Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Industrialized Alkaloids

What do caffeine, cocaine, nicotine,  and morphine have in common? They all come from plants in which they form a relatively small part of plant tissues. The psychoactive effects of ingesting these molecules have caused humanity to harvest them long before anything like civilization dawned. The first three help us manage stress by acting simultaneously as stimulants and as relaxants; the last, along with codeine, alleviates pain. All belong to the chemical family of alkaloids; thus the molecules feature ring-formations in which nitrogen is dominant but linked to other elements.

Recently Brigitte and I were talking about nicotine, and the subject of people in the Andes chewing coca leaves came up. Didn’t that help those living in high altitudes where oxygen is thin? That got me to thinking about the sometimes disastrous consequences of human ingenuity. These plants were used in pre-industrial times—indeed as some are still used today, like coca leaves still are, like coffee still is—in a form that does very little harm. Egyptian doctors used to tell their patients to eat poppy seeds to lessen pain. I recall my mother telling us that Hungarian peasant women used to tie poppy seeds in a bit of cloth and give it their babies to lick in order to keep them quiet; these were ordinary poppies, not the opium variety, but all poppies contain the drug. The American Indians chewed tobacco or smoked it in ritual settings—but that smoke was far too harsh for inhalation. The strongest of these drugs, morphine, was the first to be industrialized as smoked opium—and thus it began to harm its addicts. Extracted and purified cocaine is also a wildly addictive drug—but it requires highly developed industrial processing to extract it in concentrated form. And in the case of tobacco, its transformation into cigarettes is the chief reason why lung cancer ranks so high as a killer. Cigarettes are mild, the inhalation of the smoke is easy—and the nicotine reaches the brain almost instantaneous and thus releases hormones and neurotransmitters in such magnitudes that the effects are very rapid and highly desirable.  

In some areas, a lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing; chew on a leaf and ponder this while the coffee brews. A lot of knowledge mixed with a highly commercialized culture—now that becomes really dangerous.


  1. So, I guess, everything in moderation?

    1. Everything as close to Nature as possible. Let us by no means advance to cloning things, even if they promise to heal us. A few million years of evolution surely produced a certain equilibrium...