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Do vitamins prevent cancer and heart disease?

It is a triumph of marketing over evidence that millions take supplements every day. There is no question we need vitamins in our diet to live. But do we need vitamin supplements? It’s not so clear. There is evidence that our diets, even in developed countries, can be deficient in some micronutrients. But there’s also a lack of evidence to demonstrate that routine supplementation is beneficial. And there’s no convincing evidence that supplementing vitamins in the absence of deficiency is beneficial. Studies of supplements suggest that most vitamins are useless at best and harmful at worst. Yet the sales of vitamins seem completely immune to negative publicity. One negative clinical trial can kill a drug, but vitamins retain an aura of wellness, even as the evidence accumulates that they may not offer any meaningful health benefits. So why do so many buy supplements? As I’ve said before, vitamins are magic. Or more accurately, we believe this to be the case.

There can be many reasons for taking vitamins but one of the most popular I hear is “insurance” which is effectively primary prevention – taking a supplement in the absence of a confirmed deficiency or medical need with the belief we’re better off for taking it. A survey backs this up – 48% reported “to improve overall health” as the primary reason for taking vitamins. Yes, there is some vitamin and supplement use that is appropriate and science-based: Vitamin D deficiencies can occur, particularly in northern climates. Folic acid supplements during pregnancy can reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Vitamin B12 supplementation is often justified in the elderly. But what about in the absence of any clear medical need? (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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New concerns about the safety and quality of herbal supplements

If there is one aspect of “alternative” medicine that both critics and fans should agree on, it’s that products should be manufactured to high standards. What’s on the label should accurately describe what’s in the bottle. Product quality standards are essential, whether you’re using herbs or drugs. And when it comes to ensuring the products we buy are of high quality, we’re all effectively reliant on regulation to protect us. As a pharmacist, I can’t personally verify that each tablet in your prescription contains the active ingredient on the label. I am dependent on a supply chain that may stretch around the world. While the product manufacturer may be reputable, it’s only a regulator that can realistically verify and enforce production to strict quality standards. The same cannot be said for products like supplements and herbs which are regulated differently than drugs, and held to different, and in some cases, weaker standards. A weak regulatory framework, which doesn’t hold manufacturers to account, would be expected to result in a product of lower quality. And that’s exactly what you see when you look at supplements on the market today.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Student Health Professionals and Attitudes about CAM

While I’m now two full decades out of pharmacy school, I am occasionally invited to return to give a lecture or facilitate a workshop. Pharmacy education has changed a lot since the 1990′s. For me, pharmacy was a Bachelor’s degree program you started right out of high school. Today, students must have a few years of university completed before they can apply (some already have one degree), and the more common degree granted is doctorate-level, the Pharm.D. The clinical training has been bulked up and the practical training is much more rigorous. I see all this as positive change, as the practice of pharmacy has changed along with the education standard. The era of the “count, pour, lick and stick” pharmacist is disappearing as these tasks are automated or delegated to others. Today’s pharmacist has the opportunity to deliver care in different ways, including new roles like vaccine provider, and medication review/drug therapy optimizer. Many find positions that allow them to leverage their drug-related expertise to other areas of the healthcare system.

With pharmacists’ knowledge of drug products it should not be a surprise that they are consulted widely for advice by patients as well as other health professionals. Public surveys on trust show pharmacists lead other health professionals on this measure. It should also not be a surprise that pharmacists can be quite influential in shaping drug use, particularly when it comes to advice about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), especially when it is used with conventional, science-based drug treatments. After all, drug stores are becoming (to my professional embarrassment) purveyors of all forms of CAM, ranging from homeopathic “treatments” through aisles of herbal remedies, vitamins, and other supplements. One pharmacy I used to work at sold copper bracelets, magnets, salt lamps, ear candles, homeopathic “first aid” kits, and detox packages that were purported to “balance” your pH. If there was a plausibility limit to what this pharmacy would sell, I never saw it reached. I gave the best science-based advice I could, but eventually left due to my concerns about what was on the shelves. But my time in that setting showed me the opportunity to improve care: the pharmacist is well positioned to advise on the evidence for or against any particular treatment, as well as the describe the potential risks with combining CAM with evidence-based treatment approaches. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Acetaminophen: Still the pain reliever you should trust?

Recently ProPublica and This American Life (TAL) released the results of an investigation into acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. TAL devoted an entire episode to the issue, and ProPublica has published several stories on acetaminophen’s toxicity, how it can cause harm, and how it is regulated.

The investigation summarizes the key “Takeaways” as follows:

  • 150 Americans die per year from accidental acetaminophen overdoses
  • The safety margin (safe dose vs. toxic dose) with acetaminophen is small
  • Both the FDA and the manufacturer, McNeil, have known about the toxicity for years
  • For over 30 years the FDA has failed to implement measures to reduce the risk of harms it knew existed
  • The manufacturer has taken steps to protect consumers but has also opposed other safety measures

While Tylenol is a single brand out of hundreds of prescription and non-prescription products that contain acetaminophen as an active ingredient, it is the brand most closely associated with the chemical. Amazingly for a drug that has no patent and lots of competition, Tylenol products are estimated to make up half of all non-prescription acetaminophen sales in the US, a testament to the power and effectiveness of marketing. (It’s also a clear refutation to alt-med arguments that unpatented products can’t be profitable, or aren’t of interest to the pharmaceutical industry.) While much of the focus of the investigation centers on the corporate behavior of Tylenol’s manufacturer, McNeil, (a division of Johnson & Johnson), it is important to keep in mind that no single company is responsible for acetaminophen sales and marketing. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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A closer look at Dr. Oz’s 15 Superfoods

I’m sure I’m not the only health professional that bites their tongue whenever a patient starts a question with “I heard on Dr. Oz that…” More often than not, I have expectations to realign, and some assumptions to correct. I could easily devote all my posts to simply correcting  information presented on the Dr. Oz show. But given I’m blogging here biweekly, and Dr. Oz has a daily television show, I’ll never be able to catch up. So while my first choice in topics isn’t to add a post to our extensive Dr. Oz archives, I often end up, like many other health professionals, needing to respond to his shows shortly after they air.

Should you happen to be someone that has never seen the Dr. Oz show, Dr. Mehmet Oz is an Oprah protégé who has gone on to build a health media empire that is possibly the biggest vehicle for health pseudoscience and medical quackery on television. Whether it’s promoting homeopathy, recommending unproven supplements, or advocating ridiculous diet plans, there seems to be no health subject too dubious to endorse. Oz has established an impressive track record of providing highly questionable health advice. A few months ago I examined his absurd endorsement of green coffee beans, followed by his dubious “clinical trial” of green coffee beans that likely didn’t meet minimal research ethics standards. Then there was the weight loss “miracle” (his words), red palm oil, which followed the same episodic formula of breathless hyperbole backed by questionable evidence. One of the meta-trends of the Dr. Oz show are weight loss secrets – typically gimmicky interventions, supplements and therapies that he promotes as panaceas for obesity. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Food Allergies: Facts, Myths, and Pseudoscience

The price of life is eternal vigilance. If you have severe food allergies, that is your reality. Every day, every meal, every bite. Eating is an intrinsic and essential part of what we do and who we are, so the idea that our bodies can rebel violently to everyday foods can be difficult to believe. But it’s real, and the numbers of the severely food allergic are growing. Frustratingly, we don’t know why. While recognized over 100 years ago, the social acknowledgment had lagged. That’s improved in the past decade. Food allergy prevention approaches are now a routine part of travel, school, sports, and the workplace. Peanuts on planes seem to have completely disappeared. The days of lunchbox peanut butter sandwiches are over, with many schools completely banning all peanut-containing products. It is the education system that seems to have become a ground zero for allergy programs and policies, where educators are challenged to ensure that schools are safe environments for all children, some of whom have long lists of food allergies. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Trojan Horse called Integrative Medicine arrives at another medical school

Trojan Rabbit

Medicine is a collaborative practice. Hospitals are the best example, where dozens of different health professionals work cooperatively, sharing responsibilities for patient care. Teamwork is essential, and that’s why health professionals obtain a large part of their education on the job, in teaching (academic) hospitals. The only way that all of these different professions are able to work together effectively is that their foundations are based on an important, yet simple, principle. All of us have education and training grounded in basic scientific principles of medicine. Biochemistry, pharmacology, physiology – we all work from within the same framework. As a pharmacist, my role might include working with physicians and nurses to manage and monitor medication use. A team approach is only possible when you’re working from the same playbook, and with the same aim. And in medicine, that playbook is science.

That’s why “integrative” medicine frightens me so much. Integrative medicine is a tactic embedding complementary and alternative medical practices into conventional medical care. Imagine “integrating” a practitioner into the health system that doesn’t accept germ theory. Or basic disease definitions. Or the effectiveness of vaccines. Or even basic biochemistry – perhaps they believe in treatments that restore the body’s “vital force” or manipulate some sort of “energy fields”. Instead of relying on objective signs and symptoms, they base treatments on pre-scientific beliefs, long discarded from medicine. There may be entirely different treatment goals, which are potentially antagonistic to the scientific standard. Imagine a hospital or academic setting where this occurs, and the potential impact on the quality of care that is delivered. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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The facts of the alternative medicine industry

People have been living on earth for about 250,000 years. For the past 5,000 healers have been trying to heal the sick. For all but the past 200, they haven’t been very good at it.

- Dr. Paul Offit

Twenty years is a long time in medicine. I celebrated my 20th pharmacy class reunion last weekend. Of course reunions are time to reflect back to our early years as pharmacists. Lots has changed. Much of the therapeutics I was taught is now obsolete. In 1993, HIV was a death sentence and there were only three, largely ineffective drugs available. Thanks to new drugs, HIV can now be managed like a chronic disease, and some of my colleagues have HIV-focused pharmacy practices. The same dramatic changes have occurred in fields like cancer and transplant medicine. And in some cases, the cause of disease has become more clear – my old textbooks make no mention of Helicobacter pylori as a cause of ulcers.

The practice of pharmacy has changed, too. On the positive side, pharmacists are working in new settings where they can focus on medication management, and not just dispensing prescriptions. Regulators are granting pharmacists the ability to take on new roles, and pharmacists are being compensated for more than simply “count, pour, lick and stick.” From that perspective, it’s a promising time to be a pharmacist. But there’s a much more disturbing side to the profession that’s emerging, too. Community (retail) pharmacy practice is under pricing and competitive pressure, and smaller pharmacies are being subsumed into big retailers where the pharmacy department is buried in the back – a loss leader to bring in patients, but hardly with a health-care focus. And most disturbingly, I see a move within retail pharmacy practice to leverage its professional credibility to sell all types of modern-day snake oil, ranging from detox kits and “cleanses” to dubious “food intolerance” testing. Homeopathic remedies (an elaborate placebo system of sugar pills) are increasingly found on pharmacy shelves, alongside real medicine. And don’t forget the enormous wall of vitamins that seems to get larger and larger. Yes, complementary and alternative medicine is booming, and pharmacy wants its share. Pharmacy regulators turn a blind eye. What do my pharmacy colleagues tell me? They’ll tell me it’s customer demand, and that they don’t recommend the quackery. To me, I see this trend as damaging the credibility of pharmacists in the eyes of the public and of other health professionals. (more…)

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I’ve been prescribed an antibiotic. Should I take a probiotic?

We are not one organism, we are many organisms. And when we disturb the relationship with our symbiotic partners, we can suffer unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening consequences. One of the most fascinating areas of medical research is the study of how our bodies interact with the the various organisms that we carry around, on us and in us. A focus is the gastrointestinal tract, particularly how the composition and function of those organisms contribute to what we think of as “normal” function, and how they can affect our risk for obesity and disease. My favorite analogy is from SBM’s own Mark Crislip who likened it to a “metaphorical rainforest” giving a vivid mental image of the of the number of species (thousands) in our guts, and the complexity of that ecology. If the gastrointestinal tract is a rainforest, then antibiotics are the metaphorical clear cutters, wiping out some of the normal bacteria, and creating the conditions where unwanted bacteria can grow.

Antibiotics are among the most useful (if not the most useful) classes of drugs in widespread use today. They’re also among the most widely prescribed, and both antibiotic overuse and their addition to animal feed present real dangers to their ongoing effectiveness. Their popularity stems in part from their effectiveness, but also from the perception that they are safe. And, in general, a course of most antibiotics is usually well tolerated. Among the side effects, diarrhea is common (with an incidence of 5% to 39%). It’s due in part to the antibiotic killing off  our normal “good” bacteria, which can significantly change the most prevalent species. In some cases, “bad” bacteria can surge as a result. Clostridium difficile infection is pretty much the worst gastrointestinal consequence of antibiotic therapy. It isn’t just a cause of antibiotic-induced diarrhea, “C. diff” infections are virulent and vicious, spreading easily, especially among hospitalized patients, causing widespread misery and even killing. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Ask the (Science-Based) Pharmacist: What are the benefits of coffee enemas?

How do you like your coffee? Rectally.

How do you like your coffee? Rectally.

It might not occur to you, sipping your morning coffee, that you could derive tremendous health benefits by simply shooting that coffee directly into your rectum. Yet many people believe this. Suzy Cohen, who calls herself, “America’s Pharmacist™” and also “America’s Most Trusted Pharmacist®” is a proponent. Her syndicated column Ask the Pharmacist recently contained this question and response: (more…)

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