause serious harm and that expected side effects—soreness or redness at the injection site, aching, and a low-grade fever—are of little consequence[ix]. Although it is rare, flu vaccinations can cause Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a serious and progressive nerve disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the body’s own nerve cells; the odds of getting it from your flu shot are about one in a million[x]. A severe allergic reaction—anaphylaxis—is more common (maybe 1 in 10,000[xi]), usually occurring in people who are allergic to eggs (egg products are used in vaccines), and resulting in rashes, hives, swollen throat and/or face, dizziness, and/or heart rate changes. If severe and untreated, an anaphylactic reaction can result in death.  There is also a myth circulating on the internet that past exposure to flu vaccines can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. I have been unable to find a source for this myth, but one study found that exposure to a variety of vaccines including flu shots was correlated with a lowered—not increased—risk of developing Alzheimer’s[xii].

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a story last week, Drug Data Shouldn’t be Secret[xiii], on the difficulty of accessing data from clinical trials of the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu, manufactured by Roche. Tamiflu is not a vaccine, but is an oral product for amelioration of flu symptoms. Although Roche claimed their drug “reduced the risk of hospitalization, serious complications, and transmission” in 2009, data to prove these claims was not released.  The US government spent some US$1.5 billion building stockpiles of the drug and, if I remember correctly, there was a certain amount of [media generated?] public hysteria that there wouldn’t be enough Tamiflu to go around in the event of a pandemic. The data that WAS released to researchers [the article seems to imply later] showed Tamiflu to be about as effective as aspirin at ameliorating the symptoms of flu. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, Tamiflu “appears to shave a day off influenza symptoms” while [unfortunately] it simultaneously “interfered with the body’s ability to produce antibodies against influenza,” affecting an individual’s ability to fight off future flu infections. Hmm.

Pharmaceutical companies are businesses, and their primary aim is to make money. If they can convince you (or your company, organisation, or government) that getting an annual flu jab is in your best interest, then that is profitable for their business. See my next post for an expansion on this idea, and some more number crunching that's rather disconcerting.

I don’t get an annual flu shot. It seems to me that given the limited and variable (but virtually unmeasurable) efficacy of flu vaccinations, common minor side effects (sore arm, redness, fever), and the [admittedly small] risk of serious major side effects, this is not a product I wish to spend my money on.  Neither my fear of catching the flu nor my belief in the power of this product to protect me is strong enough to convince me that getting a flu shot is a positive consumer choice for me.

See my next post Why we Believe the Hype About Flu Shots.

[i] See  http://www.fightflu.co.nz/can-i-get-a-free-vaccine/ These aren’t truly free, of course, as the government—ahem, that is, we the people through our taxes—pay for them.
[ii] See http://www.fightflu.co.nz/who-is-nisg/ At the bottom on the page they say “IMAC is contracted to co-ordinate a national influenza promotional campaign.” They don’t say who, exactly, is doing the contracting.
[vi] http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/fluvaccine.htm Also note the 25,000 deaths figure is probably misleading. See my next post.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Wireless Modems and Electromagnetic Sensitivity II

In my last post, I shared my personal experience of getting a wireless modem/router and immediately upon setting it up finding myself in significant physical distress, as if my head and body were almost “buzzing”, and as if there was a high-pitched (but inaudible) whine or squeal in my ears.

In this post, I’d like to share some of the stuff I’ve found on the net about this experience. First, in this video, Lloyd from energysense.com demonstrates and talks about the electromagnetic radiation coming off a standard household wireless modem/router.

British investigative reporters on Panorama asked, if health risks from cell phone towers are generally recognized, why are we now putting wireless modems (broadcasters)—which are essentially the same thing on a smaller scale—into our urban areas, our homes, and  most frighteningly, into our classrooms.  They demonstrate that in a typical classroom with wi fi, the radiation level is about three times as powerful as when standing at close range to a cellphone tower, and we are exposing our children to that every day.  Is that scary or what? Watch.

That was part one. You can find parts two and three at You Tube if you wish. You get the gist. And the question they raise is important as our world becomes increasingly wi-fied. Students are now encouraged to get i-pads, cities incorporate free wi-fi hot spots, and our bodies continue to be bombarded with more and more of this radiation. So what is it?

Electromagnetic energy fields (EMFs) are areas of energy that surround electric devices. Our bodies also have energy fields and biochemical responses (e.g., nervous system, digestion, brain processing), and the EMFs can interact and disrupt our body’s field. Geobiologist Roy Riggs says that people who are sensitive to EMFs can experience a variety of symptoms including nervousness, insomnia, rashes, aches, pains, foggy thinking, problems with ears and/or nose, throat disorders, digestive disorders, infertility, and EMFs may be linked to some types of cancer[i].

Most of us are aware of—and wary of—external sources of EMFs such as electricity substations, cell phone towers and mobile masts, and overhead power lines, but many of us are so seduced by the glorious wonders of modern technology--have you played with an i-pad lately?--that we pay little attention to the EMF dangers within our homes and offices.

Although all electrical appliances emit some electromagnetic energy, undoubtedly the most powerful source of EMFs within the home is a wireless modem/router, followed closely by cordless phones. Wireless modems and cordless phones emit energy at the same or a similar frequency to your household microwave oven, only at a much lower energy level, but unlike your microwave oven, they are usually turned on all the time—a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week broadcast. Using corded modems and phones significantly cuts your exposure to these electromagnetic fields. Experts advise if you do choose to use wireless technology, turning it off at night or when not in use can lower your overall exposure.  

There has been quite a lot of research done on the dangers of cell phones, but not a great deal yet on wireless internet technology. Most “experts” say wi-fi isn't dangerous. Perhaps that is wishful thinking. If I hadn’t experienced such a powerful reaction to the installation of a wireless modem/router, I might be inclined to dismiss potential dangers as simply a product of our modern world. Now? I think we’re playing with something considerably more dangerous than fire, and with relative ignorance. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Wireless Modem: Electromagnetic Sensitivity I

Our old broadband internet modem gave up the ghost four days ago. It had been “flickering” for a couple of weeks, sometimes working, sometimes not. I’d plugged and unplugged, jiggled wires, and done all of the things that a non-geek like me might do to fix it, but to no avail. It was the old kind that plugs into the computer with a wire. What a great excuse, I thought, to go to wireless. I could cart my laptop anywhere in the house and use it. Sweet!

So it was off to the local electronics store, and a couple of hours later I had a brand new wi fi modem/router up and running. But something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t the computer, and it wasn’t the modem, it was ME.  I felt like my whole body was buzzing. My head felt “stuffy” and “hurt”[i], my neck and throat felt sensitive, like the glands were playing up, my ears were buzzing, I felt “on edge”, and all I wanted to do was get as far away from the computer as I could. Which for me is pretty bizarre behaviour because I can easily spend hours at the computer and completely lose track of time. And even when it went into the next room, or two rooms away, I still felt “disturbed”.

I know I’m somewhat sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. When I was up at Victoria University a couple of years ago, there were two computer rooms (rooms full of computers for student use) that used to bother me, and I couldn’t tolerate more than an hour or two working there before I started getting a headache. Oddly, other computer rooms didn’t bother me very much, nor did my office. I figured it had something to do with the significant mass of electronics in one enclosed area and maybe something to do with signal direction and my personal positioning.

I also know I sleep better having banished the cordless phone, tv (traditionally left “on standby”), and glowing clock radio from my bedroom. Still, I had not anticipated such an acute and distressing reaction to the installation of a wireless modem in my home. I’ve visited and even stayed with friends who had wireless modems and have not experienced any noticeable discomfort. I tried unplugging the modem. After a few minutes, the acute discomfort subsided, although the buzzing in my ears continued. Plug it back in, and BAM—I’m back in the distress zone. Whoa! Bizarre.

I gritted my teeth and spent a few minutes googling for information about what I was experiencing, and discovered it’s called electromagnetic sensitivity, and that there isn’t much hard research about it. No one even knows how many people are afflicted, and those that don’t experience it are often sceptical of those who do (at least based on comments left on this Squidoo blog titled "Wifi Headache - Myth or Health Risk?"). I found a couple of useful sites, but couldn’t even manage to stay on line long enough to read them due to the extreme discomfort.

Two days later—the stores were closed on Easter Day—it was back to the electronics store to get a new wired modem. (Can’t be without my internet fix, can I?) Brought it home, plugged it in, and although it wasn’t nearly as bad as the wireless, it still bothered me. I tried moving the modem behind a metal filing cabinet. Nope. Did using the computer with the modem turned off bother me? Nope. I tried hooking it up with the old cable (a long blue one) and that was better, but I’m still feeling a little “tingly”.  I’m sort of wondering if a “blast” of electromagnetic energy from the wi-fi has now made me even more sensitive than I already was?

In the next post, I’ll share some information I’ve managed to glean from several sites on the internet. And if you’ve had any sort of experience with this phenomenon, I’d be interested in hearing about your experience.

[i] Not in the sense of stuffy sinuses, because I could still breath, and not hurt as in discernible pain from a source point, but an overall “fizzy” discomfort that was almost intolerable. 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Serotonin Story

Most people have a rather vague idea what serotonin is...some brain chemical that is connected to a person’s feeling of well-being. They might also know that serotonin levels are modified by the foods we eat and the drugs we take. Beyond that, most people don’t know a lot.

If you read my previous blog entry, you’ll have an idea how the belief that low levels of serotonin cause depression developed, how this belief enabled some  clever marketing gurus to generate a multi-billion dollar antidepressant industry, and why this myth continues to linger in the public psyche.

This blog entry looks at the history of the discovery of serotonin, and what it REALLY does.

Serotonin was first discovered by an Italian researcher, Vittorio Erspamer, in the 1930s while studying the gastric and sexual function of rats and rabbits, and later dogs, molluscs and octopi. He called the substance enteramine, and noted that it affected intestinal and uterine muscle movement and contractions. In the late 1940s in the U.S., a substance was identified as a blood component responsible for vasoconstriction; researchers there named it serotonin (sero-serum, tonin-tonic or toner). It wasn’t until the early 1950s that scientists tweaked to the idea that enteramine and serotonin were the same substance, and it was 1953 before it was realized, by American researcher Betty Twarg, that in addition to its hormonal function, serotonin also operated in the brain as a neurotransmitter.

A hormone is a substance produced by the body that regulates bodily functions. As a hormone, serotonin helps to regulate the digestive tract, the central nervous system, and the formation and flow or clotting of blood platelets. Approximately 80%-90% of the body’s serotonin can be found in the gut where it regulates intestinal movement. As a neurotransmitter—a chemical that transfers information from one nerve cell to another—serotonin also moderates and affects a person’s moods, sleep, memory, and learning.

The precursor to serotonin, tryptophan, is an essential amino acid derived from one’s diet. Many protein-based foods are high in tryptophan including fish, meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, beans, peas, seeds, spirulina, oats, and dark chocolate. However, these foods are also precursors for several other (competing, if you will) amino acids. The addition of high carbohydrate foods such as whole grain breads and pasta, and fruits such as bananas, dates and tomatoes can increase the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin over some of the other amino acids, increasing the feel-good result.

Low levels of serotonin in the body may result in fatigue, impaired cognitive function, insomnia, anxiety, and/or depression. On the other hand, unnaturally high levels of serotonin (usually as a result of supplements or drugs, prescribed or otherwise, or withdrawal of drugs that affect the serotonergic system such as antidepressants or lithium) can result in what’s known as serotonin syndrome with symptoms that include agitation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, increased heartbeat, tremors or muscle spasms, mental confusion, and/or hallucinations. Severe untreated serotonin syndrome can result in death.

As with many things, moderation seems to be the key to keeping serotonin levels balanced and functioning properly in the body and brain. Eating a well-balanced diet should provide all of the tryptophan and triggers your body needs to manufacture appropriate levels of serotonin. Regular exercise and mood-modifying practices such as meditation also encourage the body to maintain a healthy level of serotonin.

One final idea: there is a school of thought that suggests increased levels of serotonin may come from feeling good rather than the other way around. It’s the old chicken and egg argument: which came first? It seems to me that it doesn’t really matter—one is bodily material, the other is mental/emotional-ethereal. It does us well to take care of our personal well-being on both the physical and the mental/emotional level. It also does us well to remember that serotonin is just one of the many natural substances that help our bodies and minds to function properly, and that deliberately throwing one out of balance (e.g., as with taking prescribed antidepressants that affect one or more neurotransmitters—be it serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine) will undoubtedly affect the functioning of everything else in the body.

For more information on the role of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, and the drugs developed to "control" them, see my new book Reframing Mental Illness.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Where did Prozac (fluoxetine) come from?

The following summary of the history of Prozac and similar drugs (the SSRIs or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) is adapted from my master’s thesis.[i] I’m biased of course, but I reckon it’s a pretty interesting tale.

      Back in the 1960s, Scottish psychiatrist George Ashcroft found lowered levels of serotonin[ii] in the spinal fluid of depressed patients and cadavers of suicides and hypothesized that depression might be caused by low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the nervous system. Following further investigation, he found this was not a causal relationship and he rescinded the theory.[iii]  In spite of this, the “chemical imbalance theory” of depression, and the suggestion that depression results from a deficiency of serotonin in the brain, continues to be a widely accepted belief in spite of the lack of any supporting scientific evidence.[iv] For more on serotonin, see my next post.

       The serotonin-deficiency hypothesis--supportable or not--was a boon to the pharmaceutical industry because it suggested that depression could be approached as a medical condition or illness with a biological cause, rather than as a result of one’s responses to the ups and downs of everyday life, and therefore medication could be developed to treat it. If consumers could be convinced to buy into a belief that low serotonin levels cause depression, and new antidepressants could be shown to target this low level, the potential for marketing the new drugs would be enormous.

In his book Let Them Eat Prozac, David Healy tells the story of the development of the first “blockbuster” SSRI drug, Prozac (fluoxetine)—an extraordinary case study of successful marketing. Adapted from the antihistamine diphenhydramine (trade name Benadryl) by researchers in the Eli Lilly laboratories, the new product was found to stimulate aggression in rats, which suggested it had some “activating” properties. Lilly was keen to develop a new antidepressant to replace their best-selling (but soon to lose patent rights) tricyclic antidepressant nortriptyline, marketed under the trade name Pamelor, but the new drug did not show efficacy for use with severe depression, causing distress and agitation in patients, nor did it work for schizophrenia, pain relief, hypertension or obesity. Finally, adjuncted with benzodiazepines[v] to quell subjects’ ensuing agitation, it was trialled with a group of five mildly depressed individuals[vi] All five responded positively (although it seems likely that they were also responding to the benzo). It was a small success, but enough to initiate the launch of the next blockbuster drug.

Prozac underwent numerous clinical trials over the next few years, enough of which yielded results adequate (but just barely) for FDA approval[vii] in 1987 (Read footnote vii if you haven't--the implications are interesting.) The marketing team launched the drug with much fanfare onto the American market in 1988 under a one-pill-a-day-fits-everyone banner in an attempt to expand beyond psychiatric prescribing market into the much larger sales arena of general practitioners. Promoted as “a breakthrough drug in the treatment of depression”, Prozac made the cover of Newsweek in 1990.

Ironically, it took six more years for the drug to pass German regulators for use there, one regulator noting “Considering the benefit and the risk, we think this preparation totally unsuitable for the treatment of depression.” (internal Eli Lilly communication reported in Healy, Let Them Eat Prozac, p. 39). Nevertheless, Prozac proved enormously popular, with sales for that one drug alone accounting for 30% of Eli Lilly’s company profits.[viii] Although the patent for the drug expired in 2001, generic fluoxetine remains a popular antidepressant drug choice for many today.

For more information on psychiatric drugs like Prozac and alternative non-drug ways to understand and resolve depression and other psychological "dis-eases", see my new book Reframing Mental Illness

[ii] Serotonin functions as both a hormone and as a chemical neurotransmitter. Contrary to popular belief, most of the body’s serotonin is found in the digestive tract.
[iii] Ashcroft, G. & Healy, D. (2000). The receptor enters psychiatry. In The Psychopharmachologists III: Interviews by David Healy (pp. 189-2000).
[iv] Leventhal, A. M. & Antonuccio, D.O. (2009). On chemical imbalances, antidepressants, and the diagnosis of depression. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 11, 199-214.
[v] tranquilzers
[vi] Breggin, P. (2008) Medication madness: The role of psychiatric drugs in cases of violence, suicide and crime (pp. 247-248).
[vii] The US FDA requires lodgement of two trials demonstrating superiority to placebo; data from unsuccessful trials need not be lodged (Medawar, Hardon, & Herzheimer, 2004). Of Lilly’s three submitted placebo-controlled trials for fluoxetine, one showed no effect, one showed a very small superiority over placebo but inferiority to the TCA imipramine, and the third showed efficacy but had only 11 completers of the 4-week trial (Healy, Let Them Eat Prozac, p. 35). Furthermore, Lilly trial subjects who experienced drug-induced agitation were co-prescribed benzodiazapines during the trials, although this was not reported in published results (Breggin, Medication Madness, pp. 247-248).