Published On: Wed, Mar 27th, 2019

Medicine – Where should vegans draw the line?

Charlotte Willis explores the conundrum vegans have to face when it comes to taking modern medicines. 

vegan medicine

Following a vegan diet is pretty simple in 2019, but when it comes to areas of veganism that are less clear cut, where should our morals end and our practicality and self-prioritising begin? It’s a personal conundrum with modern medicine that not everyone will be aware of.

I’m sure I am not alone when I say that veganism opened my eyes to the cruelty of the modern world, and the appalling state of relationships we have developed with our fellow creatures. When I decided to make the switch to a plant-based diet, purely for health reasons, I never once thought that I would become concerned with the ethics surrounding animal welfare. It seems that after we make the conscious decision to open our fridges and cabinets to the world of vegan food, we unintentionally find ourselves ethically bound, open-minded and open-eyed to the suffering of thousands upon thousands of animals, exploited for our personal consumption. Needless to say, you never look back.

This moral progression saw me transition towards the lifestyle I now lead. One which I uphold to be as free-from animal products and as harmonious with the environment around me as practically possible. Luckily, companies and product designers have worked hard to create vegan substitutes for just about every food and household good. From honey and burgers to washing powder and lipsticks, if there’s a conventional product to be bought, there’s undoubtedly a plant-based, ethical alternative available to substitute. That is, until we approach the topic of medicine. From here, things become a little blurry.

A pill which is hard to swallow

Medicine is one such area of potential complication for those of us attempting to live as cruelty-free and plant-based as possible. The subject of medication brings into question a variety of different moral dilemmas for many a conscious patient. Myself included.

Now, if anyone knows me, or has read anything I’ve written previously (thanking you most kindly), you’ll undoubtedly have me down as one for dodging medicine wherever possible. Nope, you won’t catch me popping a paracetamol for a headache, or reaching for an antihistamine for an allergy. I’d much sooner chug a jug of lemon-water and douse myself in just about any essential oil that I can drop onto my upper lip in a desperate flurry of eucalyptus and lavender. But when faced with a hospital visit in May of last year, while writhing around in pain awaiting diagnosis, quite frankly, I was extremely grateful for whatever pills, potions and life-saving injections I was offered.

I have a confession. At no point during my treatment did a single thought pass through my mind regarding the ethical issues of taking my medicine. I was only interested in healing my body, and quite honestly, all stances on “how vegan is my medication” went out of the window. Oh gosh… does this make me a bad vegan?

vegan medicine

Modern medicine is almost entirely non-vegan

So let’s talk about medication. While I wouldn’t be one to take non-essential medication such as over the counter painkillers and cough medicine, partially out of stubborn tendencies coinciding with partial determination to get on with it, I would not and will not judge anyone else for doing so. But do we really know how our medicine is created and what goes into it? Would you still swallow the pill if we knew exactly what was inside the box?

Most of us will, unfortunately, have to take a tablet or down a distasteful medicine at some point in our lives. The bad news is that the overwhelming majority of medication contains ingredients or excipients (the bulk of what makes a tablet into a tablet) that are not vegan friendly. The most common animal-derived ingredient is lactose, which is used as a carrier and a stabilizer in order to transport the medication’s active ingredient into the body. Animal-derived gelatine also rears its ugly head in your medicine cabinet (unless your medicine is certified as vegetarian). Other animal-based derivatives in tablets include magnesium stearate, cochineal dye, insulin, amino acids and anticoagulants.

It is also important to remember that all medicine is lawfully required to be safety tested using non-human animals. This occurs prior to testing on humans in order to identify potentially lethal side effects. Therefore no medicine, regardless of its composition and ingredients list, is cruelty-free or technically vegan-friendly either – quite the predicament!

vegan medicine

Quick guide to ingredient reading from the Vegan Society (medicine style!)

  • Magnesium Stearate – Manufacture requires animal fat hydrolysis
  • Steric Acid – Manufacture requires animal fat hydrolysis
  • Gelatin (E441) – Extracted from animal tissues
  • Lanolin (E913) – Fat extracted from sheep’s wool
  • Glycoholic Acid – Bile acid derived from mammals
  • Lactic Acid – Manufactured using animal sources

It’s OK for health to take priority

For some of us, talking medicine is a regular part of our daily lives, and without it we would fail to function, either mentally or physically (or perhaps both). Herein lies an issue for vegans. We are seemingly faced with an almost impossible moral dilemma, which may result in despondency and frustration.

My best advice here is to consider the definition of veganism, as detailed by the Vegan Society: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.” The key phrase here is “as far as possible and practicable”. This states that we as individuals are responsible for determining what we certify as being practicable in our daily lives, and it is down to us to make personal decisions about the direction of our moral compass in terms of how we interpret this statement.

In my opinion, taking medication for any condition is as much of a personal decision as the choice you made to become vegan. By no means should you place your own health at risk for the sake of following your ethical compass, particularly when the medication is irreplaceable. Here, medication and your own personal health must, and should absolutely, take priority. What’s more, you should not feel any less of a vegan or less compassionate simply because you chose to place the health of your body first.

Consider instead your diet and lifestyle choices as a whole. You actively promote plant-based food, cosmetics, home goods and fashion. You are consciously committing to be free from cruelty in almost every other aspect of your life. Do not let one small fraction, particularly one which you have little to no control over, get in the way of your passion for a kind lifestyle.

Optional medications

While there may be certain medications that are completely non-negotiable, there could well be certain medicines that have the potential to be a little more vegan-friendly than their conventionally prescribed counterparts. Next time you are at the doctors, or being advised by a pharmacist, ask your healthcare provider about vegetarian-friendly medication. Nine out of ten times, your doctor will be happy to advise you on alternatives that might be better suited to your moral requirements.

Be sure to check with your doctor, and have an open conversation with them regarding your concerns. It’s essential to weigh up the positives and negatives here, as some vegetarian and vegan-friendly alternatives may contain other side effects, or not be as effective for your condition. It is important that you choose the correct medication for your condition and your doctor will help you to decide upon this.

Some of the most veganizable medications are those that are bought over the counter for common ailments such as the cold and flu. *

Here’s a quick guide to over-the-counter pain and cold medications available to vegans, courtesy of The Vegan Society:

  • Co-Codamol Effervescent
  • Paracodol Tablets
  • Panadol Extra
  • Calpol Infant Suspension
  • Beechams Flu Plus Caplets
  • Day Nurse Liquid
  • Night Nurse Liquid
  • Olbas Oil
  • Gaviscon – all products

vegan medicine

Is there a compassionate future for medicine?

While the term compassionate medicine seems somewhat contradictory in nature, there may well be more of a promising future for vegan and vegetarian medications, due to technological progression in chemical research. Advances in toxicology last year saw the introduction of computer software that can be used to successfully test the safety of thousands of chemicals. What’s exciting is that this machine was able to predict the safety of chemicals to the same (if not greater) accuracy as using animal-based testing methods. An exciting breakthrough in a somewhat animal-testing dominated world of medicine.

What’s more, recent scientific research by Cruelty Free International, one of the largest organisations fighting to end animal testing, has unearthed flaws in the current use of animals in medical testing. Their comprehensive analysis discovered that modern animal testing provided no additional insight into the safety of new medications being developed, beyond the present knowledge of doctors and researchers. They also concluded that testing drugs on one animal does not reliably predict how this drug will perform in the human body. They are subsequently calling on pharmaceutical industries to rethink how they use animals in their testing and research. You can find out more from their research at crueltyfreeinternational.com

So what can be concluded from my own personal, moral conundrum here? Well, when it comes to veganism, medicine is very much a grey area and is open to personal interpretation regarding the ethics of taking certain medications. Medicine is also a subject that requires careful consideration, particularly if you have a chronic condition that requires regular prescriptions. It is easy for someone healthy to draw conclusions about medication, but when you’re faced with a time of need that opinion might just fade into insignificance. There’s no right or wrong answer to the question “Is medicine vegan?” Instead, it’s important for us to weigh up the pros and cons of taking specific medications, and draw a considered conclusion that will benefit your body, and help ease your conflicted mind.

Alternative Medicine

For those of us particularly concerned about consuming animal products in search of relief from common ailments such as colds, skin sores, acne, burns, cuts and sore throats, there is an entire world of alternative medication available for you to discover. One of my favourite natural medicine resources is the blog Wellness Mamma, which has some incredible recipes for alternative and complimentary medicines and herbal remedies.

vegan medicine

Some of your DIY medicine box essential include:

  • Aloe vera
  • Tea tree oil (as well as various other essential oils)
  • Activated charcoal
  • Witch hazel extract
  • Echinacea tincture
  • Raw ginger and turmeric
  • Arnica cream
  • Coconut oil

*Source for the list: mothernaturenetwork.com


Charlotte Willis

Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.

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