The making of a hypochondriac


The making of a hypochondriac


Five tall glasses filled with coloured liquids stood on her table like an art installation. The deep green juice of bitter gourd, chia seeds in water making a weak white liquid, a milky white mix of psyllium husk and water, a brown yellow concoction of honey, lime juice and warm water and Giloyi juice or the heart-leaved moonseed drink.

The “her” I refer to is a happy, healthy 44-year-old hypochondriac, who works in an insurance company in the US. Besides these drinks and her routine prescription for blood pressure, she takes Vitamin E and Vitamin B12 supplements, fish oil capsules and one calcium tablet a day. Her vanity kit contains pain-relieving gels, “light” sleeping pills, pads for tired feet and a fiercely smelling balm for headaches instead of lipsticks, blush-on and eye pencils.

“Happy, healthy hypochondriac” sounds like an amusing caricature and a “type” we all may be familiar with, but such a person isn’t just the creation of a neurotic mind. My friend, for instance, is a willing health victim just as there are fashion victims who continuously fall prey to changing trends. How a country frames its commercial strategies around health issues, positions television commercials on health and codes the visual appeal of supermarket shelves selling health and fitness aids impacts what people think and buy. Both the accessories of health and its broader holistic idea.

One of the first things I did on a recent visit to the US was to visit a large pharmacy for a nutraceutical supplement for cholesterol control. Called PreLipid, it was advised by my cardiologist in India so that I could avoid statins. I have always lost myself in a shopper’s fog in American supermarkets, but this was the first time I had waded into the medicines aisle—finding it as awe-inspiring in stock and variety as cosmetics, candies or household goods. I gaped at the dozens of illness-defying temptations. Vitamins and supplements, pain relievers for toothaches to capsules for better eyesight, gels for mouth sores to gels for skin tightening; aids to make high heels more comfortable to assorted concoctions for diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol management and diseases that I wasn’t so familiar with. Wow.

Back in the apartment, even as I soaked in news television debates dissecting the baffling (disillusioning for me) popularity of presidential hopeful Donald Trump, my ears kept perking up to excessive fear-mongering about health that American TV is filled with.

Every second commercial on news or entertainment channels is about a health issue with a proposed cure. Prostrate problems in men and how to avoid surgery, knee supports for arthritic legs, anti allergens for rashes, counselling for cancer survival, menopause, hair loss, weight loss, sleeplessness, childlessness. Gosh.

The consumerist economy in the US aggressively invests in turning people into health freaks. Or happy hypochondriacs like my friend. That’s not the case in Asian countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia or cities such as Hong Kong or Dubai, where the markets are equally buoyant and the merchandise endless. Yet, they don’t mount health aids or pharmaceuticals as desirable consumer goods that are hard to resist or health checks that are sold like vacations. The commercialization of medicine is neither as luscious nor as addictive as in the US.

In India, TV commercials are still largely focused on acquiring more and better things: they hawk a better you via a better life for you. Sleek new cars, secure insurance policies, appliances for safe drinking water, sanitary products for women and dozens of creams, cosmetics, coffee-teas, detergents and home delivery services. In local supermarkets such as Big Bazaar, nutraceuticals and other health-related products are not the most attractively packaged nor are our stand-alone pharmacies enticingly stocked.

The question here is not of morals or of a holier-than-thou approach in consumer behaviour but of how a society gets shaped by its markets, or the overall culture of health. It is also about the awareness that essential differences in market mentalities can teach us. Indians are fixated with home remedies and kitchen concoctions that they believe cure everything from dengue to arthritis even if nothing has been scientifically proved. But then, nothing has been proved about the cholesterol supplements I was hunting for in the US either.

One of the reasons behind the booming success of yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved Ltd, an Indian fast-moving consumer goods company, is the way it has put India’s beliefs in ayurvedic remedies into bottles. At the same time, it underlines our growing need for health based fear-mongering. Is this fear a sign of a developing economy? Whether it is about harmless things like aloe vera gel, herbal toothpastes, pain-relieving balms or highly suspicious packages for diseases, including one for multiple sclerosis (God save neurosurgical research), the link between commerce and disease is becoming increasingly unhealthy.

As a potential hypochondriac. I prefer the American waffle-flavoured toothpaste and crème brulee Vaseline to some unverified decoction that promises to cure heart disease.