THE BLOG
10/15/2014 01:15 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

How Big Pharma Made Us Hypochondriacs

KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images

As I write this, I don't feel good. I have strep throat. My tonsils are like angry tangerines. My doctor here in Israel took a culture then prescribed an antibiotic. It's helping somehow, I guess. But not with the pain or fever. Badly I want to dunk my face in a gallon of cherry-flavored Chloraseptic, trust me, I do. This ginger, lemon, honey tea I've been drinking all day has done nothing but made me a frequent visitor to the bathroom. I want to feel better yesterday.

Instead, I have to wait it out. And in doing so, think about my relationship with my body and with being ill. I'm frustrated. I'm busy. I am in pain. I have things to do. But isn't being ill part of the texture of life? Isn't this the deal? How often have I thought about my sturdy tonsils and the job they do unless they are howling in pain? How can I appreciate feeling good unless I sometimes also feel bad? Is two or three days really that interminable?

If you are a typical American, your bathroom cupboard is a veritable forest of half-used, cherry-hued crusty bottles and boxes of OTCs -- over the counter medicines. Tums, Pepto Bismol, DayQuil, NyQuil, Advil, you name it. Every possible discomfort is covered.

According to this 2002 report by the National Survey of Consumers and Health Professionals, "more Americans are using more types of nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines than ever before. Once consisting of a relatively small number of medications, OTC medicines now account for the majority of all medications used in the United States, including many that were once available only by prescription."

In my adopted country of Israel, I was and continue to be deeply annoyed by the fact that if I have a simple headache, I must stand in line and discuss it with the pharmacist. Heartburn? Pharmacist. Gas? Wart on my toe? Every single one of these mundane and embarrassing maladies must be discussed with a pharmacist. That I cannot walk into any CVS and buy bread, milk, a copy of People Magazine and a bottle of Tums makes me crazy.

I'm an American. If I don't feel good, I want to feel better -- STAT. Gimme that pill. Being an expat, I often muse upon how I came by my values and beliefs.

Israelis have long been interested in homeopathy and naturopathy, owing to their early progressive, socialist, kibbutznik roots and large numbers of European and Eastern European immigrants for whom homeopathy was (and is) de rigueur and home remedies were easy, effective and affordable.

While prescription only drugs were re-classified as non-prescription drugs hand over fist in the past two decades in the United States, Israel lagged behind in this transformation. To older Israelis, being able to get something for a headache without a prescription is still slightly novel.

Israel legislated that OTCs must be located not on but behind the counter some time ago, in order to discourage Israelis from learning to reach for them as easily and often as Americans do. While the results of this experiment have been mixed, given that Israelis are more comfortable with home remedies in the first place and given that here "over the counter" does not mean next to the shampoo, the larger take away here, the bit that I find very encouraging, is that the government legislated for the people, not the pharmaceutical companies. Do you really need a slug of mysteriously pink Pepto Bismol? Or a mug of hot water and lemon?

Traditionally highly blunt people who do not suffer fools or babies gladly, Israelis find it bizarre that to be the slightest bit ill is any kind of a thing. Peel a potato, put it on the bruise. Cabbage leaf. Chicken soup. A slug of Arak, worst case.

While to an American these home remedies may seem primitive, most of the time they actually work. Our immigrant American ancestors from all over the globe brought with them a bevy of home remedies for ills large and small. Messy, smelly, slower working -- but effective. Over time, we distanced ourselves from poultices and teas. They were backward and homegrown. No, we want the cherry flavored syrup or the mentholated, petroleum based rub.

The question is not why Americans do not reach for simple, cheap home remedies more predominantly, the question is who made us feel this was an ignorant thing to do? Give you three guesses. Can't figure it out? Here's a handy list of the top 50 pharmaceutical companies in the world, including total revenues that will make your eyes pop out of your skull.

It's not an entirely EVIL EMPIRE thing -- the repackaging of home remedies into pills and syrups was progress -- welcome to the 20th century! Remedies could be tested, codified, and made more convenient. America is nothing if it isn't a nation of innovation and convenience. Bigger, better, faster, more!

The FDA was established in 1906, ostensibly to save us from snake oil salesman and unproven, even dangerous remedies. No doubt, lives were saved. But it hasn't always been successful. While in 2006, pseudoephedrine-based OTCs (Sudafed to you and me) were pulled from shelves and put behind the counter, owing to their pivotal use in the manufacture of methamphetamines, the war on meth still rages.

Because capitalism never misses an opportunity, American and other corporations selling "natural remedies" make billions hand over fist as well, peddling products that are, in many cases unproven and in more than a few, genuinely fake.

It is not a reach to wonder if the turf war between the FDA and the "health food" industry is one that does not fundamentally value the health outcomes for Americans. Watch The Dallas Buyer's Club for an unsavory peek into the doings of the FDA when AIDS was sweeping the gay community in America.

The way illness is treated in the United States is ghastly, ranging from costly, inadequate insurance to cheap, over the counter medicines for everything under the sun. It has turned us into a nation of willfully ignorant drug and convenience addicted wimps, buying treatments for symptoms that we don't like and medications for illnesses we don't have, padding the pockets of big pharma along the way.

We have become a nation for whom illness is anathema. We are terrified of diseases we probably won't get; the Ebola scare is sweeping the nation. It was SARS before that. And the H1N1 flu epidemic before that -- and so on. Our sense of proportionality, of the actual impact of illness, is way out of whack.

From where I live now, I am thankful that I cannot reach for a spray or lozenge that will make it go away. No -- I'm kidding -- I'd kill for that. But in the absence of that easy fix, I have a new perspective and appreciation for my body and its frailty. But I am also struck by how easily -- a headache, a stomach ache -- we have been lulled by corporations very glad to sell us a cherry-flavored syrup that we don't really need by telling us that to do otherwise is backward.