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Red Yeast Rice to Lower Cholesterol

The Medical Letter,  a highly respected source of reliable independent evaluations of drugs and therapeutics, has just published an evaluation of red yeast rice (Vol 51, Issue 1320, P 71-2, Sept 7, 2009). It has been widely promoted as a “natural” alternative to prescription medications for lowering blood LDL cholesterol levels. Studies have indeed shown that red yeast rice reduces LDL cholesterol levels and reduces the rate of major coronary events. The Medical Letter consultants concluded that it works, but they don’t recommend it. Why?

It’s Just Another Statin

When rice is fermented with the yeast Monascus purpureus, the resulting product contains numerous monacolins, which are naturally occurring HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors. One of these is identical to the prescription drug Mevacor (lovastatin). So it isn’t an alternative to prescription drugs, it’s just an alternative way of providing the same thing. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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AFP Promotes Acupuncture

I subscribe to American Family Physician, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians. It emphasizes evidence-based medicine and most articles include a table showing strength of evidence ratings for key recommendations for practice. Lately, its scientific rigor has been slipping. I have complained to the editor about several articles whose recommendations were not based on the best science, and I have been consistently ignored. 

Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain 

A recent article on chronic low back pain recommended acupuncture and gave it an “A” rating corresponding to “consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence.” I wrote the following letter to the editor and to the author of the article:  (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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Applying Rigorous Science to Messy Medicine

The PowerPoint presentation that I gave at the Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop at the University of Oregon on August 7, 2009 is up on their website with the complete text of what I said. The theme of the workshop was scientific method. The title of my talk is “Tooth Fairy Science and Other Pitfalls: Applying Rigorous Science to Messy Medicine.” Click here for the link. It covers a lot of things that are pertinent to the subjects we discuss on this blog, and I thought some of our readers might enjoy it. I put in a lot of information and some good cartoons. Note: this was a talk to the general public, not an academic presentation, and it does not include citations or references.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Swine Flu Vaccine Fearmongering

Fear is a curious thing. It often bears no relation to the actual risk of what we fear. When swine flu first broke out in Mexico, people were understandably afraid.  Travel was restricted, schools were closed, and so many people stayed home that the streets of Mexico City were empty. As the disease spread around the world, Egypt developed a paranoid fear of pigs and committed national pigicide. They ordered the slaughter of all 300,000 of their country’s innocent little porkers, ignoring the fact that the flu is spread person-to-person, not pig-to-person. Now that the disease has officially been labeled a pandemic, fears have switched from the real threat of the disease to an imagined danger from the vaccine. 

Some people just plain hate the idea of vaccines – to the point that they are willing to spread old falsehoods, make up new lies, distort the results of studies, misrepresent statistics, and endanger our public health. There are websites like “Operation Fax to Stop the Vax” and even anti-swine-flu-vaccine rap videos.   Press releases, e-mail campaigns, talk shows, and blogs are being used to stir up irrational fears. These people are irresponsible fearmongers. They are wrong, and they are dangerous.  
(more…)

Posted in: Vaccines

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“The Disappearing Male” – A Pinch of Science, a Pound of Speculation

A documentary film entitled “The Disappearing Male” was first shown on CBC in June, 2009. It can be viewed online here.

Some of its rhetoric is reminiscent of Chicken Little:

  • “Where have all the boys gone?”
  • “Millions of males are disappearing.”
  • “We’re on the Titanic and we see the iceberg but we just can’t turn the ship.”
  • “It may be a threat to the survival of the species.”

The claims behind the rhetoric are that male to female sex ratios at birth are decreasing, sperm quality and fertility are decreasing, and genitourinary birth defects like hypospadias are becoming more common. The film blames environmental chemicals, especially endocrine disruptors, and it claims they are causing “the most rapid period of evolution our species has ever seen” and that this may lead to our extinction. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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Protandim: Another Kind of Antioxidant

Four years ago I received an e-mail inquiry about Protandim. I had never heard of it; but I looked it up and wrote a quick, informal, somewhat snarky answer that got posted on the Internet. It got a lot of attention. Googling for Protandim now brings up my critique right after the Protandim website itself: that can’t be good for sales. Over the years, several e-mails and blog comments have informed me that I was wrong (usually offering testimonials or calling me closed-minded), and recently I’ve been getting inquiries asking if I’ve changed my mind now that a clinical study has been published. I haven’t.

Instead of providing antioxidants directly, Protandim is supposed to stimulate the body to produce its own antioxidants. The website tells us it is “the only supplement clinically proven to reduce oxidative stress by 40%, slowing down the rate of cell aging to the level of a 20 year old.” It provides “thousands of times more antioxidant power than any food or conventional antioxidant supplement.” It signals the body’s genes to produce the enzymes SOD (superoxide dismutase) and CAT (catalase) that act as catalysts to neutralize free radicals and are not “used up” like ingested antioxidants are. It “creates a cascade of your body’s natural catalytic antioxidants that are able to destroy millions of free radicals per second.” It raises the level of glutathione by 300%. Glutathione is good, apparently.

What is Protandim? It’s a combination of Milk thistle, Bacopa extract, Ashwagandha, Green tea extract, and Turmeric extract. I looked these up in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. None of them is known to have any significant clinical benefit from antioxidant effects. Some of them are listed as “not enough information” to know if they are safe. One has estrogenic properties and more than one has known side effects and potential interactions with other drugs. The only one that even sounds remotely like it might have some pertinent data behind it is green tea. Green tea contains antioxidant catechins that are “thought to possibly have a protective effect against atherosclerosis and heart disease” and contains flavonoids that “might reduce lipoprotein oxidation; however benefits have not yet been described in humans.”

A Pubmed search for “Protandim” yielded only 3 studies: One in mice, one in cell cultures and one in humans. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Why We Need Science: “I saw it with my own eyes” Is Not Enough

I recently wrote an article for a community newspaper attempting to explain to scientifically naive readers why testimonial “evidence” is unreliable; unfortunately, they decided not to print it. I considered using it here, but I thought it was too elementary for this audience. I have changed my mind and I am offering it below (with apologies to the majority of our readers), because it seems a few of our readers still don’t “get” why we have to use rigorous science to evaluate claims. People can be fooled, folks. All people. That includes me and it includes you. Richard Feynman said

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.

Science is the only way to correct for our errors of perception and of attribution. It is the only way to make sure we are not fooling ourselves. Either Science-Based Medicine has not done a good job of explaining these vital facts, or some of our readers are unable or unwilling to understand our explanations.

Our commenters still frequently offer testimonials about how some CAM method “really worked for me.” They fail to understand that they have no basis for claiming that it “worked.” All they can really claim is that they observed an improvement following the treatment. That could indicate a real effect or it could indicate an inaccurate observation or it could indicate a post hoc ergo propter hoc error, a false assumption that temporal correlation meant causation. Such observations are only a starting point: we need to do science to find out what the observations mean. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Chiropractic and Deafness: Back to 1895

Chiropractic originated in 1895 when D.D. Palmer claimed to have restored deaf janitor Harvey Lillard’s hearing by manipulating his spine. This makes no anatomical sense, and few if any chiropractors claim to be able to reverse deafness today. But now a chiropractic website is attempting to vindicate D. D. Palmer. They list deafness among a long (wrong) list of “Conditions That Respond Well to Chiropractic”

They list 6 supporting studies. Three are case reports, two are case series, and one is a review of the literature that is labeled in its title as “A Search to Validate” D.D. Palmer. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic

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Science-Based Medicine Meets Medical Ethics

There are four main principles in medical ethics:

  •  Autonomy
  •  Beneficence
  •  Non-maleficence
  •  Justice

Autonomy means the patient has the right to consent to treatment or to reject it. Autonomy has to be balanced against the good of society. What if a patient’s rejection of treatment or quarantine allows an epidemic to spread? Beneficence means we should do what is best for the patient. Non-maleficence means “First do no harm.” Justice applies to conundrums like how to provide kidney dialysis and organ transplants equitably in a society that can’t afford to treat everyone with expensive high-tech treatments or where the rich can afford better treatment than the poor.

Medical ethicist Ronald Munson has written a fascinating book entitled The Woman Who Decided to Die: Challenges and Choices at the Edges of Medicine. His clinical vignettes vividly illustrate the difficult decisions that must be made when science-based medicine runs up against the harsh practical reality of ethical dilemmas. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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Incorporating Placebos into Mainstream Medicine

Alternative medicine by definition is medicine that has not been shown to work any better than placebo. Patients think they are helped by alternative medicine. Placebos, by definition, do “please” patients. We would all like to please our patients, but we don’t want to lie to them. Is there a compromise? Is there a way we can ethically elicit the same placebo response that alternative theorists elicit by telling their patients fairy tales about qi, subluxations, or the memory of water?

Psychiatrist Morgan Levy has written a book entitled Placebo Medicine. It’s available free online. In it, he makes an intriguing case for incorporating the best alternative medicine placebo treatments into mainstream medicine.

In a light, entertaining style, he covers the placebo effect, suggestibility, and the foibles of the human thought processes that allow us to believe a treatment works when it doesn’t.

“Thinking like a human” is not a logical way to think but it is not a stupid way to think either. You could say that our thinking is intelligently illogical. Millions of years of evolution did not result in humans that think like a computer. It is precisely because we think in an intelligently illogical way that our predecessors were able to survive… [by acting on quick assumptions rather than waiting for comprehensive, definitive data]… We have evolved to survive, not to play chess.

He offers evidence from scientific studies indicating that belief in a treatment and the power of suggestion can have actual physiologic consequences such as production of endorphins or changes on brain imaging studies. He spices his narrative with colorful stories, including anecdotes from his own sex life and an impassioned plea (tongue in cheek?) for everyone to drink coffee for its proven benefits. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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