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Stress

   Sea of Un-Tranquillity

These are stressful times. According to our very own Health & Safety Executive, 5 million people in the UK alone feel very or extremely stressed by their work. This is 1 in 6 of the entire work-force. Not surprisingly, stress is thought to be responsible for about a fifth of all sick-leave.

Chronic stress genuinely makes people very ill. It makes you ill because it over-activates the brain resulting in the sustained release of adrenalin and cortisol into the circulation.

Short-term activation is fine, and is a crucial part of the fight-flight response. Over the long term, however, the increases in blood pressure and platelet stickiness, and the suppression of the immune system, increase the risks of heart disease, stroke, infections, cancer, dementia and osteoporosis. A rather unpleasant catalogue!

Humans have always experienced stress, of course, and every culture has found ways of alleviating it. Some of these involve mental or spiritual techniques such as meditation, but most involve some sort of medication.

In the East, adaptogens like Ginseng have a long history of use (of which more later). In the West alcohol is the most common, but is equally a common cause of drunkenness and bad behaviour, alcoholism and liver damage. Worse, from the point of the view of the pharmaceutical industry, anyone can make the stuff – and there’s no profit in self-medication. But then along came the barbiturates …

   Drug treatments – added addiction and reduced disclosure

By the 1960s and ’70s the barbiturates had became the treatment of choice for anxiety, insomnia, epilepsy and numerous other conditions. They were the wonder drugs of their time.

But it was not so long before the medical profession began to realise that these wonder-drugs were not as wonderful as they had thought. Barbiturate addiction was spiralling and barbiturate deaths were mounting, both from overdose and during the excruciating withdrawal syndrome.

Doctors wanted to treat their patients, but had become terribly aware they were harming as many people as they were helping. Thus, when the drug companies came to them with the next generation of wonder-drugs which would cure the barbiturate problems, they welcomed them with open arms.

These new wonder-drugs, which were safer and more effective than the barbiturates, were the benzodiazepines, or ‘benzos’.

Roche launched Valium globally in 1963. It was a huge success. By the time the Rolling Stones sang about 'Mother's Little Helper' in 1966, Valium, Librium and the sleeping pill Mogadon had helped Roche to become the biggest pharmaceuticals company in the world. Valium's triumph inspired every large pharmaceutical company to market a benzodiazepine of its own. Wyeth made a fortune with Ativan; Upjohn grew fat on Xanax.

But then the issue of addiction started to return. Patients on benzodiazepines were finding it extremely difficult to stop taking them. Symptoms of addiction were appearing in some cases as early as two weeks – and it was a vicious form of addiction. Patients addicted to heroin and benzos consistently said it was easier to come off heroin, despite its fearsome reputation.

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