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Archive for Herbs & Supplements

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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Full of Energy

Want to know what a craniosacral treatment is actually like? How about reiki? What about Eden energy medicine – do you even know what that is? Read on, because this past Sunday afternoon I experienced all three.

But first, the why and where. The local Healing Arts Alliance of the Big Bend (which is what they call the area of Florida I live in) held an information session for the public at our local library’s meeting room. Practitioners of about 10 different “healing arts” sat at a circle of folding tables chatting with visitors and handing out information. One even brought her diagnostic machine, which measures a person’s aura. (More on this later.) Some offered free samples of their treatments. It was a great opportunity for science-based medicine field work and I aimed to take full advantage.

The Alliance handed out a free booklet at the door listing local health care practitioners who:

. . . share a commitment to the whole person, patient-centered approach to health and wellness.

But, as the booklet explains,

[w]e do not endorse any specific method or system. Our member/practitioners are committed to a nonjudgmental collaboration and cooperative relationship . . .

This philosophy is indeed fortunate. If any of these practitioners endorsed a specific method, such as, say, the scientific method, it could lead to the judgment that what some of the others are saying is gobbledygook.

The booklet contains a helpful “Glossary of Holistic Health Terms,” which further serves to make the point that nonjudgmental collaboration is absolutely necessary to the cause. A few examples:

BioMat: This device delivers the highest vibrational resonance deep into all the tissues of the body using negative ions, amethyst, and Far-Infrared light to open the channels for intelligent cellular communication leading to DNA repair and total body wellness. Negative ions, found in abundance in nature, heighten alertness and mental energy, and decrease drowsiness. Amethyst enhances strength, stability and vigor. Far-Infrared light assists blood flow, helps release toxins and enlivens metabolism. Elevating temperature eliminates bacteria, heals and relaxes muscles, boosts immune system [sic], and promotes cardio fitness and healthy arteries.

Total body wellness is hard to beat. The one true cure, indeed! (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy

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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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Integrative Medicine’s Collateral Damage

Integrative medicine combines the practice of medicine with alternative medicine. Proponents tend to take a paragraph or two to say this, but that is what remains when boiled down to its essence. By putting this more concise definition together with Tim Minchin’s often-quoted observation about alternative medicine, you get: integrative medicine is the practice of medicine combined with medicine that either has not been proved to work or proved not to work. If it is proved to work, it is medicine.

I couldn’t find an official start date for integrative medicine, but it seems to have been around for about 15-20 years. (Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, an early adapter, opened in 1997.) Yet despite some lofty pronouncements about transforming patient care, there is still no good evidence that integrative medicine improves patient outcomes. It seems unlikely that such evidence is forthcoming. It is illogical to assume that adding therapies that do not work, or are proven not to work, would benefit a patient except by inducing the ethically problematic placebo response.

Whatever its goals initially, integrative medicine now appears to serve two purposes. First, it attracts funding from wealthy patrons (Samueli, Bravewell) and the government (the military, NCCAM). Second, it is a marketing device used by hospitals, academic medical centers and individual practitioners. As an added bonus, alternative medicine is usually fee-for-service because very little of it is covered by insurance. And whatever its charms as a money-making device, given the lack of proven health benefit it is fair to ask: is integrative medicine worth it? To answer that question, let us look at what might be called the supply side of integrative medicine practitioners’ delivery of alternative medicine. Here we run into some unpleasant facts proponents seem unwilling to acknowledge: integrative medicine’s collateral damage. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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Licensing Naturopaths: the triumph of politics over science

Naturopaths shouldn’t get too excited about having a special week in their honor. The U.S. House of Representatives gave watermelons a whole month. As between naturopathy and watermelons for my good health, I’ll go with the watermelons any day. You’ll soon understand why.

Today is not my usual blogging day. But when David Gorksi announced SBM’s celebration of Naturopathic Medicine Week, I volunteered an extra post to answer the question I am sure is on everyone’s mind: How in the heck do they get away with this stuff?

The answer lies in the creation of Naturopathic Medicine Week itself: politics. Just as Sen. Barbara Mikulski turned her credulous acceptance of naturopathy into a Senate Resolution and slipped it by her Senate colleagues, clueless legislators around the country are sponsoring bills to license naturopaths, in some cases as primary care physicians. And it’s not as if these legislators don’t know they are incorporating quackery into primary care. Practices such as naturopathic “organ repositioning” (an anatomical impossibility) and Mark Crislip noted, what little data there is suggests that naturopathic primary care is associated with worse outcomes. But evidence is not necessary in the political realm. And now the political process has given naturopaths an additional incentive for licensure. They argue that the Affordable Care Act mandates reimbursement for their services. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Biotin: Haircuts Plus Health Advice?

A friend asked me, “What do you know about biotin?”

I said, “Not much. Why do you ask?”

She explained that the woman who cuts her hair at the hair salon recommended she take biotin to strengthen her nails and improve hair growth. She tried it, and within a couple of months, her nails looked better than they ever had in her whole life: the ridging was gone and they were no longer splitting or bending. And her hair, which had begun to thin, was noticeably thicker again.

I know what you’re going to say: this is nothing but a testimonial, and she could have been mistaken: post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that. Hair salons are not reliable sources of health advice, and perhaps not even a very reliable source of hair advice. I am leery of their recommendations for expensive shampoos and gimmicky conditioners. They offer things I don’t want, like hair coloring (I consider my gray hairs hard-earned badges of honor), waxing, eyebrow arch threading, scalp massage, and facials. Some of them have tanning beds in a back room. Incredibly, several of them in my area even offer ear candling! (more…)

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Dietary supplement industry says “no” to more information for consumers (again)

Once again, the dietary supplement industry is fighting efforts to give consumers more information about the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements.

Big Supp is very clever. It sells consumers on the phony idea that they need dietary supplements for good health. Even as the evidence continues to mount that consumers don’t need supplements and shouldn’t take them, the industry continues to convince the public otherwise. And in 2011 they raked in $30 billion.

The state and federal governments have served as handmaidens to the industry in this clever marketing strategy. Congress’s gift to the supplement industry, the Orwellian-named Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) “effectively excludes manufacturers of these products from virtually all regulations that are in place for prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and puts the requirement to demonstrate harm on the FDA, rather than the onus on the manufacturer to show a product is safe and effective,” as SBM’s Scott Gavura pointed out. DSHEA allows supplements to make “structure and function” claims, although no one seems to know what that means, including the FDA.

States have done their part in granting chiropractors and naturopaths the authority to give “nutritional” advice and recommend dietary supplements, sometimes on the basis of dubious diagnostic testing purporting to reveal imagined nutritional deficiencies. This gives them carte blanche to sell supplements to their patients, a clear conflict of interest.

And when proposed regulation threatens their profits, the dietary supplement industry and its surrogates enlist the very public it duped to join the battle. The industry convinces the public that someone is trying to take away their access to supplements they never needed in the first place. This threat is dressed up in terms designed to push all the buttons of a public already primed to be leery of “the government” – their “health freedom” may be taken away. Actually, freedom to choose among health care practices is most threatened by withholding readily-available information which would adequately inform health care decisions. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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CAM Docket: Functional Endocrinology Update

Sometimes the media gets it right.

From time to time, SBM has reported on the disheartening credulity of reporters when they cover so-called “alternative” medicine. Denver’s Channel 7, an ABC affiliate, is a happy exception to the rule. Reporter Theresa Marchetta first broke the story of Brandon and Heather Credeur, chiropractors practicing “Functional Endocrinology.” And for three years Marchetta, with the assistance of reporter Phil Tenser, followed up, interviewing hundreds of patients who lost thousands of dollars paid to the Functional Endocrinology Center of Colorado for treatment of their diabetes and other endocrine disorders. They’ve reported regularly as the Credeurs legal travails progressed through various judicial and administrative forums. Channel 7 and its reporters deserve substantial credit for pursing this story. The Credeurs might have escaped further censure without their persistence.

Another recurring frustration at SBM is medicine’s embrace of alternative medicine, expressed repeatedly at SBM in posts on quackademic medicine and the branding device known as integrative medicine. We’ve also lamented the seeming complicity of the state medical societies in allowing quackery to be legalized in the form of complementary and alternative medicine provider practice acts.

But sometimes medicine gets it right.

The Colorado Medical Board has somewhat redeemed itself in ordering Brandon and Health Credeur to cease and desist the unlicensed practice of medicine. That’s right. A medical board has finally put its collective foot down and pushed back against chiropractic’s increasingly aggressive push to practice medicine.

And sometimes SBM appears to be making inroads into the hostile incursion of alternative medicine.

I recently discovered that if you google “functional endocrinology”, first up on the list is CAM Docket: Functional Endocrinology, the very post updated today. Admittedly, it appears at the head of a depressingly long list of chiropractic websites advertising the practice, but at least we get a first crack at anyone who might be considering paying thousands of dollars and wasting time, and perhaps their health, on this useless nonsense.

A trifecta in the war on quackery! Revel in this victory, supporters of science-based medicine, for it is small and the victory may be fleeting. Let’s see how the battle is going. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements

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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…)

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Melatonin for sleep disorders – Safe and effective?

It’s summertime, and the living is easy. Forget the solstice. For most of North America, this week is the real start of summer – July 1 in Canada, and July 4 in the USA. Vacation time means breaking out of that those usual routines of work and school. I’m amazed after a few weeks of vacation how much sleep my body will accept if given the opportunity, where it will climb from six to nine hours a night within a week. I try not to change my kids’ habits too much, and one area I’m fairly disciplined with is maintaining a predictable sleep/wake cycle, even when they’re on vacation. I’ve learned, mainly through trial and error, that I suffer the consequences when my own kids don’t get enough sleep, or when their sleep cycle is thrown off. It wasn’t always like this. I remember a period of what felt like years when I had to crawl out of my child’s bedroom on my hands and knees so as to not disturb a child who simply would not fall asleep. And when it finally, mercifully, occurred, it would be a brief respite before the cycle began again. The sleepless nights left us all cranky and exhausted. Admittedly I was fortunate, either due to my successful parenting (but more likely mean reversion) and my kids are pretty good sleepers now. I’m reminded of my good fortune when I speak with exhausted and frustrated parents who have children that cannot sleep and are worried about the causes and consequences of persistent insomnia. As a pharmacist I’m regularly asked about insomnia for both kids and adults as there are a number of over-the-counter products available, and many consumers are understandably apprehensive about seeking out prescription products. Tell someone there’s “natural supplement” for sleep and there’s usually a lot of interest. That’s what I’ve seen with melatonin, a hormone that is sold without a prescription in Canada, the United States, and other countries. It is widely perceived as safe and alternative health purveyors like naturopaths, and even some health professionals, may recommend it for treating sleeping problems in both adults and children. Beyond sleeping, some believe melatonin is a wonder drug with efficacy for diseases ranging from chronic fatigue to cancer to irritable bowel. (more…)

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