Better Living through Chemistry poster

I love science. Specifically, I love how studying science helps us understand the world.  I love it so much that I studied chemistry for a very long time.  The world is beautifully designed. It’s all far more clever than anything we humans can make.  Therein lies the issue….

There is no question we live longer and mostly better lives due to incredible technological innovations.  Penicillin.  Effective chemotherapies.  Diagnostics.  But when you cross profit with science, bad things can happen – innovation without soul and marketing without a conscience.  Here are 3 cases in point:

  1. MSG (monosodium glutamate) is thought to be an innocuous flavor enhancer.  It makes food dance our tongue.  It makes food addictive. If you consume anything processed from the grocery store and/or almost any affordable restaurant, you are taking MSG into your body.  The Federal government does NOT make food companies label MSG, so you’ll find it under “natural flavor,” “salt,” and a variety of other euphemisms.  So, it must be safe, right?  No.  First of all, in a society that struggles with obesity and the health costs – emotional and physical – of carrying extra weight around, we do NOT need food to be more addictive, do we?  More importantly, for some people, including our daughter Sophie, MSG causes migraines.  “Hormonal migraines” have been a curse of women in our family for generations.  Sophie had resigned herself to this fate, but then, she did the work.  She did an elimination diet to understand the relationship between food and her body.  The results were clear:  eliminate all MSG, and migraines disappear. Forever.  Over the course of her lifetime, that’s ~468 days (over a year!) she will NOT lie in a dark room, suffering from debilitating pain, unable to participate in the world.  Frito Lay does not have the right to rob women and men of this time, just so they can grow revenues.  No one said it better than an R&D chemist working in the food industry, speaking to the New York Times magazine a couple of years ago:  “I feel so sorry for the American public.”  Indeed, but that’s not all.
  2. Aleve (naproxen) – many people take Aleve and its equivalents for a variety of aches and pains.  It helps us get through the day, right?  It helps us stay active as we age, doesn’t it?  Sure, for a while.  But here is the deal. All of these NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are nephrotoxic, i.e., they poison your kidneys.  How do I know this?  My father, who is super-active and aging gracefully – picture gardening, cooking, playing with grandkids, yoga, Sudoko puzzles, healthy eating, lifting weights… – took Aleve once a day for a month this past spring so his hip wouldn’t bother him while playing golf.  Now, in very small print, one can read warnings on the bottle that might have prevented what happened next…  His lungs filled with water.  His legs swelled to twice their size.  He couldn’t walk two steps without getting breathless.  My mom was terrified.  Long story short, perhaps the good news is that a brilliant team of docs guided by my more brilliant mom found an underlying lymphoma which they are now treating.  My chemistry background has never been more useful than in helping my parents sort this out.  Make no mistake about it, the kidney doc confirmed that Aleve started the whole thing, compromising the filtration in my dad’s kidneys to the point that he might have died without my mom’s intervention.  My dad is doing well now and his prognosis is excellent.  The glass half-full view of these events is thank God they found the lymphoma while it’s still so early.  We choose to look at it all this way.  Still, Aleve certainly catalyzed a downward spiral in this case.
  3. Claritin (Loratadine).  Seasonal allergies were baaaaad this year, weren’t they?  Our son Grant suffers with itchy eyes, a plugged nose, cough, sore throat…all of the usual symptoms.  Tree pollen is the most likely culprit, and we’ve given him over the counter medications, as advised by our pediatrician:  Zyrtec, and this year, Claritin.  He’s 11 now, and his body is changing.  So, this year was different.  This year, Grant started suffering from big sadness and anxiety toward the end of allergy season.  He’s deeply feelingful, so we listened a lot and talked to him about the things you would if you were his parents…about growing up and the concerns that come with it.  But none of that was reassuring.  A lucky hunch led us to consider Claritin as the culprit, followed by research indicating this issue is all too common.  The internet is littered with stories of depression and allergies. The more we discussed it with friends, the more we realized we were not alone.  Some of the research focuses on the correlation between allergy symptoms and depression.  Don’t be fooled.  IT’S MOST LIKELY THE MEDS, including Claritin.  The good news is that after just a few days off Claritin, we have our boy back.  When I told Grant that his eyes may itch, he said, “Oh, mom, that would be so much better than the terrible sad feeling!”  Claritin messes with people’s brain chemistry and emotions.  It’s scary to imagine what might have happened if we didn’t sort this out.  Talk therapy would have gone nowhere.  Anti-anxiety or anti-depressant meds might have been suggested.  What a pharmaceutical soup we’d be in!  If you or your loved one is taking allergy medication…..or oral contraceptives, or Accutane, or anything really!……and suffering from moodiness (which affects a whole family), start here and don’t stop until you have your answer too.

There you have it.  Chemistry is messing with our loved ones.  Enough.  I love chemistry, but I hate what we too often do with it for the sake of profit, unchecked.  What does any of this have to do with empathy?  Everything.  Empathetic innovation would never allow MSG on the market, certainly not without a label.  Empathetic innovation would take Aleve and Claritin off and/or put clear warnings on the bottles in BIG PRINT – big enough to jump out at older folks and tired parents.

Do not assume you are protected. You are not.  There is no scientist on the hill who knows what is best for your body and your loved ones.  Her objective is usually profit.  Even the best doctors don’t have access to all of the side effects of common drugs, due to “scientific confidentiality” exemptions on disclosure.  Thanks so much FDA.

Your health is in your own hands.  Wise consumerism is our best hope, and the transparency of the internet is of enormous benefit.  Our family has learned to approach even these ubiquitous chemicals with extreme caution.  I hope our suffering saves you some.

What about you?  If you have a story of better living through chemistry? – NOT – please share.  We need to know.

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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