Drugged Up

Even in the era of Lipitor, lifestyle matters more than we realize.

Sean Lo furrows his brow as he tries to make sense of the cocktail of medication he is about to take. On his table lie oblong pills of pink and white, round tablets of gray, and little discs colored like olives. Inside each hermetically-sealed capsule lies a precisely measured, bioactive ingredient: 4mg of doxazosin, for his high blood pressure; 90mg of Cardizem, to treat angina; and 20mg of sennosides, used as a powerful laxative. These drugs are every bit as potent as they are difficult to pronounce, and knowing which ones are safe to take can be more of a black art than a medical science. In the last year, Lo has had his drug regimen changed three times by three separate physicians, each time without explanation. The only medication he could recognize today was a pouch of pills containing nitroglycerin. This was a precursor for making dynamite, that much he knew. What he couldn’t figure out was how an explosive could help his heart problems.

These drugs—over ten of them lie scattered on Lo’s desk—represent the triumphs of modern medicine. They have kept Lo alive for over three decades, the time since he first suffered from a cardiac arrest. Now at the age of 83, he has far-outlived his ancestors, who could not grasp the concept of a heart attack, much less treat one. Yet Lo has been far from well: apart from keeping him alive, the pills have done little to improve his overall health. In addition to hypertension, Lo has been troubled by new conditions like constipation, fatigue, and insomnia. His physicians responded by doubling his medication and prescribing a new set of muscle relaxants designed to relieve his general malaise. They calmly reassured him that the new formulation was safe to take—only, it wasn’t. For the next three days, Lo—my grandfather—stumbled around the house in an exhausted stupor, spending half the week collapsed in bed.

Side effects may come and go, but trust, once broken, is hard to rebuild. For patients like my grandfather, disillusionment may eventually set in. This can become dangerous if a desperate patient turns to quackery when he instead needs real medical treatment. Snake oil salesmen, however, will continue to flourish until modern medicine fixes its deficiencies. One such shortcoming is the tendency for doctors and patients alike to solve serious ailments through quick fixes in the form of a pill. All too often, a patient’s first reflex to suffering is to reach for more drugs. Patients with high cholesterol often take one of dozens of statin drugs such as Lipitor, Crestor, and Zocor. Out of instinct, they reach for histamine antagonists like Zantac or proton-pump inhibitors like Prilosec whenever he suffers from heartburn. Sleeping meds like Ambien may lead to addiction, but doctors prescribe them to insomniacs anyway because fixing poor sleeping habits is too much work. Building lasting health and wellness is simply not worth the trouble when high-tech treatments are available.

This reliance on chemical expedients is one reason Americans are not living to their full potential. This year, the pharmaceutical industry is expected to generate almost $900 billion dollars in revenue worldwide, almost half of which will come from the United States alone (1). It is not uncommon in the US for a patient to spend over $1500 per year on prescription drugs alone. Our life expectancy, however, has only improved marginally considering how much we spend. Globally, the USA ranks at #50 (78.37 years), only slightly ahead of Cuba (#57 with 77.70 years), and even behind a few impoverished nations like Bosnia and Jordan (#45 with 78.81 years, and #29 with 80.05 years, respectively. 2). Some officials are even worried that life expectancy will slide backwards in the coming decades, from around 78 years today to less than 75 (3). Today’s newborn infants might die younger than their parents.

The fault lies with the drugs themselves. Rather than curing the disease, most drugs merely treat symptoms. A pill can provide immediate relief and remove imminent danger, but it must be taken daily remain effective. By itself, it cannot remove the underlying cause of illness. Eventually, large doses of medicine can cause irreversible damage to vital organs. I witnessed this first-hand with my grandmother, who as a diabetic had to take a multitude of drugs. Eventually, this poisoned her liver; she died, in part, due to hepatitis complications.

A more permanent solution requires a hard look at lifestyle rather than drugs. For my family, the health culprits are painfully obvious. Most of my extended family members live unhealthy, Westernized lifestyles, from my father-in-law who returned from heart surgery this year, to my mother who is fighting high-cholesterol, to my father who was recently diagnosed with hypertension. The recurring patterns are unmistakable: junk-food diets, couch-potato habits, high-stress jobs, and not enough rest. When I paid a visit to my grandfather, I saw the same tell-tale signs. His meals often consisted of candies, processed meat, and greasy take-out; fresh fruits and vegetables are virtually ignored. I once left him a bag of brown rice, hoping the extra dietary fiber would help with his constipation. When I returned two months later, I found the bag untouched. “It’s too rough,” he told me, before helping himself to a second portion of dessert. After dinner, he spent the next four hours watching TV.

Should we measure a person's health in push-ups and mile runs?

Not everything stems from lifestyle. Old age, genetics, and pathogens can bring illnesses that even fruits, veggies, and exercise cannot cure. For many common illnesses, however, lifestyle can make a tremendous difference. Heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease are just a few of the dozens of illnesses linked to a high-stress, consumer lifestyle. Even patients who do not directly suffering from Western illnesses could certainly benefit from a healthier way of living. My grandfather, certainly, would have aged better with less sugary desserts.

Most of us would benefit tremendously from simple lifestyle changes. A more wholesome, simpler life—one without fast food, traffic jams, and television shows—is the proverbial ounce of prevention, worth pounds in high-tech cures. It is far better to prevent a disease early than to react to one after it becomes expensive and life-threatening. A decades-long habit of eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet could prevent the agony and expense of chemotherapy. Perhaps an hour-long, daily bicycle commute could prevent the onset of colon cancer, and perhaps a good night’s sleep could stave off the flu (while saving electricity, too).

Most of all, what is needed is a more holistic approach towards health. Quality of health—feeling good as opposed to feeling sick—matters just as much as a long lifespan. Until a person can wake up each morning without feeling tired, he is not healthy. Until he can climb up a flight of stairs unassisted, do a hundred jumping jacks, and jog for a mile each morning, he is not healthy. Crossing the street should not cause shortness of breath. Day-to-day tasks should not require constant medical intervention, whether that’s in the form of drugs, hospital visits, or surgery. And so the elusive quest for true health often ends up, not in a scientist’s lab of modern elixirs, but with a brisk morning walk and the spinach served on a dinner plate.

  1. Activery forecasts global revenue to be $897 billion for 2011; Wikipedia reports that 2006 revenue was $643 billion.
  2. The USA ranks #50 according to the CIA World Factbook’s data on life expectancies.
  3. Obesity is lowering our life expectancy according to epidemiology professor S. Jay Olansky.
  4. Photo credits: Greg I. Hamilton, Official U.S. Navy Imagery, CC BY.

CD3WD: Do Everything Yourself

Learn how to fish, eat for a lifetime. Browse CD3WD, stop shopping forever?

We all know the proverb of teaching a man how to fish; the challenge is in getting us to practice it. Self-reliance, according to the saying, is far more useful than continual outside aid. Yet each year, droves of consumers still choose to abandon small-scale, local production in favor of high-tech factories run by international corporations. Over time, many local communities have lost their local artisans, and with them the means for self-sufficient production. Without the butcher, baker, and candle-stick maker to pass on their traditional knowledge, practical skills are quickly forgotten. Eventually, basic life necessities must come entirely from imports thousands of miles away.

More than nostalgia is at stake here. Keeping production local is the key to a sustainable culture, since local producers can better use appropriate technology suited for the environment and local economy. Compared to centralized factories, local producers burn less fuel, use less chemicals, and profit more from the long-term health of the land. Small-scale producers can better substitute unsustainable machinery with human labor and local know-how, and they help communities avoid depending on distant, unreliable supply chains for basic survival.

One way you can bring self-sufficiency back to your local community is by learning to do things yourself instead of shopping. By doing things yourself, you can bypass our dysfunctional consumer culture while saving money, learning practical skills, and having fun. The possibilities are endless: you can learn to sew clothes, make fruit preserves, fix bikes, build furniture, repair old electronics, start a vegetable garden, and even build a solar thermal heater. In fact, there has probably never been a better time for the do-it-yourself hobbyist. Anyone with an internet connection today is a mere hyperlink away from the largest collection of self-sufficiency books ever compiled.

Read books on how to make your own chairs, tables, cabinets, and drawers.

For over a decade, software engineer Alex Weir has been hosting CD3WD, a massive digital library with the mission of helping the poor learn to do everything themselves. CD3WD contains over 10,000 e-books (14GB of digital data) of high-quality, public-domain material stored on CDs (now DVDs) for distribution to the third world. Nearly every aspect of self-sufficient living—from vegetable gardening to assembling a low-tech washing machine to building adobe houses—is covered in this massive compilation. For the third world, CD3WD currently offers free DVDs of the entire digital library. For the rest of us, the compilation can be downloaded from the website at no-cost, or DVD copies can be purchased for a nominal price of $20. It’s a bargain when you consider its amazing value. Aside from the Bible, this may be the most useful collection of books in the history of mankind.

It’s difficult, however, to discern this on your first visit. CD3WD is very humble about the way it presents itself. Visitors will at first notice the complete lack of attention paid to visual aesthetics: the retro-style HTML design, mismatching color scheme, and chaotic organization of books doesn’t inspire much confidence. CD3WD also describes itself as a set of books for the poor, which creates a subconscious stigma for those of us reading in richer nations. So as you browse the site, just keep in mind that CD3WD is truly a diamond in the rough.

From another angle, however, the humble nature of CD3WD is its greatest strength. Because this project is geared towards helping the poor, it has a very pragmatic focus. The collection strives to include only practical, technical books with limited fluff. Its books are written with depth, and yet, simultaneously, are written in simple English for accessibility. Unlike typical DIY books, CD3WD focuses on sustainable development through appropriate technology. These books use techniques that are cheap, reliable, and simple to set up. Since the poor often don’t have access to electricity, gasoline, or industrial chemicals, these books recommend locally-available resources instead.

There are do-it-yourself projects inside this collection to match everyone’s interests. For those who can’t garden, consider checking out manuals on woodworking, home construction, and making clothing. Other interesting books cover preserving food, blacksmithing, and building composting toilets. Suburbanites who bicycle commute can benefit tremendously from the bicycle repair books; fellow homesteaders should check out those gardening books published by VITA (Volunteers in Technical Assistance) and BF (Better Farming).

Fix up your old bicycle for commuting to work.

More than anything else, this compilation is worth checking out because it teaches us that we can survive without shopping. It is a refreshing message in a consumer culture where all life’s needs are currently satisfied by malls and chain stores. There is joy in discovering that modern people can indeed be self-sufficient, even if they can’t practice it all right away. Gradually, these books might encourage us to be self-sufficient in ways we had never thought possible before. Perhaps then we can get one step farther away from buying fish fillets and one step closer to actually fishing.

Update (10/12/2011): CD3WD is a great project overall; however, it has come to my attention that the huge CD3WD library may include a tiny amount of material on family planning. Often, this involves the practice of abortion, which the Bible teaches is murder. Please enjoy CD3WD’s library, but don’t support or practice abortion in any form.