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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Perpetual Pill

     Laxatives, purgatives, or aperients are substances that loosen stools and increase bowel movements. They are used to treat and/or prevent constipation. 
     Laxatives vary as to how they work and the side effects they may have. 
Lubricant Laxatives: These make stool slippery, so it moves through the intestine more easily and quickly. They typically take six to eight hours to work. 
Emollient Laxatives: These stool softeners cause fats and water to penetrate to the stool, making it move more easily through the digestive system. They typically take 12 to 72 hours to work. 
Stimulant Laxatives: These stimulate the lining of the intestine to propel the stool along. They provide very quick relief but should only be used occasionally.
Osmotic and Hyperosmolar Laxatives: These draw fluids into the intestine from the surrounding tissues, making stool softer and easier to pass. They may take 30 minutes to six hours to work, depending on the type. 

     Laxative abuse happens when a person takes higher or more frequent doses of laxatives than are recommended. Abusing these medicines is dangerous and can result in serious or life-threatening complications, such as: electrolyte and mineral imbalances, severe dehydration, laxative dependence, chronic constipation, internal organ damage and increased colon cancer risk.
     Some people take laxatives to lose weight, but research has shown they are not effective at and they can be dangerous when used for this purpose. Any weight loss that's achieved by a laxative-induced bowel movement contains little food, fat, or calories. The weight returns when fluids are drunk. 
     Some people give laxatives to their dogs to relieve constipation, but because of the risks and side effects, a veterinarian should be consulted. 


Antimony is a chemical element that appears as a lustrous gray metalloid. Antimony compounds have been known since ancient times and were powdered for use as medicine and cosmetics, often known by the Arabic name, kohl. 
     Metallic antimony was also known, but it was erroneously identified as lead upon its discovery. The earliest known description of the metal in the West was written in 1540 by Vannoccio Biringuccio. 
     China is the largest producer of antimony and its compounds. The industrial methods for refining antimony are roasting and reduction with carbon or direct reduction of stibnite with iron. The largest applications for metallic antimony is an alloy with lead and tin and the lead antimony plates in lead–acid batteries. Antimony compounds are prominent additives for chlorine and bromine-containing fire retardants found in many commercial and domestic products. 
     Antimony also has an interesting medical history. It had a reputation both as a wonder drug and as a lethal poison. The story of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun is full of digressions, such as a lengthy one on the medical uses of antimony and the mention of the Perpetual Pill. 
     Some researchers believe that Mozart died as a result of his treatment with antimony. Death resulting from ingesting antimony is agonizing. 
     They used to sell a little metal pill that lasted forever, but around the time of the Age of Enlightenment people quit using it. Also known as the Age of Reason, it was a philosophical movement that took place primarily in Europe and, later, in North America, during the late 17th and early 18th century. Its participants thought they were illuminating human intellect and culture after the dark Middle Ages. 
     The Perpetual Pill was used to treat constipation. Why was it called the Perpetual Pill? The Pills was used by those that had what was referred to as a “twisting of the guts” or “Miserere mei” as it was sometimes called. Today, in television ads, they call it “irregularity”, i.e. constipation. 
     If one was suffering from what folks in the Middle Ages called the bad humors, they took an antimony pill, waited until their guts exploded, fished the pill out of the toilet, washed it off and it was ready to be used again...and again and again. How could a pill survive without being digested? It was made of metal, in this case, antimony. 
     Of course in the Middle Ages they didn’t realize it was toxic; all they knew was that antimony was pretty good at evacuating the body. Its effect could be enhanced by drinking wine that had been left standing overnight in a cup made of antimony. This resulted in the antimony reacting with tartaric acid in the wine to form antimony tartrate, a compound that induces vomiting. They believed such purges treated various illnesses. 
     When Mozart came down with a mysterious illness, he was treated with “tartar emetic,” as antimony tartrate was called. What ailment he suffered from is unknown, but he died within two weeks. His symptoms of intense vomiting, fever, swollen abdomen and swollen limbs are consistent with antimony poisoning, but he also suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood, a condition that may have led to his death at a young age. 
     Mozart had always been sickly and it is well known that he had been often treated with antimony by his physicians and that he dosed himself when he had the mulligrubs. Mozart actually believed he was being poisoned; he thought his musical rival Antonio Salieri was trying to do him in.
      Back in the 1990s a volatile compound of antimony known as stibine was accused of being responsible for crib death. The theory was that it was produced from antimony oxide added as a flame retardant to polyvinylchloride sheets. A fungus found in mattresses supposedly made this possible. The theory has now been dismissed because neither the fungus, nor levels of antimony in babies’ blood could be correlated with crib death. 
     More recently Greenpeace created a stir with a booklet entitled “A Little Story About The Monsters In Your Closet.” The subtitle was: “Study finds hazardous chemicals in children’s clothing.” 
     One that the Greenpeace study detected was antimony trioxide, present in all fabrics that have polyester as a component. That was no surprise because antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst in the production of polyester as well as a flame retardant. And it is true that antimony trioxide can be described as presenting a hazard. Hazard is the potential of a substance to cause harm without taking into account extent or type of exposure. 
     Inhalation of antimony compounds in an occupational setting can be a problem, and antimony trioxide has been classified as “suspected of causing cancer via inhalation.” But this is not relevant for the trace amounts found in fabrics. Migration out of the fabric and subsequent absorption has been extensively investigated and the amounts that are encountered are well below the established limits. The same applies to the trace amounts that leach out of the polyester bottles used for water and other beverages.   
     Antimony does not occur in nature in its metallic form, so where did Middle Age physicians get it? Antimony has to be smelted from its ore, antimony sulfide, also known as stibnite, a substance that has been known for thousands of years. Jezebel in the Bible is said to have used it to darken her eyebrows and stibnite was the main ingredient in “kohl” used by ancient Egyptian women in a type of mascara. If you visit the Louvre you can see a 5000 year old vase that is made of almost pure antimony. 
     Today, neither metallic antimony nor its compounds have a medical use, although up to the 1970s, antimony compounds were used to treat parasitic infections like schistosomiasis. They killed the parasites, but sometimes they also killed the patient. 
     Up to the early twentieth century, tartar emetic was used as a (ineffective) remedy for alcohol abuse. The New England Journal of Medicine once reported a case of a man whose wife tried to cure him of his alcoholic habit by secretly putting tartar emetic into his orange juice. Chest pains and liver toxicity were the result and after a trip to the emergency room he survived. For whatever reason he did quit drinking. 
    When it came to treating mental illness, treatments have ranged from throwing people into asylums and forgetting about them to strapping them on whirling chairs chairs and dosing them with laxatives. A lot of underlying factors in mental disorders remain mysteries, but they are not caused by the "humors of the body being imbalanced" such as blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm or by pressure building up inside the skull that needs to be released through a hole. 
     Patients in a mental institutions in the 1800s were often fed a diet of laxatives and "mineral tonics" to keep their bowels constantly emptying, and emetics, to make therm puke. The idea was to purge the body of “impurities.” 

Louis Armstrong and Laxatives

      Armstrong's weight fluctuated dramatically because he enjoyed eating. But, he also enjoyed dieting, sometimes losing as much as 100 pounds. Armstrong often employed laxatives and antacids as dietary aids because his mother instilled in him the practice of cleansing his system. 
     For years, Armstrong drank a product called Pluto Water, a spring water claimed to have laxative properties due to its high mineral content. In 1953, Armstrong's weight reached the highest it had ever been and a popular dietitian named Gayelord Hauser was endorsing an herbal product called Swiss Kriss which you can still but at places like Walgreens and Walmart. 

     Armstrong got hooked on it and two years later he had lost 100 pounds which he attributed to using Swiss Kriss and Bisma Rex, an antacid. After being interviewed and telling how he shed so much weight demand for his diet skyrocketed and he had it printed on cards to mail back to fans. Later he mailed fans a card with a photo of him sitting on a toilet framed by a keyhole), headlined by the words "Swiss Krissly" and a sample packet of his favorite laxative. 
     He so strongly believed in the product that he once spoke at Stanford University on the subject, and mentioned it to President Dwight Eisenhower when they met.

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