Diet pill delirium

Sophie Louise Poulsen looks at diet pills and issues around self-image.

By | Fri 27 Jul 2012

Growing up an overweight teenager in Thailand, where most Thai girls are skinny and petite, hasn’t done wonders to my self-esteem. I wondered if there was something wrong with me; some genetic curse I could blame, some mistake I had made and karma decided to plump up my thighs. But then I wondered…Maybe there was something wrong with the girls who had managed to maintain a size zero their entire lives. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being able to fit into clothes designed for children, but there is something wrong with the way they go about trying to achieve that minimal number on a scale. After all, at my age, that is all weight is: a number on a scale.

Make Me Beautiful

I asked a few Thai friends of mine what they think makes someone beautiful. All of them more or less responded white skin, big eyes, and skinny. I asked Rin, a Thai beauty-obsessed teenage girl, why this was considered beautiful. “Being beautiful has to do with rank,” she explained. “The more beautiful you are, the more attention you get and the more successful you are in life.” This has become our way of thinking, and there is no problem with that. We also need to understand, however, that there’s nothing wrong with carrying those few extra pounds. Hell, make it a hundred pounds. It’s still beautiful.

From different dieting techniques to eating disorders, we have stumbled upon a new diet fad to obsess over: diet pills. With an increasing interest in health and appearance due to the influence of the media and social changes, diet pills have soared through the market, from ‘all-natural’ beauty pills to detrimental amphetamine-based pills. Diet pills have experienced rising demand amongst younger consumers, but also older women and even men, in some rare cases.

Even if you do end up losing a few kilos to diet pills, they are dangerous, especially those derived from amphetamine. They have a variety of adverse side effects, from mild headaches and nausea to severe psychosis and hallucinations. People are aware of these side effects, yet they still take them? Why? Is the power of looking beautiful too appealing? Are we being influenced by soap stars’ and celebrities’ supposedly good looks? Do they not believe the side effects exist? Or worse, do they simply not care? The answer: all of the above.

A Girl Walks into a Diet Clinic

In May 2011, a 19-year old straight-A student who had just secured a spot at Maha Sarakham University’s faculty of pharmacy died from heart failure after losing 20 kilos from taking diet pills for two months. She wanted to lose weight to be able to fit into the university’s uniform. Here’s the kicker: at her original weight of 65 kg, she probably would have.

The police investigated the pharmacy that sold her the pills, but the public were never informed of what kind of pills they were. They most likely contained a derivative of amphetamine, such as ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phentermine. These are stimulants used as appetite suppressants, concentration aids, and decongestants, with side effects such as rapid heart rate, hallucinations and hypertension. They work on the hypothalamus portion of the brain to stimulate the adrenal glands to release norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger that signals a fight-or-flight response, and reduce hunger. It also works outside the brain to release epinephrine or adrenaline causing fat cells to break down stored fat, but the principal basis of efficacy is hunger reduction. Compared to binge eating and full-on starving yourself, I didn’t think hunger reduction was such a bad idea…Until I learned of the side effects; severe skin reactions, paranoid psychosis, insomnia, and seizures don’t sound all too appealing.

I spoke to Siri, a middle-aged Thai woman who experienced sleeplessness, hypertension, thirstiness, and dizziness while taking diet pills. She was distressed about her weight, reminiscing over her glory days, when she was more athletic. Her friends suggested she visit a clinic. She was given a set of four pills. She insisted they were legal, but could not even tell me what the pills were called. I asked her if she did any research on the pills beforehand, to make sure they were safe. “No,” she responded. “If the doctor thought this would help, then I trusted his judgment.”

On her first day of taking them, she couldn’t sleep. Her head pounded as she felt more and more lightheaded. She got thirsty. Food tasted bad. Despite these sickening side effects, she continued taking them for one week, going back to the clinic for refills, as accessible as the soft drink refills at Pizza Company. Was it worth it? No. “I didn’t lose any weight,” Siri explained. “I looked haggard and washed out, so I decided to stop taking them.” They weren’t ‘working their magic,’ as some diet pills deceivingly promise. She immediately felt better and refreshed. Alive again. She put on weight.

A Flaw in the Law

In the UK and Australia, amphetamine-based pills are prescription only drugs, meaning they may be lawfully supplied within a registered pharmacy while a pharmacist is present. According to the Thai drug law, amphetamine is a first class drug, considered serious, along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. It is illegal to use, possess, or sell. So why, and how, are these diet pills on the market?

A Thai pharmacist explained to me that “pharmacies in Thailand need special licences to sell pure amphetamine and ephedrine because the side effects are too serious. It is okay, though, to mix them into homemade diet pills.” (Is it me, or does “homemade diet pills” sound slightly akin to ‘backyard opium den?’) So amphetamine is acceptable as long as it’s combined with another drug, most likely something of far less potency so as to let the amphetamine “do its thing.”

All You Need is Natural

So what about the pills that do not contain amphetamine? The self-proclaiming all-natural, safe, ‘healthy’ diet pills? Do they actually work? One can be very tempted to believe so, with winning slogans, flashing colours, and the promise of looking beautiful and slim forevermore. Michelle Ring, a fitness trainer from the UK, tells me otherwise.

“Herbal doesn’t mean good; a lot of chemicals have plant extracts. The body is a well-oiled machine, like a car. Putting chemicals in it is like putting sugar in a petrol tank,” she says. “Any diet pill is a money-marketing quick fix.”

Browsing around the internet, it was easy to find ‘natural’ diet pills sold in Thailand. Lishou Slimming Capsules, for example, claim to be made up of ‘natural herbal components’ used in traditional Chinese medicine practices. Lishou has an active ingredient of Tuckahoe, a plant that has proven to relieve hunger pains through increasing levels of serotonin, which acts as a signal telling the body if it is full. Lishou Slimming Capsules “inhibit fat synthesis, accelerate introduction of fatty acids into cholesterol, enhance lipolysis activity, and promote bile acid enterohepatic circulation, thereby strengthening the fat by bile excreted from the faeces.” Wow.

Reading this for the first time, I was captivated by the wonders the capsules could do for your body. Then I read it again. And again. And I realised…I have no idea what any of this means. What is lipolysis activity? Bile acid enterohepatic circulation? I was so taken by the words themselves, I forgot to think of their meaning. These promotions use obscure language that we don’t understand, so we think they’re telling the truth. Just like Siri, I blindly trusted the product and the seller.

The Future of Diet Pills

Diet pills are bad (hopefully, you understand this by now). I mentioned before that if people are aware of the horrific side effects, then why do they still take them? I have reached the conclusion that we are far too obsessed with the way we look. The power of looking beautiful is too appealing. Skinny Thai models, seemingly unblemished with skin as white as snow, are slapped all over billboards, commercials, and television, making it impossible for the rest of us average-lookers to escape media’s forceful grasp. There is a solution: we need to exercise more discipline and self-control. First, we need to be aware of media’s dangerous influence. Second, we need to ignore this and assert individuality. Instead of following trends, create them.

So as much as I would like to be slim and look like most of the girls around me, I’ve realised that I honestly am not too bothered about it. Sure, it’d be great to fit into that gorgeous hip-hugging dress at Zara, but I’d like to be able to sleep well at night and experience reality as it is rather than lie awake at night in a sweat, torturing myself and my body, living in an false reality. Because, in the end, it’s not worth it.