Love, depression and Big Pharma

Sunday , February 18, 2018 - 4:00 AM3 comments

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

Now that we've made it past the middle of February, I thought back on last week — specifically the day on which we celebrate the most mysterious and joyous human emotion: love. Where does love come from?

I thought about the earworm made famous by The Clovers, “Love Potion No. 9.” The song was recorded before I was born, but it wasn’t a magical elixir that brought me into this world. Despite all the hype and hope, humanity has yet to come up with a "love drug." My parents fell in love the good old-fashioned way, no potions required. My mom flirted a little, my dad responded, and the gruff-but-shy history teacher and the lovely and charming home economics teacher ended up in Cupid's crosshairs.

So what is it, exactly that causes two people to fall in love? Is it possible for medical science to replicate the magical chemistry our brains need to fall blissfully in love? The short answer: Nope. Although oxytocin and vasopressin are measurable in a person's system, along with the endorphin surges, the ethereal thing we call "love" can’t be quantified by medical science.

If the neurobiology for love was understood, don’t you think we would be seeing nightly commercials from Eli Lilly and Pfizer? Especially now, since that little blue bill is available in a generic brand.

Pharmaceutical companies have been selling us pills for years now on the premise that depression and anxiety are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This is not true. It is a myth, created to sell drugs. It is no more true than if I told you I had patented “Love Potion No. 9” and that it works. The research on depression shows that like love, the pathophysiology of depression is currently not fully understood. On the National Institute of Health website, you can find charming studies like this: “Pathophysiology of Depression: Do We Have Any Solid Evidence of Interest to Clinicians?”

But what about all the antidepressants people take? Keep in mind, lobotomies were still a common practice just 70 years ago. Lobotomies consisted of an ice pick shoved through the eye socket into the brain. In 1941, President Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, had the procedure done. It left her incapacitated and institutionalized until her death in 2005. This was not a particularly therapeutic approach.

Historically, medical science has struggled with the brain because our brains are so different than any other organs. Our heart pumps blood; our digestive tract processes food; our bones and musculature keep us upright; and our skin keeps it all contained. But the brain has a different job. It regulates our interactions with the turbulent outside world, then has our body respond accordingly.

From the vantage point of how a brain operates, the ineffectiveness of a love potion starts to make sense. You can’t fall in love from a pill, because love requires things outside your body — most important, the object of your desire. No potion can manufacture the beloved.

If you're depressed because of the loss of a loved one, there is no pill that will bring them back. Taking a pill for anxiety over financial issues will not stabilize the outer world for you. Depression and anxiety, just like love, are the brain’s ways of telling us on what is going on in the outside world. Any view that looks only to the internal workings of the individual is myopic at best, and horribly flawed at worst.

Again, I find myself drawn back to a fairly consistent theme in my columns. The thirst for corporate profit does not always coincide with the greater good. We’ve seen it before. The National Institute of Health published an article on one particular drug’s marketing from 1930-1953: “Well aware of these [side effect] concerns—and their impact on [drug] sales—the companies devised advertising and marketing strategies to (1) reassure the public of the competitive health advantages of their brands, (2) recruit physicians as crucial allies in the ongoing process of marketing [the drug], and (3) maintain the salience of individual clinical judgments about the health effects of [the drug] in the face of categorical scientific findings.”

The drug? Tobacco.

As a society, it took us almost 90 years to collectively and aggressively go after tobacco manufacturers for the havoc they wreaked on our physical, emotional and economic health. Public opinion eventually changed, which led to lawsuits and massive settlements, but Big Tobacco is still with us.

Big Pharma has adopted Big Tobacco’s playbook. Commercials reassure us of the competitive health advantages drugs provide. Physicians are recruited for marketing and prescribing the drugs. And the scientific finding that we are not dealing with a chemical imbalance is ignored as costly drugs that have dangerous side effects and can cause long term dependence are sold hand over fist, while the underlying social and situational causes of depression and anxiety are largely ignored.

Pharmaceutical companies have sold us "happy potions" for decades now, but depression continues to increase. Opioids are an epidemic. Yet the drug we need most as a society isn’t in a pill.

It’s love.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.