Happy Pills or a Happy Lifestyle?

Happy pills are no substitute for a happy lifestyle!

Medical pills have become almost the standard response to life's ills and spills. It seems so easy to just get a little prescription for the blues!

But do drugs such as Prozac really work effectively?

And what are the long term consequences for our health if we take this easy route? What are the alternatives? And are there any environmental concerns arising from these drugs?

What's here?

Here are some thoughts on the use of prescription medicines for depression and anxiety.

There's a very brief look at some of the disadvantages of Prozac and Valium (diazepam) in treating depression and anxiety and some suggestions for alternative routes to mental health and happiness.

Happy pills: a good fix for depression and anxiety?

Clearly, anyone who does beat a path to the doctor's to get a prescription for anti-depressants has taken the trouble for good reasons. With the credit crunch being felt by almost everybody, stress and anxiety are at record levels.

According to the mental health charity Mind there were 31 million prescriptions for anti-depressants in the UK last year. And yet experts declare that anti-depressants do not even work.

"The antidepressant Prozac and related drugs do not work in the majority of depressed patients" - David Healey, New Scientist (February 2008)

We can't just change our life circumstances at the flick of a switch; mortgages have to be paid and bills settled, the day job  - if we still have one - has its usual quota of stresses and more. And most of the alternatives do take time - and sometimes money.

Here's a look at why "happy pills" are not the answer to these kinds of life stresses - and a few suggestions for other places to turn for help.

Happy pills: Valium - the not-so-happy pill

Valium was announced with great fanfare in the 1960s. Since then its reputation has suffered a steady decline, especially once it became apparent just how addictive it can be. Valium is still prescribed for dozens of conditions, including anxiety, tremors and some kinds of muscle stiffness.

But there are literally millions of people who have suffered addiction and misery because of this supposed wonder drug. One man even secured compensation after his doctor prescribed Valium for more than 10 years for muscle spasms. The drug left him anxious, depressed - and addicted.

There are more than 17 million prescriptions for Valium issued in the UK each year.

In the US around 1 in 10 people use Valium and there are as many as 3 billion pills being consumed by US citizens.

People in Europe, too are consuming Valium in prodigious quantities.

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Happy pills: What does Valium do?

Valium helps allay muscle spasms and anxiety. It has a range of effects upon the central nervous system and as it is used, it builds up in the body tissues. It is classed as a depressive.

Dosages can go from 3mg up to hundreds of mg per day as the body learns to tolerate its presence. It can cross the placenta, making it unsuitable for use in pregnancy. In elderly people it may cause falls as motor control is affected by increased relaxation.

For some people, it causes "paradoxical effects", that is it causes some of the very things it is supposed to cure (a principle which is the foundation of homoeopathic practice). These paradoxical effects include, anxiety, rage, mood swings, excitability and spasms.

Valium is generally prescribed for short-term use and as such, it can be very effective.

However, there is an increase in people using it for recreational, or self-prescribing it for anxiety and related disorders. Many of the problems arising from Valium use come when people use it together with a cocktail of other drugs. It does not mix well with alcohol, for example.

Studies of people driving under the influence of drugs show that Valium is one of the chief culprits, after alcohol. More than a quarter of drug influenced drivers stopped in Sweden were found to have Diazepam (Valium) in their blood.

Valium can also produce a whole raft of side-effects, from sleepiness to dizziness and nausea.

It is now easy to buy over the internet, meaning that it is, in effect, almost unregulated.

If you are a user of Valium who would like to return to a drug-free existence, it is essential that you seek professional help to reduce your use of this drug.

Happy pills: Prozac

Prozac has been the other high profile drug in recent years, touted as the trouble-free happy pill for the modern age. More than 35 million people have taken Prozac since 1989.

Prozac is one of a whole range of drugs called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They cause the brain to be more receptive to serotonin, a naturally occurring brain chemical. Serotonin is naturally produced and some foods and exercise may increase its production. Low levels have been associated with anger and suicidal tendencies.

But how good has Prozac really been for treating depression? Does it really contribute to happy living?

Studies have shown that it does not work well to cure or controldepression. There is some evidence that the good effects seen are attributable to the well-known "placebo effect" - the expectation of improvement causing improvement. Anther reason put forward by scientists is that patients improve because they are relieved that nothing more serious is wrong with them - which lightens their mood.

Simon Wessely, Psychiatry professor at King's College Hospital, London, claims there is still uncertainty about how such drugs work:

"The public thinks the doctors know, but they don't."

Side-effects and risks of Prozac

Prozac is not without side-effects. These may include nausea, headaches, diarrhoea, insomnia and sexual problems. Even worse, there is some evidence that Prozac may trigger suicidal thoughts in some people. Not great for something which is supposed to be life enhancing!

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded that SSRIs including Prozac are a risk to young people, whereas the UK government still recommends them for under 18s.

Another psychiatrist, Peter Kramer claimed that Prozac could be used to help people overcome chronic personality problems such as shyness and lack of confidence. But there is also scientific evidence that these claims may be exaggerated at least. And of course, the beneficial effects of Prozac or other SSRIs will only persist for as long a you continue taking the medicine. One user stopped taking Prozac after five years and found that the depression and black moods were still there, just as bad as before. Not much of a prescription for happy living!

Prozac and other SSRIs stay in the system for a while but even so they should be reduced slowly in consultation with a health professional. Side-effects of withdrawal can include nausea, anxiety and agitation, and odd bodily sensations a bit like small electric shocks.

Environmental concerns

Prozac may be more than just a potential threat to individuals' health.

A study in 2004 by the UK Environment Agency concluded that Prozac was drug a 'potential concern' and could affect the water table and drinking water. This is because it is excreted in urine.

Advanced water treatment processes designed to deal with pesticides probably do clean up most residues of such drugs as Prozac but there is no regular monitoring of such residues in drinking water at the present time.

From all of the above, it is clear that neither Prozac nor Valium can rally offer much for promoting green living - or happiness. Read on below the ads for a very brief look at some greener alternatives to happy pills, for a greener, happier, drug-free life.

Happy pills: what are the alternatives?

This is a huge subject which deserves many pages! Obviously some types of depression are hard to beat and may require some medical intervention.

However, there are lots of possibilities for self help which may be worth exploring, too.

Please note, while you might not want to take happy pills from your doctor, it is always important to get a proper diagnosis and advice.

Here are a few pointers for alternative approaches to mental health and happiness.

Diet and mood

There are lots of ways that people can use to help their own happiness levels. One of the most important things to consider is diet. A good diet which supplies an abundance of proteins, vitamins and minerals in the right balance can make an enormous difference to your state of mind.

Excessive fats, sugars and "junk" food can affect your mood for the worse, making you tired, lacklustre and prone to mood swings and evendepression. Here's a page on the elements of a good diet.

Plenty of raw food, especially fruit and salads will almost certainly help people with a mild case of the blues. Keeping sugar and heavy protein meals out of the diet will also have some effect. While protein is an essential food component, many people eat far more than they need for health; this can place a strain on the digestive system and affect the mind. A diet which is light and nutritious is a good starting point for anyone who is fighting to keep upbeat and positive.

Some specific foods have also been shown to help allay or prevent gloomy moods. 

Zinc is a mineral which is often deficient in modern diets. Organic meat from grass-fed animals is one reliable source of zinc. Some nuts and seeds are also a good source. Zinc plays a role in metabolism and helps ensure a healthy appetite and adequate sleep.

Omega 3 fatty acids are also deficient in many people's diets. Good sources include hemp and flax seeds, some cold-presseed oils such as safflower and fish. Omega 3s help prevent inflammation and may help prevent depression and bi-polar disorder.

Chocolate has recently found a role in preventing depression and elevating mood. I think this approach will only work if you cut out most of the sugar that it tends to come with! Sugar makes your system slow and sluggish, which tends to have a depressing effect. Try high percentage chocolate bars with a very low sugar content - and eat in moderation.


Exercise, too can be a mood elevator which can make a significant difference. Acquiring the habit of healthy exercise can be difficult for many people. Natural, enjoyable and accessible forms of exercise are best for a successful return to a healthy optimistic mental outlook. These are generally the best kinds of exercise from a green living perspective, too. Walking, cycling running and swimming are all good options.

Here's a page on the benefits of fitness walking.

Good sleep, stress reduction and relaxation can all make a difference.

community work making a door

Counselling and friendship networks are also invaluable. Help with real life problems such as debt or relationship issues can also transform your ability to cope and lighten the load.

It is also well worth exploring community engagement; voluntary work and community projects can offer companionship and new skills.

Picture: Making a door at an environmental education centre

Here's a book which offers natural alternatives to Prozac and other happy pills: Natural Prozac: Learning to Release Your Body's Own Anti-Depressants I've not read it but it seems many people find it helpful.

There are also many natural herbal and nutritional remedies which can help restore the body to a better metabolic balance.

Mental exercises and yoga can also be employed to help develop a more positive outlook and a more enjoyable lifestyle.

Seek professional help

If you believe that you are suffering from depression or chronic anxiety it is important to seek professional help. While improving and altering your diet may well benefit you it is important to get a professional appraisal

If you are taking anti-depressants or other mood altering drugs and you want to free yourself from them go to your doctor or other health professionals for advice about how to proceed. There are conditions where it is unwise to suddenly stop medication.

Please note that the information on this site in no way constitutes medical advice. Please see the Disclosure page for more on this.


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