The Perfect Mood Altering Chemical

Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole

I don't advocate substance abuse. I don't even advocate substance use. But judging from human behavior, the world is sadly in need of a perfect mood altering chemical that can be used all day long. What is it about the human condition that makes us want to have a constant intake of some chemical?

I used to smoke. I think it had more to do with identity than anything else. I quit - perhaps because identification changed. I'm sure there are a couple of other reasons for smoking. Other people told me they had to smoke to calm themselves down. I believe them. We de-emphasize that now that we are suing the dastardly tobacco companies who make the cigarettes especially addictive.

My father smoked. In the last year of his life, he would sit on the side of the bed, thrust his body upward in a desperate attempt to get enough oxygen into and through his scarred lungs, and then cough his guts out for a few minutes, and then repeat the process. He still called cigarettes "his friend," which I guess is appropriate for something that calms you before it tortures and kills you.

Smoking is hazardous to your health - even more so than living. Today, instead of being a social lubricant, it is more typically a social irritant. We should have a harmless drug for people who "need" to smoke. People in Congress smoke. Ministers smoke. Respectable people, like everyone else, seem to need to smoke. Why not have a harmless drug to replace smoking?

I see a lot of people who are "nervous" and on edge, sometimes to the point of anxiety. Antidepressant medications are used to effectively treat anxiety when it becomes disruptive, but for many people, cigarettes seem to take care of most uncomfortable situations. See a ghost, smoke a cigarette. It works. I know of people who are on anti-depressants and still smoke. They must have seen a whole pack of ghosts!

Once in a while I have a drink. Beer. Scotch. I think I had a beer in 2003 - I'm not sure - I lose track. Somehow it just isn't important. I don't come from an alcohol imbibing culture. Alcohol for lunch - why, don't you have cola? Have a drink when you get home? Sorry - not there. Before dinner drink? On an empty stomach? I like being sober. After dinner drink? Well, the after dinner cigarette used to be very important, but not the drink.

People seem to need that drink. It's a social lubricant at lunch. It calms them down after work. It prepares them for frightening dinner recipes. : ) It adds the proper finish to dinner. Cigarettes and drinks are social lubricants. I suppose, like coffee, they are a way of identifying with each other, establishing a commonality and a social atmosphere of hospitality.

A little drinking seems to be OK. I mean, alcoholic drinks are germ killers - a mouthwash. : ) Every other day we get some scientific report about the benefits of a drink a day, especially from wine. Even the Biblical Disciple Timothy was told to stop drinking water only, and drink some wine for his stomach's sake. Either he was wound too tight (uptight and nervous), or there were too many germs in foreign water.

Too many people go from drinking a little alcohol to abusing it. Alcohol slows your reflexes and contributes to (or even causes) accidents. I won't even take one drink and drive anymore - if the police stop you it just means serious trouble and it isn't worth it. For many in their late teen years, alcohol (being drunk) seems to be the only thing that life is about, until they outgrow it or decide on a place for it in their lives. We need a replacement for alcohol - something that calms, and is a social lubricant, so we can sit around and watch ball games and imbibe something social and calming, and smoke.

We get to enjoy food at least three times a day. Food is so convenient we can even get it out of snack machines. Food has a sedative effect. Chocolate even has a chemical composition that makes you feel good. A woman told me the other day that she was giving up chocolate. I asked, "Do you know how much happiness you are giving up?"

Nervousness creates a gnawing in our stomach that makes us want something to soothe it. Anxiety provoking situations make us look for a sedative, and of course we find it in food. Many people are "emotional" eaters, eating when they are upset, which often lasts all day for days on end. And then there are the nibblers who nervously nibble on something all day long to calm their nerves much as cigarettes do. We like to eat, and we have the waistlines to show it.

Eating is my downfall - I'm no different than anyone else. I get through breakfast and lunch OK, but as a Midwesterner accustomed to large "farm style" dinners, my custom is to eat everything at the table for dinner, accompanied by desert, until I am comfortably full... or just plain stuffed. All night long the food has nothing to do but get stored as fat.

Others have trouble with snack food. Few of us can "eat just one" of any given snack. If there is a pile of snack food around someplace, few of us can resist dipping in a few times during the day. It is high calorie stuff - very fattening. Overeating has its consequences in overweight, self-image, sex life, skeletal (joint) disorders, coronary artery disease, insurance rates, diabetes... It isn't good for us.

Once again we need that perfect chemical substitute to give us the effects of food. Every hour or two we should have that shot of food to make us feel calm - and once or twice a day even feel happy. Ideally we can sit down and watch the football game, eat some snacks, smoke a cigarette, drink some beer, and feel happy, not upset, calm, be socially lubricated, but still get excited about the game.

We just need that drug every few minutes that we can hold in our hand and swirl, sip, nibble on, a little caffein to raise our energy, a little food and alcohol to sedate us, and then a puff on a cigarette, which we can then constantly flick the ashes off of and roll in the ash tray, to sedate us even further, followed by a little food to raise our energy level when we feel depleted. Up, down, up, down, up, down.

Today American society is well medicated with prescription anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. The rest of us are well medicated with our drugs of choice. I don't know why. Perhaps our young adults have the answer. We medicate our young people at high rates to keep them attentive (concentrating) and not disruptive in school (ADHD). As soon as they can, they (not necessarily the same group) get their hands on as much alcohol as they can and try to stay high for a few years. Does this tell us something about the nature of living in the modern world? Is this why so many slip from these drugs into addiction to harder drugs?

A character in Oliver Twist evaluated the troublemaking youth of his age as "being fed too much meat." Less meat, less energy, less mischief. Do we have too much energy? We start each day with a couple of cups of high octane coffee with sugar to "stimulate" us into wakefulness and high activity. Caffeine rapidly raises your blood sugar. The morning sugar rush also helps give you that 2:00 sleep crisis (sugar low) that even caffeine won't conquer. We're expected in this age to be highly productive for at least 8 hours a day, sometimes 12, and then we drive and do family activity. Would we be better off doing much more manual labor and burning up that nervous energy? Do we simply need more exercise - not the treadmill - but something purposeful? Should we all be playing sports instead of watching them while imbibing in anti-nervous drugs?

Exercise does have its known benefits: improved sex life, weight control, reduced appetite, reduced coronary artery disease, improved feeling of well-being with less depressed feelings. I almost sold myself on it. Almost. The price is too high: exercise. Where is that perfect chemical? Gimme' some carbohydrates I can sleep to.

- Scott


Possible candidates?

Can these over-the-counter herbal remedies listed below alleviate nervousness? Can these be substituted for "nervous habits" such as cigarettes, alcohol, and nibbling food? These are not recommendations, but possibilities. Every medication, even herbal remedies, have side effects, affect different people differently, and long-term safety data is usually not available. For example, Kava has anti-anxiety (anti-nervousness or calming) qualities, but has also been linked to severe liver damage. Additionally, while many herbs are promoted for their use "in Europe" or Asia, and have the weight of tradition or studies behind them, they often don't stand up to the rigors of US research studies. They often have been in studies that were poorly designed.

Any drug should only be taken after medical consultation. But keep in mind that a doctor is less likely to give you a recommendation for an herbal remedy if it does not have solid research behind it. He won't be familiar with its effects, won't have experience with it, and he may create a liability situation for himself. In current US medical practice, it is better not to treat the disease (let people suffer and die) than to prescribe drugs that may not be life saving and risk being sued by ambulance chasing lawyers who drag invalid evidence into court that sways juries, just to make big bucks. Even researched medications (like Fen Phen) can later be shown to have adverse effects.

  • Passion Flower: "There is currently a revival of interest in the pharmaceutical industry, especially in Europe, in the use of the glycoside, passiflorine, especially from P. incarnata L., as a sedative or tranquilizer." - Purdue University.
    "Passion flower has a long history of use for symptoms of restlessness, anxiety, or agitation. There is preliminary evidence in support of these uses from animal research and from poor-quality human studies. Better research is needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn." - NIH Medline plus article
  • Pomegranate juice: Pomegranate juice is popularly used, especially in Europe, to reduce anxiety. It has a number of other very useful benefits in the prevention of coronary artery disease, but like all partially researched remedies it shows promise but is not fully proven. "Pomegranate juice consumption reduces oxidative stress, atherogenic modifications to LDL, and platelet aggregation." - PubMed "Pomegranate Juice May Clear Clogged Arteries" - WebMd. Cautionary advice: - Johns Hopkins.
  • If Passion Flower is effective, it may be a great alternative to the destructive power and side effects of cigarettes, excess alcohol, food nibbling, and the prescription anti-anxiety drugs Paroxetine Hydrochloride and Bupropion Hydrochloride.

    I have my doubts about the efficacy of some US medical research. For example, sugar usage clearly corresponds with an increase in acne in some people, but past research only claimed that sugar may change metabolism, not cause acne. It was vindicated and approved for much eating. However, changing metabolism is medically noted as a cause of acne. I can still get acne from eating a large candy bar. But some people can eat a high sugar diet and never get acne. Recent research looks at glycemic index (foods that rapidly raise blood sugar [glucose] levels) and the effect of these foods on acne. (These same foods are also responsible for weight gain.) Studies are beginning to see a correlation, with some studies presenting dramatic decreases in acne over 3 months, by reducing sugar.

    Studies on sweetener saccharin got it removed from the market because giving it to mice in amounts equivalent to hundreds of times normal human consumption caused cancer in lab animals. Later studies indicated it was probably safe. I'm not really sorry about this one - removing prompted the creation of much better sweeteners than the foul tasting saccharin.

    Another chuckle, one study wisely found that sugar does not cause hyperactivity in kids. The sugar industry (which, by the way, funded the study) would like you to believe that. Well, ask any teacher how children behave the day after collecting Halloween candy. Ask any mother how children behave after ingesting too many sweets. Thankfully the effect is short-lived... well, maybe. We would all like to believe that one.

    The "natural food" groups love sugar, as opposed to "artificial sweeteners." People won't use "diet" soft drinks, but instead drink lots of those sweetened with sugar. People consume around 20 teaspoons of sugar a day, or the equivalent in artificial sweeteners. But sugar, like flour, is not exactly a "natural" substance. Sugar (sucrose) is refined from the plants in which it occurs. Corn sucrose isn't as unhealthy, but it is being libeled by some food manufacturers as "un-natural" to get you to eat their products. If you wanted to eat "natural" sugar, you would have to eat a sugar cane plant, or sugar beet, in which sugar accounts for only 12 to 20% of the plant's weight. Sucrose would be a bit more difficult to eat to excess in this form. To refine it, it is actually treated with calcium oxide to remove the unwanted stuff. It may be "refined" with phosphoric acid, calcium hydroxide, and carbon dioxide.

    What this all natural substance does for you is called tooth decay, acne, obesity, and diabetes.* This is "natural," of course, and highly preferable to the possible horrible problems caused by artificial sweeteners, which are, uh, hmm, ahem, actually major studies of thousands of people haven't really shown any major problems (except for phenylketonurics), even though wishful thinking by some wants to tie it to many diseases. (There could be a kernel of truth here - margarine, a low fat and "safer" alternative to butter, has recently been found to contribute to heart disease because of its hydrogen content used for softening, now safely removed in most margarines, and it also contains triglycerides - don't know yet if it raises triglyceride levels, which is another path to heart disease.) The more we know, the more we know we don't know.

    Information on sugar has been moved to this article: Sugar: The Imperfect Chemical, with more updates.

    In just the last couple of years modern medical science has decided that heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, the devil's mutual instigators of more and more disease, should be prevented with diet. Prevented. Prevented from ever happening. Simple carbohydrates, those high glycemic index foods (sugars head the list) are some of the main items to cut back on. Naturally.

    FDA on sugar substitutes.

    On the diet scene, the much maligned and largely dietician disfavored Atkins diet (high protein, low carbohydrate) has shown to do slightly better than the other diets. People on the Atkins diet also show an increase in beneficial cholesterol (11%) and a decrease in triglyceride levels (49%). Huh? They eat more red meat - more fat don't they. Isn't this the purported cause of high cholesterol (blood fats) and coronary-artery disease? Maybe not. Punch the reset button. Back to square one. NIH is going to have a look. (My experience with people dieting, including myself, over 40 years is that no single weight loss diet or dieting method is right for everyone. My wife and I have always done better on protein versus carbohydrates.)

    On glucosamine, a recent research study, which isn't completed, found a "joint pain" relief correlation only with those who were particularly aged and having significant pain. However, in reality, others find, myself included, that if you stay on glucosamine (with condroiton), the joint pain that put you on it, stays away, and if you go off glucosamine for about a week, you begin having knee pain and find it difficult to go up and down ladders or stairs. Many doctors take glucosamine, and recommend it. Hopefully further studies will be "well designed" and not lead to alternative "patented" products.

    As doctors know, medications don't work for everyone, nor do they not work for everyone. Everyone is radically different. Some claims by herbal remedy manufacturers are purely hype used simply to sell product. Some well designed medical studies are very broad and don't show significant results. If the "p" value isn't significant, they are prevented from finding if the herb has benefits for subgroups. The quest is usually for blockbuster drugs that treat everyone, are patentable, and make lots of money (which isn't all bad). Few pharmaceutical companies research products that can't be patented, and herbal manufacturers don't have the resourses to do scientific studies. It takes an organization like NIH to do it. No matter which way you turn, it's a mixed bag. Some "studies" are intended simply for human consumption. Buyer beware.

More promising research on the perfect chemical

Science News magazine reports that research is going strong on a replacement for nicotine - the calming drug present in cigarettes. The report is in an article in the Nov. 8 edition: Nicotine's New Appeal. Nicotine's main problem, besides the delivery method (smoking), is it is addictive. It acts in the same way as acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that affects attention, learning and memory. Nicotine is thought to affect more receptor subtypes, which creates other side effects besides addiction. Molecules modeled after nicotine, but with fewer side effects, appear to affect fewer receptors, and now help people stop smoking. Various new drugs may also help with ADHD, pain, inflamation, and Alzheimers (cognition aspects). Who knows, there may yet be a way to just chill out without hallucinating, craving, or hulking out. (I know a few people I would like to inject. : )

- Scott

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