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Turmeric: Tasty in Curry, Questionable as Medicine

turmericA correspondent asked me to look into the science behind the health claims for turmeric. He had encountered medical professionals “trying to pass turmeric as some sort of magical herb to cure us from the ‘post-industrial chemical apocalypse.’” It is recommended by the usual promoters of CAM: Oz, Weil, Mercola, and the Health Ranger (who conveniently sells his own superior product, Turmeric Gold liquid extract for $17 an ounce).

Turmeric (Cucurma longa) is a plant in the ginger family that is native to southeast India. It is also known as curcumin. The rhizomes are ground into an orange-yellow powder that is used as a spice in Indian cuisine. It has traditionally been used in folk medicine for various indications; and it has now become popular in alternative medicine circles, where it is claimed to be effective in treating a broad spectrum of diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and diabetes. One website claims science has proven it to be as effective as 14 drugs, including statins like Lipitor, corticosteroids, antidepressants like Prozac, anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen, the chemotherapy drug oxaliplatin, and the diabetes drug metformin. I wish those claims were true, because turmeric is far less expensive and probably much safer than prescription drugs. It clearly has some interesting properties, but the claims go far beyond the actual evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Macular Degeneration and AREDS 2 Supplements

What AMD does to vision

What AMD does to vision

Four years ago I wrote about the premature marketing of a diet supplement for macular degeneration before the results of a trial to test it were available. Now that we know the results of that trial, a follow-up post is in order.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of blindness. The incidence increases with age; it affects 10% of people by age 66-74 and 30% of people by age 75-85. There are known risk factors including genetics and smoking, but there is no effective prevention. There are multiple diet supplement products on the market that are advertised as “supporting eye health.” Some are based on evidence from randomized, controlled studies; but the advertising hype goes beyond the evidence and tends to mislead consumers. There is evidence that supplementation may slow the progression of moderate to severe AMD, but there is no evidence that supplements are effective in milder disease or for preventing AMD from developing in the first place. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements

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Forskolin: Here We Go Again

 Sisyphus and his endless task

Sisyphus and his endless task

My BMI is 21, but my e-mail and Facebook accounts must think I’m fat. I am constantly bombarded with messages about miracle weight loss solutions, and most of them are diet supplements featured on the Dr. Oz show. Back in December I wrote an article about Garcinia cambogia, Dr. Oz’s “newest, fastest fat buster.” I made this prediction: “I confidently expect another “miracle” to supplant Garcinia in the Land of Oz in the not-too-distant future.” I was right. The e-mails about Garcinia have recently been outnumbered by e-mails about a new Dr. Oz miracle weight loss supplement, forskolin. Actually, I think he discovered forskolin before he discovered Garcinia, but the forskolin propaganda seems to have reached a critical mass in the last few weeks.

The Land of Oz

A Dr. Oz episode on the “Rapid Belly Melt” aired a month ago, on May 5. He set fire to a paper representation of a fat belly to show how forskolin “works like a furnace inside your body.” The paper ignited, went up in flames, and revealed a non-flammable model of muscle tissue inside to show how forskolin burns fat, not muscle, and to illustrate how quickly it works. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Rope Worms: C’est la Merde

rope worms

When I first heard about rope worms, I assumed it was a spoof. Alas, not so!

Rope worms are rope-like meter-long human intestinal parasites that were only recently discovered in the returns of cleansing enemas and are often reported after coffee enemas. Strangely, no one had ever noticed them until 2009. They have never been observed during endoscopy or surgery, during medical bowel cleansing in preparation for surgical or imaging procedures, with x-rays or MRIs, at autopsy, or by any colorectal specialists. Yet according to Nikolai Gubarev and Alex Volinsky, the two of them have never yet found a single patient who didn’t have these parasites.

Two articles by Volinsky, Gubarev, and colleagues (here and here) describe the rope worm and its five developmental stages. They include pictures of each stage. I urge you to take a look. You will be amazed, and not in a good way. You might even bust a gut laughing. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Precision Medicine: The Coolest Part of Medicine

QuellosOne size rarely fits all. Most medical knowledge is derived from studying groups of subjects, subjects who may be different in some way from the individual who walks into the doctor’s office. Basing medicine only on randomized controlled studies can lead to over-simplified “cookbook” medicine. A good clinician interprets study results and puts them into context, considering the whole patient and using clinical judgment to apply current scientific knowledge appropriately to the individual.

CAM practitioners claim to be providing individualized treatments. Homeopaths look up symptoms like “dreams of robbers,” “sensation of coldness in the heart,” and “chills between 9 and 11 AM” in their books, and naturopaths quiz patients in great depth about their habits and preferences; but they don’t have a plausible rationale for interpreting the information they gather. And they have not been able to demonstrate better patient outcomes from using that information.

A new concept, “precision medicine,” was recently featured in UW Medicine, the alumni magazine of my alma mater, the University of Washington School of Medicine. Precision medicine strives to provide truly individualized care based on good science. It identifies the individual variations in people that make a difference in our ability to diagnose and treat accurately. Peter Byers, MD, director of the new Center for Precision Diagnostics at the University of Washington, calls it “the coolest part of medicine.” (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Gary Taubes and the Cause of Obesity

Gary Taubes has written two books explaining why people get fat and why a low-carb diet is the solution to preventing and treating obesity. He didn’t like what I had to say about his books on this blog back in 2011. I was not the only one to criticize. Another reviewer accused him of “abandon[ing] journalistic and scientific integrity in place of observational data, straw men and logical fallacy.” He says he agrees with Taubes’ premises but that his “arguments made me cringe,” and he goes into considerable detail to explain why. His analysis is worth reading.

photo by Fj.toloza992 [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

photo by Fj.toloza992 [via Wikimedia Commons]

Rather than engaging in the Comments section, Taubes complained to me in a somewhat offensive personal e-mail, saying I had failed to understand what he wrote. Recently he e-mailed me again, condescendingly suggesting that I might understand his arguments better if I read an article he wrote last year for the British Medical Journal. I read it, and confirmed that I had understood perfectly well the first time around and that it was Gary Taubes who didn’t understand my criticisms. I pointed out some omissions and inconsistencies, but my major criticisms boiled down to two:

  1. The clinical evidence isn’t yet sufficient to convincingly prove his thesis. (He himself admitted this.)
  2. He strongly recommended that everyone adopt a low-carb diet, essentially insisting that we act on insufficient evidence. And this was after he had devoted whole chapters of his books to demonizing the low-fat diet advocates for doing exactly that: acting on insufficient evidence.

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Posted in: Nutrition

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Lice

If you have children, there’s a good chance you’ve had experience with head lice. Head lice affects as many as 12 million people in the US each year, mostly children. Compared to other health conditions, it is a trivial problem; but it is common and annoying. It can cause itching, notes sent home from school, and often a strong “yuck” reaction. Fortunately, several effective treatments are available, including enough “natural” options to please any critic of Big Pharma.

Louse diagram, Micrographia, Robert Hooke, 1667

Louse diagram, Micrographia, Robert Hooke, 1667

The critter

Pediculosis humanus var capitis is a bloodsucking parasitic insect specific to humans. It is 2.5-3 mm long and flattish. It can’t jump or fly or even walk efficiently, but is easily transferred, usually by head-to-head contact with an infected person or less often with an infected person’s headgear, comb, towel, or other object. Infestation is not a sign of poor hygiene.  Lice bite and suck blood 4-5 times daily, injecting an anti-coagulant in their saliva. Mommy lice live for up to 3 months and lay up to 300 eggs at a rate of 3-4 a day. They glue the eggs individually to a hair shaft, usually close to the scalp but in warm climates as far as 6 inches from the scalp. They hatch in 6-10 days, after which the empty egg cases move further and further from the scalp as the hair grows out. The diagnosis can be made by seeing live, moving lice and finding nits (the egg or young lice) on the hair. The best place to look for them is behind the ear and at the nape of the neck. Nits can be confused with dandruff and debris, but these can usually be brushed away while nits remain firmly stuck to the hair shaft. Nits alone are not enough to make the diagnosis of active infestation. They may be either alive or dead: empty or nonviable egg cases may still be present long after the infestation has resolved. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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Dr. Joe Writes About Quackery

Not long ago I wrote about the free online “Food for Thought” course. Joe Schwarcz (“Dr. Joe”) was one of the three professors teaching that course. He also has a radio show, a blog, a podcast, and he writes books. His newest book will be of particular interest to SBM readers: Is That a Fact? Frauds, Quacks, and the Real Science of Everyday Life.

dr-hoe-is-that-a-fact

I reviewed an earlier book of his, The Right Chemistry, for Skeptic magazine. You can read my review online here. I called him “The Carl Sagan of Chemistry” for his ability to popularize science and make it not only palatable but fascinating and entertaining. In the new book, Dr. Joe turns his attention to exactly the kind of subjects we cover on this blog. He is a chemist and most of us are physicians, but we reach the same conclusions because we look at the evidence from the same rigorous scientific viewpoint.

In The Right Chemistry, Dr. Joe explains that “chemical” does not mean “bad stuff” — chemicals make up the entire world, and we are made of chemicals that our own body manufactures. He shares his encyclopedic store of obscure and intriguing scientific facts. Have you ever heard of kangatarians? Did you know asparagus can grow up to 10 inches a day? Can you explain why crystals of Epsom salts crumble if you yell at them? Do you think explosives can’t be made on a plane with small amounts of liquids? (Dr. Joe thinks they can, but for obvious reasons he’s not divulging the recipe.) You probably didn’t know that in World War II the U.S. military developed a mixture called “Who Me?” that smelled like feces and was dispensed with an atomizer. French Resistance fighters were supposed to surreptitiously spray it on German officers to embarrass them, but it wasn’t a great success since the sprayer ended up as stinky as the sprayee.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Curing Hepatitis C: A Success Story and a Price Tag

Most people know about hepatitis B; babies get vaccinated for it at birth. But fewer people know about hepatitis C. C is actually more common than B, but most chronically infected people don’t know they have it. You might think ignorance is bliss, but patients who have no symptoms today may have liver cancer or a liver transplant in their future. Until recently, treatment for this stealth disease was disappointing, but according to three recent, large controlled studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the virus has been tamed. A short course of a new antiviral drug with few side effects was 99% effective in removing the virus from the blood.

History

In the beginning, there was jaundice. Patients turned yellow, developed flu-like symptoms, and sometimes died. Eventually doctors figured out that jaundice was a sign of liver disease and the condition was named hepatitis; and by the time I graduated from medical school in 1970, scientists had identified two viruses that caused infectious hepatitis: hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis A infection was transmitted by the fecal-oral route, usually by contamination of food; hepatitis B was transmitted by needles and blood products. Prevention was limited to good hygienic practices; treatment of acute hepatitis was limited to bed rest, supportive care, and IV fluids. Contacts could be given gamma globulin. In fulminant cases and chronic hepatitis, steroids were used. No treatment was very effective. Death and cirrhosis often ensued.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Risk of Intussusception with Rotavirus Vaccines

intussuceptionRotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and children worldwide, leading to more than half a million deaths each year in children under the age of 5. Before the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine, almost all children in the US were infected by the age of 5, and rotavirus infections were responsible for 400,000 doctor visits, 200,000 ER visits, 55,000-70,000 hospitalizations, and 20-60 deaths each year. The first rotavirus vaccine, RotaShield, was found to have an association with intussusception. Two newer vaccines, Rotateq and Rotarix, were thought not to carry that risk, but two new trials have shown that they do. Still, the risk is small and the benefits of the vaccines are great.

What is intussusception?

Intussusception is a “telescoping” of the intestine where one section slides inside another section. This can cut off the blood supply, block the intestine, and cause tears, infections, and death. Most cases are in young children. They have severe abdominal pain (intermittent at first), and pass blood in the stool, typically mixed with mucus and having the appearance of currant jelly. A barium enema can confirm the diagnosis and simultaneously treat it. Sometimes surgery is needed. (more…)

Posted in: Vaccines

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