The world of medicine has changed immensely in the last couple hundred years, and how we consume medicine has also changed immensely. No longer do we look for plants to help us, but instead ask for little round pills. When did this practice begin? And when it comes to plants vs pills, why do we tend to trust pills more?
If you ask people what they prefer, plants or pills for medication taking, what do you think the answer is? This independent news site covers emerging stories in the cannabis and psychedelics spaces; along with the Cannadelics Weekly Newsletter which we put out for regular updates. Subscribe today, and get premiere access to a host of offers on tons of cannabis and psychedelics products, including vapes, edibles, smoking devices, and cannabinoid compounds like the growing-in-popularity Delta 8 & HHC. Head over to our ‘best of’ lists to find out more, and please only make purchases for products you truly want to use.
The history of pill-making
Little, round, colored pills dominate our world these days. For nearly any ailment, there’s a pill to swallow for it, whether prescribed by a doctor, or simply bought right off the shelf in a store. They come in red and white, green and blue, orange and well, pretty much any color. They’re not always round, with some oval, others square, and some triangular in shape. And we don’t even stop at regular pills, adding capsules to the mix, which forego the pressed solid, for powder in a plastic-like shell.
While our world of pills is a newer invention, and certainly doesn’t resemble its historical counterpart, pills do enjoy a pretty long and interesting history. How long? Pills go back possibly as far as 1500 BC, when it’s believed they were made for the same purpose as today, to be able to give a specific quantity of a drug to a patient. The first references made are out of ancient Egypt, and come from papyrus writings that detail how to make these pills from bread dough, honey, or grease. These substances were mixed with plant powders, or whatever ingredient was necessary, and rolled into balls of some kind by hand.
This basic practice was employed for most of the history of pill-making, though the word ‘pill’ didn’t originate until around 23-79 AD, when Roman scholar Pliny used the word ‘pilula’. Prior to this, at least the Ancient Greeks called it ‘katapotia’, with a rough definition of ‘something to be swallowed’.
Since there was no standardization model back in these times, pills took many shapes and sizes. Even the idea of branding a pill with a company or trademark of some kind isn’t new, going back as far as 500 BC. At that time it was done mainly as indentations in the pill. The same issues of pill-taking prevailed back then as now, and by medieval times, slime from plant substances was used, along with other materials that could coat a pill to make it easier to swallow, and without an accompanying bitter or bad taste.
At least by Roman times, simply rolling by hand became outdated with equipment that could press pills. Picture a stone with long grooves that acts as a mold. The pill formulation was pressed into these grooves to create a long snake-like shape. This was then cut to form discs of the preferred size.
By the time the 1600’s rolled around, a new pharmacopeia was published in Germany, Switzerland and England, and under King James I of England pharmaceutical apothecaries were established, which included the dispensing of medications in pill form. Even back then, pill makers could obtain patent rights from the king to protect their specific formulations. And even up until around then, formulations were made similarly to the older-school method of putting natural compounds with something wet and sticky.
By the 1800s, pill-making went to a whole new level with the application of sugar and gelatin-coatings, as well as the invention of gelatin capsules. This was kicked up yet another notch when in 1843, William Brockedon of England, came up with a new way to make pills that didn’t require moisture, something that sometimes inactivated the medicinal compounds. His invention was to put a powder in a tube and then hit it with a mallet to compress it into solid form, making something similar to the dry pills we use today. And the rest, well, the rest is more recent history, bringing us to the colorful, and well-labeled, perfectly shaped, pills of today.
People have a preference with their pills
The marketing of pills is actually quite intense, and different studies have shown how the look of the pill affects how the user feels about it, and its perceived abilities. Which in turn can affect how people buy and take them. In 2011, an article called Color and shape of pills affects how patients feel about their medication, came out about research done by investigators at the University of Bombay, in India. The research “surveyed users of over-the-counter medication to find out just how much the color of a tablet influences patient choice.”
According to the researchers, of the 600 people surveyed, red and pink pills were the most preferred colors, and for ¾ of the sample, the color and shape of the pill was part of what helped them remember to take it. The study also turned up interesting results, like that 14% thought that pink tablets tasted sweeter than red ones, and that yellow pills were often thought of as salty, regardless of their ingredients. 10% associated orange pills with tasting sour, and 11% said white and blue pills taste more bitter. Red tablets were much preferred by middle-age people and women.
According to the research team, “Patients undergo a sensory experience every time they self-administer a drug, whether it’s swallowing a tablet or capsule, chewing a tablet, swallowing a liquid, or applying a cream or ointment,” and that “The ritual involving perceptions can powerfully affect a patient’s view of treatment effectiveness.”
These ideas were mirrored in another study from 2020, called The shape of the pill: Perceived effects, evoked bodily sensations and emotions. This study looked at the shape only, comparing the perception of round pills to angular pills. According to researchers, “Across three studies, we found that the angular pills evoke overall more activations in the body compared to curvy pills.”
What else did they find? “Our results also revealed that angularity is linked with an energizing effect while roundness is associated with a calming effect.” And that “Compared to incongruent designs, pill designs (angular vs. curved) congruent with proposed drug benefits (energizing vs. calming) were perceived as more effective.”
In the end, they concluded, “Moreover, we found differences in emotions triggered by pills of different shapes. The present research provided new findings on angularity vs. curvature perception that may be valuable for cognitive psychology, marketing, pharmaceutical and supplements industry, and other applied fields.”
Perhaps with all these ideas about how a specific pill should make a person feel by how it looks, it’s not surprising that people prefer these pills, along with other standard modes of pharmaceuticals, to anything that looks natural. In fact, when it comes to plants vs pills, these new pills seem to nearly universally win out in the Western world. This isn’t terribly surprising either, given Western medicine’s general desire to dismiss Eastern medicine, and the plants that come with it. Which is probably because of just how big the pills industry is, and just how many of these pills we – as a population – take.
Plants vs pills
Pills are pills; a specific type of medication ingestion. But they’re also representative of the larger pharmaceutical offering. While not many people expect a doctor or pharmacist to break out a mortar and pestle, or mix them a plant-based tincture, there are several different ways people expect to get their medications, other than pills. Other common delivery methods include inhalers (nasal or mouth), syrups (chemically-made, of course), patches, and even injections. And most people won’t bat an eye at any of these. Although they would probably gasp if that mortar and pestle came out. When it comes down to plants vs pills – or whatever other pharmaceutical preparations prevail, most seem to gravitate towards pills.
When searching the internet for opinions on trust between natural and synthetic products, it’s nearly impossible to find anything useful. Which in itself is a good indicator that people only expect one thing, and the idea of whether people trust a plant or pill more, is apparently not a survey-ready question at this point. This might be because natural medicine has been so badly demonized, that the vast majority don’t consider it as medicine at all, and therefore, aren’t considering a comparison between the two.
One of the only places I came across this idea, was in researching a magic mushroom nasal spray. I’m not going to get into the product, because the specifics of the product are less important in this instance, than what was said about why it might sell. Becky Rotterman, a pharmacist from Missouri, and a board advisor and investor in Silo Wellness, the company creating the product, said something very interesting.
“We want to bring this wonderful natural medicine first to Oregon and then the flyover states – to those who would be afraid to eat a handful of fungi and who feel more comfortable seeing their medicine in a familiar delivery modality, such as a metered-dose nasal spray.”
The interesting thing is that she’s calling it a ‘natural medicine’, and then relating the idea that many people won’t want to take it unless it looks like something they’re familiar with; a type of medicine they’re already used to. In a way, the nasal spray itself is a marketing tool to offer something familiar, since even according to Rotterman, it’s for people who don’t want that handful of mushrooms; implying that a handful of mushrooms would work as well, but is thought of differently.
Now, a delivery method like a nasal spray is sometimes more beneficial if its treating some kind of nasal issue, or ailment whereby such delivery is optimal. However, in this case, it’s only meant for delivery in general. Meaning, it only gives another comparable way to take a handful of mushrooms. This says a lot about what people now expect medication to look like, and what they are comfortable using. Given the choice between plants vs pills, my guess is that the wide majority of America would only take the latter.
Perhaps the plants vs pills debate will change now that cannabis and psychedelics are becoming bigger things. Or, perhaps both will be entirely co-opted by pharmaceutical and biotech companies looking to turn a handful of mushrooms and cannabis flowers into nasal sprays and pills. Even if we do get to a point where plants are accepted, we’re certainly not there yet, and it’s pretty easy to see that for now – and the foreseeable future – pills and pharma options prevail in the minds of the majority.
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