Serotonin Pills in the Media

March 27, 2008 at 5:54 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science, Big Pharma, Media, Recreational Drugs, Remedies, Supplements) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Introduction: The way different sectors are reported in the media is interesting. Take serotonin pills as an example. There are several pills that can affect levels of serotonin and examples include: illegal recreational drugs such as Ecstasy tablets (methylene deoxy-methamphetamine); pharmaceutical products including SSRIs (such as fluoxetine and citalopram hydrobromide); and dietary supplements like 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan). I took a look on Google News at the reporting of these various pills and decided to use these search terms: MDMA; SSRI; 5-HTP. Will the reports be negative, neutral or positive?

Results: The first page of results for MDMA came up with: a Lancashire Evening Telegraph report of the accidental death of a plasterer who had ecstasy in his bloodstream (negative/neutral – it seems a faulty window was more to blame than the E); a Times story about using recreational drugs to treat various conditions (positive); an icWales report on a coroner’s verdict (negative); a crime report referring to manufacture of MDMA (negative – but only because he got caught!); the Times covering the same coroner’s verdict as icWales in link three (negative); a report that the highs are higher and lows lower for women on E (broadly negative – more focus on the lows than the highs); a report of a Polish man who had been found hanged and whose bloodstream contained 500mg MDMA (negative); the next link didn’t really seem to be news; the next story was about crystal meth and E being danger drugs and the invention of ecstasy antibodies (negative); and the final report is a repeat of the story in link four. One positive story. Which will be no surprise to fans of Bill Hicks.

For SSRIs I had to ignore the three stories on the first page that were about a company called ‘Silver Standard Resources Inc.’, but picked the first three stories on page two instead: Zoloft made girl suicidal (negative); UK demands SSRI data (negative); SSRI-resistant depression (broadly negative); Pregnant women fear they will be forced to take danger drugs (negative); another report on SSRI-resistant depression (broadly negative); SSRIs for depressed HIV+ patients (positive); another report on SSRI-resistant depression (broadly negative); SSRI shocker spawns calls for reform (negative); another report on SSRI-resistant depression (broadly negative); Were the benefits of SSRIs exaggerated? (negative). One positive story. Lots of negative stories. Partly because bad news sells, I guess – but maybe this is also partly due to the negative views held by a lot of people (including journalists and editors) regarding “Big Pharma”.

Searching for 5-HTP only brings up three hits: a press release for a company selling 5HTP (very positive – obviously); a story from Natural News, ‘Finding Happiness the Natural Way’ (positive); and the ‘Earth Times’ has another press-release (positive). Three positive stories. Not a single negative story – probably because there is not a single actual news report on 5-HTP.

5HTP was so disappointing that I tried Google News for tryptophan and had a little more luck. The first page contained three positive stories (more than I could find for MDMA or SSRIs); two negative reports (actually letters in the Salt Lake Tribune) that referred to EMS (eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome) and the other stories were either neutral (a single irrelevant report) or simply referring to tryptophan in relation to debunking the “turkey makes you sleepy” myth (broadly negative/neutral). Only two negative media reports for a substance that not only can affect something as important as serotonin levels, but also has been associated with a number of deaths.

Waffle: The media seem to be deeply concerned by the serious issues around psychoactive substances. Unless they are being sold as health supplements. Pharmaceuticals bad. Recreational drugs bad. Supplements good – even if they affect the same neurotransmitter as those naughty pharmaceuticals and recreationals. Should anybody share the responsibility for this state of affairs? Probably. Media nutritionists like Patrick Holford proclaim the virtues of 5-HTP and tryptophan – while at the same time demonising anti-depressants. He wrote a book called Food is Better Medicine than Drugs and sends out emails to his mailing list attacking anti-depressants (but only the ones manufactured by Big Pharma – if Big Altie makes an anti-depressant then it’s fine). He even wrote in one email that “I invite you to read Food Is Better Medicine Than Drugs to find out more about how you can use food and nutrients to address many health issues – including depression – without the risk of side effects, withdrawal or even death.” So, according to Patrick, pharmaceuticals will cause side-effects, withdrawal and death – whereas 5HTP is a cute fluffy bunny of a food supplement and does not carry a similar risk (of side-effects, withdrawal or death). Some of the text in the email I looked at seemed rather familiar. It was – Holford Watch have covered PH’s views on anti-depressants here. While you’re there, you may want to read more details of Patrick’s views – there’s plenty of material. If you want to read more about SSRIs, Pyjamas in Bananas recently wrote a whole series of blog posts on SSRIs (link).

EDIT 02/02/2010: new post on boosting serotonin.


  1. Dr* T said,

    Interesting stuff, JDC! A very astute angle.

  2. coracle said,

    Nice approach, but I was wondering, is there an objective measure of positive and negative? How were these articles assessed? We need to see your methods!

  3. jdc325 said,

    Coracle – I don’t know if your comment is entirely serious or whether it’s slightly tongue in cheek, but I really should have known someone would pick me up on that! What I did was to read the articles and look for references to positive or negative health effects of the drugs – I should really have done a word-count on positive vs negative statements and then made a chart. Like the Black Triangle one for MMR media coverage.

    Articles that reported the drug in question being linked to suicide or other harm were reported as being negative; articles that referred to possible health benefits of the drug in question were reported as positive; articles that contained equally negative and positive references were reported as being neutral. I didn’t specify key words as being positive or negative so I’m afraid it’s all fairly subjective.

    The tricky ones were the SSRI-resistant depression reports – the patients were switched from one SSRI to another and had CBT added to their treatment. So an SSRI on its own was unsuccessful, but a new SSRI in combination with CBT led to improvements.

  4. Holford, Nutritionism and the Mainstream Media « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science said,

    […] JDC takes a more specific example, focusing on media coverage of serotonin pills: Media nutritionists like Patrick Holford proclaim the virtues of 5-HTP and tryptophan – while at the same time demonising anti-depressants. He wrote a book called Food is Better Medicine than Drugs and sends out emails to his mailing list attacking anti-depressants (but only the ones manufactured by Big Pharma – if Big Altie makes an anti-depressant then it’s fine). […]

  5. coracle said,

    JDC, it was rather tongue in cheek, but I was also genuinely interested. I think it is worth while analysing media coverage of medical science, both academically and as a bit of a laugh. But at the same time I wonder how fair any of the approaches can be.

  6. jdc said,

    Thanks for your comments Coracle. As I have said, the way I listed articles as +/- was subjective. I think there is an interesting point to be made here re the different treatment that E, 5-HTP and 5-HT reuptake inhibitors receive in the media. It’s just that I haven’t made it.

  7. ben goldacre said,


  8. ben goldacre said,

    also worth mentioning the paper looking at how the media bought into big pharma’s fantasies about serotonin and depression with respect to SSRIs:

    i think the publics’ beliefs about these kinds of reductionist explanations for mood are a really rich vein for proper quantitative research.

  9. jdc325 said,

    SSRIs bad, Ecstasy bad, Herbal Serotonin Pills good. There’s another ecstasy story in the news at the moment:

    There’s a post on DrugMonkey that I spotted on the Holford Watch miniblog. It relates to coverage of an “ecstasy death” and calls for more detail to be made available.

  10. More Serotonin Stuff, Patrick Holford and Depression « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] The media simply don’t run news stories that refer to 5-HTP as being risky, as I’ve written about recently, yet they have always been happy enough to promote (or allow columnists to promote) […]

  11. duncan said,

    what bollocks!

  12. duncan said,

    i love how GPs handout SSRIs to people without actually findig out if theyhave low serotonin levels. What monkeys

  13. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for commenting duncan. I must admit, I’m not sure what your problem is with this post. Could you possibly explain the issues you have with what I have written?

  14. duncan said,

    I dont have problem with the post, I found it interesting.

  15. jdc325 said,

    OK. It was the “what bollocks” comment that confused me.

  16. Why Write About Alternative Medicine? Part One: The Media « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] 2008, I wrote a (frankly poor) blog post about serotonin pills in the media, pointing out that while articles about pharmaceutical or recreational pills claimed to positively […]

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