Is medication vegan? And can a vegan, in good conscience, take medication that’s not? This is a common question amongst new and experienced vegans alike.
Do you have dry skin? Do your eyes itch? Have back pain? Constipation? Can’t stop sh*#&ing? Can’t get it up? Gnarly toe fungus? Premature…y’know? Hair where you don’t want it? No hair where you do want it? Zits? Boils? Wrinkles? Digestive issues? Has your head come off? Well, you’re gonna need some drugs!
(Side effects of this post may include an awareness of factual truths, frustration at the current status quo in the medical field, increased brain activity, confidence in choosing your own medical treatment, the uncontrollable need hit the thumbs up (or down) button, peace of mind of knowing what you are ingesting, and….anal leakage.) [tweet this]
I get this question all the time: Is any medication vegan? And, if not, what’s a vegan to do when serious medical conditions arise? [tweet this]
Well first, let’s tackle whether or not medication is vegan. I’m not going to go into great depth on the subjects I’ve already covered in other videos and I’ve provided the links to all of them throughout this post as well as at the bottom with the other resources.
So, what makes medication not vegan? Well there are two main elements: one more direct and one more indirect. The direct reason is when animal products are within the medication itself, and the more indirect reason is the fact the medication was tested on animals.
Just what kind of animal parts are in your medicine cabinet? There’s a surprising array of potential options, but let’s focus on some of the more common ingredients.
Number one: gelatin
This is perhaps the ingredient most people are familiar with when it comes to medication. Gelatin is most often used as part of the capsule surrounding the medicine itself. And it’s not just in the capsules you can pull apart. Gelatin can also be an ingredient in tablets.
In case you’re not aware of what gelatin is and how it’s made–it’s…pretty gross. In short, gelatin is a protein obtained by boiling the skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones of animals with water at an aromatic facility called a rendering plant. Rendering plants are magical places where the leftovers and rejects of the meat industry as well as roadkill and diseased animals go to be boiled in water and have elements sucked out like gelatin, which is then put into your pudding, jello, pet food, shampoos, face masks, cosmetics, candies, marshmallows, cakes, ice cream, yogurts, some wines, photographic film; and yes, vitamins and medications.
Now there is such a thing as vegetable gelatin, called “agar agar,” which is seaweed-derived. Unfortunately, it’s often marked in ingredient lists simply as “gelatin,” making it difficult to ascertain the true source. You can always call a product’s 800 number and inquire to be sure.
Number two: lactose
This is probably the most common animal ingredient in medications. It’s used as a carrier, stabilizer, or to create bulk. Lactose, obviously, comes from dairy and is thus not vegan. Many medications from thyroid medicine to birth control pills contain lactose. I have a whole video on the vegan-ness of various birth control methods that you can reference for more in-depth coverage of that particular subject.
Number three: shellac.
Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It has many uses from sealing wood to making your nails super pretty, to coating your fruit–yes, sorry vegans, even your fruit may have animals in it–to making your pills all shiny.
Number four: Magnesium Stearate
Magnesium Stearate can be used as a preservative, lubricant, or to help two ingredients mix that normally blend. Like gelatin, Magnesium Stearate can come from either a plant or animal source, but it not often notated. When animal-derived, it is an ester of Magnesium and Stearic acid, which is sourced from the fat of cows, pigs, sheep, dogs or cats.
Number five: lots of other stuff
The list of weird animal ingredient in medication and food and, really everything we make, is mind-boggling. I really wonder why they do it at all. There’s everything from your pink and red pills and food getting their distinct colors from ground up pregnant beetles, called cochineal extract or carmine–long used in Starbuck’s strawberry Frappuccino, to anticoagulants like heparin created from the intestinal mucous membranes of pigs. For more on the insane and hidden ingredients in your food, see my oldie-but-goodie video post on the matter.
So that was just a super-quick rundown of some of the animal products that may be in your medicine cabinet.
Now let’s move onto the reason that all prescription medications are, in essence, not vegan, even when they don’t contain a drop of animal-derived ingredients. By law, at least in the United States, all medicine and medical procedures must be tested on animals. I have an entire series of video posts on the issue on medical testing on animals in which I discuss whether it’s effective and saves lives (spoiler alert- it is not and does not), why is still continues despite years of producing absolutely nothing viable (spoiler alert- money), how it actually harms humans–yes it’s not all about saving the animals (for some people)–and the preponderance of viable, and far more effective alternatives. Do check out those videos, they are a little before my editing got better, but the information is still solid and it’s a subject matter that is incredibly vital to be aware of in full.
So, what is a vegan to do in a world where many medications have animals in them and all are tested on animals?
Well, you may think, I’ll just go with non-prescription supplements. And in many cases you may be onto something when it comes to plant-based herbal treatments. However, beware, while prescription Synthroid, the most commonly used thyroid medication, contains lactose, many natural supplemental thyroid treatments contain the actual desiccated thyroid and adrenal glands of cows and pigs.
So what if you’re in grave need of medication? Say you have a debilitating genetic disease or perhaps you have schizophrenia or severe depression. Are we to take up our mantle of martyrdom in the name of the animals? Where do we draw the line of ethics and our own health and safety?
I’ll tell you where I stand on this. First, for preventable conditions, I say: prevent them. The vast majority of the medical care and medication in the US if not the world, is for preventable diseases. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity. you won’t have to take these prescriptions and treatments if you eat a healthy diet, exercise reasonably, reduce your stress levels, get enough sleep, et cetera. You can also look into alternative treatments: Herbal remedies or find a compounding pharmacy that can make your medications to your specifications so as to avoid gelatin capsules and other ingredients.
But what if you’ve done all of this, or you have a genetic condition completely separate from your lifestyle, which requires medication, or you have a severe mental illness that’s resistant to anything but prescription medication. Here is where the “as far as practical and possible” element of veganism comes in. I have a whole video post with Gary Yourofsky about being 100 percent vegan so you can check that out as well.
If you’re bedridden, or in constant pain, or crippled by your own mind—you can’t really be of service to the animals, can you? I like to make the analogy of a plane going down. What do they tell you when the oxygen masks come out? Put on your own before helping others. You can’t be a voice for the animals and fight for their liberation if you aren’t well yourself.
Additionally, the only way we’re going to get animals out of our medication and out of our research is by fighting. I’ve said it before but when we are no longer slaughtering 150 billion sentient beings every year, we won’t be so hard-pressed to find new and inventive profitable ways to use their byproducts.
We need to strike the animal products industry at its core, and by being vegan, abstaining from 99 percent of the problem and fighting against the rest, that is how we make a difference. This isn’t an excuse to use animals guilt-free. But we have to look at reality as it is.
And if you truly cannot live or function without a medication, take it. By all means, care for yourself so you can fight for them. It’s an awful choice and the situation is deplorable. But I’d rather have you fighting alongside me than bedridden on principle. That’s my take on the matter.
In her article, Should anti-vivisectionists boycott animal-tested medicines?, Dr. Katherine Perlo examines the various arguments for and against refusing medical treatment that’s been tested on animals. I highly recommend reading her article for a far-more fleshed-out take on this subject. I have a link to it and various other articles in the blog post linked in the video description.
Perlo’s concludes that “we should promote a highly visible trend towards avoiding animal-tested medicines. Some people following the trend might reject the medicines altogether; some might seek alternative treatments where available; others might simply add a “patient choice” element to other anti-vivisection demands. But the common goal would be to make the government, the medical profession, and the public aware that we do not want to take these medicines, and that when we do, it is only through lack of choice.” Meaning, even if we do have to take medication to live, we can still be vocal about our objections and our reasoning behind them.
I do plan on doing a video in the future further discussing the ethics of taking medication as an anti-vivisectionist and a vegan. For now, please read Dr. Perlo’s paper for more on this matter.
Luckily we have some fantastic organizations like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Dr. Hadwen Trust fighting to develop non-animal methods and medications within the medical field.
Now I’d love to hear from you on this: What do you think about the issue of veganism and medication? What’s your personal experience and stance? Let me know in the comments.
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— Emily Moran Barwick