You have a raging headache, you aren’t sure what is causing it but you need to do something about it now. The first thought for most of modern society is to take some pain medication. What if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, or just have a lot of things going on in life? How often will we take something to help make it through? Maybe you don’t have any negative ailments at all, but you just “want to have fun” or “experience” life. In all cases we have a host of pretty common drugs from Caffeine to Alcohol, Tobacco, Psychedelics, Sleep Meds and Pain Killers. It’s not wrong to medicate life in moderation, but sometimes we need a reminder that many common drugs we aren’t only using “moderately” and they could be having a negative impact on our life.
Ritual of Life
Most of us have medicated life at some point in our life and many of us continue to do it regularly. Drugs have provided a means to cope with life in a variety of ways since the dawn of man. Apparently evidence of various plant based concoctions for “recreational and religious” purposes were used as early as 1600 BC. Drugs like opium are documented in various ancient Greek and Chinese medical texts. For instance, the Greek god of sleep (Hypnos) and the god of death (Thantos) are depicted with bouquets of poppies.
Alcohol, possibly the oldest drug, was first found in China dating to around 6000 BC. Ancient Confucian and Biblical texts talk about alcohol, drunkenness and moderation. It’s very clear that some form of drugs has been the norm, for most if not all of our history.
According to the CDC, eleven percent of children have an attention disorder. Studies show that almost 25% of college students take Adderall or a similar drug to help with their focus to get work done. It has also been found that over 80% of the population feel tired at some point in their day. If we dare to add the worlds most used stimulant, caffeine, over 90% of the population takes a stimulant in some form.
As most of us are aware, stimulants have various positive effects from happy mood, improving focus, increasing reaction time, a boost of energy and increases in our heart rate. What we don’t always consider however is that the reason drugs are drugs is because they are creating a reaction that our body wouldn’t normally do without some other activity. We have to realize that even though legal stimulants aren’t dangerous in small dosages, they ultimately have similar effects as cocaine and meth.
In the case of our stimulants, even caffeine, there’s often a dependence that is learned over time as well as a “comedown” period after the drug effects start to wear off. When was the last time you tried talking to someone who hasn’t had their coffee yet? Are they overly tired and irritable because of bad sleep or because they’ve built a dependence on caffeine? Unfortunately studies don’t show equivocally one way or another. Some may blame personal devices, but studies from before cell phones in the 90s show that over half the population woke up feeling un-refreshed. Caffeine was still in use, but personal devices were not.
Regardless of the ultimate effects, there are two extremely important factors that we should consider before using any stimulants. 1. Exercise provides almost the same positive effects as caffeine and even Adderall. 2. There are generally always side effects to drugs likely because they are “tricking” the brain and the body.
If we trick the body to have more dopamine (to be happier and more energetic) when there is no reason for it, the body becomes maladjusted. Exercise releases dopamine, but it also releases various other chemicals (like endorphins, norepinephrine, etc) to account for a host of bodily functions that are active from muscles, to lungs, to digestion. These various chemicals work in tandem as they were meant to do. Artificially affecting some of them without the bodily functions to go along with it, may cause our body to adjust to having these chemicals. The moment we stop taking them, withdrawal and comedowns tend to cause insomnia, nervousness, concentration problems, irritability, anxiety, lack of motivation and other issues.
When we’re anxious, or getting too much input from life we can choose to slow things down, to block out the noise with depressants (or anti-depressants) and pain killers. It’s no surprise that a large portion of the population drinks alcohol. Between general anti-anxiety medication like Xanax and various muscle relaxers another large group of the population is medicated.
If we add in drugs that affect the body in general instead of the brain, Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) like Advil, account for another large portion of the population (15% or more). While these relatively harmless drugs are ok by themselves, when added to the various other drugs we’re all on like alcohol or tobacco, digestion problems can occur as well as more blood pressure and heart issues. Unfortunately the symptoms are so generic, that in a healthy person, the impact may not be noticeable, but there is an impact never the less.
While most understand the negative impacts of the more hard core drugs like Opioids (Heroin, Fentanyl, Morphine, etc), they are also considered “Analgesics” or pain killers like Advil. They happen to affect the brain more directly, are much more addictive and have much worse side effects. Occasionally numbing the pain, depression or the noise of life can be understandable. However, we have to recognize that even common over the counter drugs can have long lasting impacts if taken regularly, let alone the serious ones.
Just like stimulants, there are natural ways to numb life they just take a little more effort. Exercise, stretching, deep breathing, meditation, aromatherapy, massage and writing all can help relax and calm the body and mind. We may never get the care free euphoria of heroin by meditating, but creating habits that can provide compounding benefits can work just the same.
Most drugs don’t fit perfectly into a single category like “stimulant”, “depressant” and “analgesic”. Often we’ll see a range of other types of drugs like hallucinogens, inhalants and those that span multiple categories. For example Marijuana, MDMA and PCP act as a stimulant and a hallucinogen. For these and most of the commonly used drugs like alcohol, the point is simply recreation, to enjoy life or escape it for a little while.
Imagine we can press pause on life, go into our own world that is fun and interesting, that doesn’t have the problems and issues that we encounter on a daily. It’s very easy to see why any drug that offers that kind of escape will be massively welcomed. If we have consistently low enjoyment out of life, taking a pill that can raise it to ten will feel extremely good.
In the book “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan, he discusses the history of psychedelic drugs and even provides a very positive take on the possibilities for them to enhance our lives if taken in moderation and for the right purposes.
The only issue is that, like all the other drugs, there are various side effects and addiction / dependence issues that come with them. Although often considered harmless even Marijuana if used regularly can cause side effects such as memory and thinking issues, paranoia and as with most drugs, heart issues. If we compare it to other common drugs like alcohol, its arguably not as bad, since alcohol has most of the negative effects of marijuana and many more to include creating a dependence.
We may need drugs to escape now, but escaping life when we were kids was easy. We’d just imagine a new world and have at it. As we experience more, as our unsolved problems increase, as we “learn” about the world around us our mind seems to become more fixed. Although an adult will argue that there’s no reason to imagine the same way we did as kids, we all still watch TV, many of us play games and of course a lot of us take drugs.
If we read more, if we played sports, if we engaged in various arts, thoughts and activities, if we allowed ourselves to imagine, ultimately we can create our own world even if it’s only a temporary escape.
Navigating a Medicated Life
Drugs in moderation or when truly necessary can be a good thing. However our understanding of “moderate” use is biased and aside from extreme drugs their effects are hard to detect. How would we diagnose bad sleep? If our blood pressure only goes up 10 points and we’re still not in any dangerous area, what’s the big deal? Who cares if we’re a little “irritable” now and then? Often, these are all small prices to pay to be happy in life.
While I won’t advocate for being drug free, I do highly recommend a few things:
- Have a good, unbiased understanding of what drugs you use regularly (daily or weekly)
- Any drugs that aren’t used often, but are used in a “binge-like” manner (getting overly drunk for example) should ideally be moderated better during it’s use or better yet replaced. “Binging” on any drugs can be worse than taking small doses regularly, do not assume a once a month binge is fine.
- Pay very close attention to any drugs considered highly addictive, or that cause extreme dependence. If at all possible, do not use these drugs regularly. I highly recommend “The Addictive Brain” by Thad Polk, it provides an excellent understanding of how our minds are altered by drugs and how addiction really works.
- No matter how trivial the drug, from Advil to Alcohol if you regularly use them, every couple years try to cleanse for at least 90 days. Doing so will allow your body re-adjust and will likely underscore effects the drugs could be having. It’s a long period because even after detox, cravings and dependence can show up for a long time. For harder drugs, they may never truly go away.
- Replace the usage with equivalent activities as noted above. Exercise, read, set goals and have things to accomplish and move towards. Nothing cures drugs better than having another healthier obsession.
There are many tragic incidents in life and for anyone who has dealt with or knows someone who has dealt with drug dependence or addiction we often wonder why it doesn’t happen to everyone. While scientists may not have a direct answer, the conclusion is clear: Be careful.
When we have the feeling of pain, when we are depressed, anxious or aren’t happy with life in some way, these emotions and feelings are there to tell us something about our situation. Medicating them away is the equivalent of treating symptoms, not the problem. If we have a check engine light on in our car, instead of turning off the light, let’s get the engine checked