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Vitamin B12 – The Energy Panacea?

Having spent many hours working in close proximity to a wall of vitamins, I’ve answered a lot of vitamin questions, and given a lot of recommendations. Before I can make a recommendation, I need to ask some questions of my own. My first is almost always, “Why do you want to take a vitamin?” The most common response I’m given is “insurance” – which usually means supplementation in the absence of any symptom or medical need. Running a close second is “I need more energy.” With some digging, the situation usually boils down to a perceived lack of energy compared to some prior period: last week, last year, or a decade ago. While I may identify possible medical issues as a result of these interviews (these are referred to a physician), I’m often faced with a patient with mild and non-specific descriptions of fatigue. And more often than not, they’ve already decided that they’re going to buy a multivitamin supplement. When it comes to boosting the energy levels, they’re often interested in a specific one: Vitamin B12 (cobalamin). So why does vitamin B12, among all the vitamins, have a halo of benefit for fatigue and energy levels? The answer is part science and a whole lot of marketing. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Eat Fat, Get Thin?

I recently received an e-mail from a high school science department head who is teaching a unit on nutritional science. He asked for my opinion of a YouTube video of a lecture advocating a high saturated fat diet. The speaker is Donald W. Miller, Jr., M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at my alma mater, the University of Washington. My correspondent commented, “I have a feeling that there is room for some skepticism.”   I agree: there’s a whole lot of room for skepticism.

An article based on that video lecture is available on Dr. Miller’s website.   It’s entitled “Enjoy Saturated Fats, They’re Good for You!”  If you want to judge for yourselves, I recommend the article over the video, as he is a poor public speaker.

Dr. Miller’s website contains a lot of disturbing material.  He appears to be a contrarian who disagrees with the consensus of scientific experts on a wide variety of topics, for instance:

  • Health Benefits of a Low-Carbohydrate, High-Saturated Fat Diet
  • Fighting Fluoride [fluoride is poison!]
  • Cardiac Surgeon Dr. Donald Miller Tells Dr. Dean Ornish to Take a Hike
  • Avoid Flu Shot, Take Vitamin D [flu is a Vitamin D deficiency disease?]
  • Questioning HIV/AIDS, Human-Caused Global Warming, and other Orthodoxies in the Biomedical Sciences
  • A User-Friendly Vaccination Schedule [no vaccinations before age 2, no live vaccines, etc.]

He refers to questionable sources of information like the Weston Price Foundation and the notorious AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Collagen: An implausible supplement for joint pain

I’m one of those odd people that enjoys distance running. I end up spending a lot of time in the company of other runners. And when we’re not running, we’re usually griping about our running injuries. As the cohort that I run with ages, the injuries are getting more prevalent. Besides the acute conditions, the chronic problems are starting to appear. Our osteoarthritis years are here.

As the available pharmacist, I get a lot of questions about joint pain. What’s reassuring, I tell them, is that they shouldn’t blame running. Osteoarthritis is common — the most frequent cause of joint pain. For some, it starts in our twenties, and by our seventies, osteoarthritis is virtually certain. Regardless of your level of exercise, the passage of time means the classic osteoarthritis symptoms — joint pain and morning stiffness, that worsens over time.

Osteoarthritis progresses gradually. Blame biomechanics and biochemistry. It starts with a breakdown of the cartilage matrix. Stage 2 progresses to erosion of the cartilage and a release of collagen fragments. Stage 3 is a chronic inflammatory response. The goals of treatment are to reduce inflammation and pain, and stop progressive disease. There’s no drug therapy that’s been show to actually improve joint function. Reduce pain, or slow inflammation, yes. Analgesics, like Tylenol, and anti-inflammatories are mainstays. But repair damage? Sorry: you lose it, it’s gone. Chondrocytes don’t seem to be able to repair the overall matrix — which is made mainly of collagen. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Steven Fowkes (Part 2 of 2): Nutrients for Better Mental Performance

Last week, in part 1, I covered Steven Fowkes’ “cures” for Alzheimer’s and herpes. In part 2, I will cover a video where he goes further afield. It is titled “Nutrients for Better Mental Performance,” but he also discusses sleep, depression, hangovers, and a lot of other topics.

Some of what he says are simple truisms: mental performance is affected by everything related to health such as sleep, food, vitamins, minerals, detoxification, nutrients, amino acids, hormone replacement, pharmaceuticals and herbs. Metabolism is the key to brain function: 3% of the body uses 20% of the energy. Macronutrients, micronutrients, exercise, water, and breathing are important too.

We knew that.

Which nutrients promote optimal brain function? All of them: any deficiency will affect the brain. Fowkes goes beyond the evidence to claim that some nutrients are needed at super-physiological levels; Mother Nature is not optimal. Some supplements appear to work but the effects are not sustainable. It’s not about parts, but about how things work together. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Nutrition

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“And one more thing” about Steve Jobs’ battle with cancer

I’ve written quite a bit about Steve Jobs in the wake of his death nearly four weeks ago. The reason, of course, is that the course of his cancer was of intense interest after it became public knowledge that he had cancer. In particular, what I most considered to be worth discussing was whether the nine month delay between Jobs’ diagnosis and his undergoing surgery for his pancreatic insulinoma might have been what did him in. I’ve made my position very clear on the issue, namely that, although Jobs certainly did himself no favors in delaying his surgery, it’s impossible to know whether and by how much he might have decreased his chances of surviving his cancer through his flirtation with woo. However much his medical reality distortion field might have mirrored his tech reality distortion field, my best guess was that Jobs probably only modestly decreased his chances of survival, if that. I also pointed out that, if more information came in that necessitated it I’d certainly reconsider my conclusions.

The other issue that’s irritated me is that the quackery apologists and quacks have been coming out of the woodwork, each claiming that if only Steve Jobs had subjected himself to this woo or taken this supplement, he’d still be alive today. Nicholas Gonzalez was first out of the gate with that particularly nasty, unfalsifiable form of fake sadness, but he wasn’t the only one. Recently Bill Sardi claimed that there are all sorts of “natural therapies” that could have helped Jobs, while Dr. Robert Wascher, MD, a surgical oncologist from California (who really should know better but apparently does not) claims that tumeric spice could have prevented or cured Steve Jobs’ cancer, although in all fairness he also pointed out that radical surgery is currently the only cure. Unfortunately, he also used the failure of chemotherapy to cure this kind of cancer as an excuse to call for being more “open-minded” to alternative therapies. Even Andrew Weil, apparently stung by the speculation that Jobs’ delay in surgery to pursue quackery might have contributed to his death, to tout how great he thinks integrative cancer care is.

Last week, Amazon.com finally delivered my copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but, because of the intense interest in Jobs’ medical history, not to mention a desire on my part to see (1) if there were any new information there that would allow me to assess how accurate my previous commentary was and (2) information that would allow me to fill in the gaps in the story from the intense media coverage. So I couldn’t help myself. I skipped ahead to the chapters on his illness, of which there are three, entitled Round One, Round Two, and Round Three. Round One covers the initial diagnosis. Round Two deals with the recurrence of Jobs’ cancer and his liver transplant. Finally, Round Three deals with the final recurrence of Jobs’ cancer, his decline, and death.

Before I start, a warning: I’m going to discuss these issues in a fair amount of detail. If you want “medical spoilers,” don’t read any further. On the other hand, one spoiler I will mention is that there was surprisingly little here that wasn’t reported before; the only difference is that there is more detail. However, the details are informative.
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Steve Jobs’ medical reality distortion field

As I pointed out in my previous post about Steve Jobs, I’m a bit of an Apple fan boy. A housemate of mine got the very first Mac way back in 1984, and ever since I bought my first computer that was mine and mine alone back in 1991 (a Mac LC), I’ve used nothing but Macintosh computers, except when compelled to use Windows machines by work—and even then under protest. Indeed, as I searched for jobs at various times in my life, I asked myself whether I could accept a job at an institution that didn’t permit me to have a Mac in my office, such as the V.A. Fortunately, I never had to make that choice. All of this explains why I paid a lot of attention to Steve Jobs and also why his death saddened me and, relevant to this blog, the clinical history of the cancer that killed him fascinates me.

It’s often been said that there was a sort of “reality distortion field” around Steve Jobs. It was a part joking, part derogatory, part admiring term applied to Jobs’ talent for persuasion in which, through a combination of personal charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, and persistence, Jobs was able to persuade almost anyone, even developers and engineers, of almost anything. In particular, it referred to his ability to convince so many people that each new Apple product was the greatest thing ever, even when that product had obvious flaws. Unfortunately, as more news comes out about how Steve Jobs initially dealt with his diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (specifically, an insulinoma) back in 2003 and 2004, it’s become apparent that Jobs had his own medical reality distortion field, at least in the beginning right after his diagnosis of a rare form of pancreatic cancer, that allowed him to come to think that he might be able to reverse his cancer with diet plus various “alternative” modalities.

In the immediate aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death, I summarized the facts about Jobs’ case that were known at the time. In particular, I took issue with the claims of a skeptic that “alternative medicine killed Steve Jobs.” At the time, I pointed out that, although it was very clear that Steve Jobs did himself no favors by delaying his initial surgery for nine months after his initial diagnosis, we do not have sufficient information to know what his clinical situation was and therefore how much, if at all, he decreased his odds of survival by not undergoing surgery expeditiously. To recap: Did Steve Jobs harm himself by trying diet and alternative medicine first? Quite possibly. Did alternative medicine kill him? As I’ve argued before, that’s impossible to say, and any skeptic who dogmatically makes such an argument has taken what we known beyond what can be supported. Regular readers know that when I see a story that looks as though “alternative medicine” directly contributed to the death of someone, I usually pull no punches, but in this case I had a hard time being so definitive because the unknowns are too many, with all due respect to Ramzi Amri, a Research Associate at Harvard Medical School who in my opinion also went too far. I did, however, point out that I’m always open to changing my opinion if new evidence comes in. Jobs was always incredibly secretive about his medical condition, so much so that it didn’t even come out in the press until after it had happened that he had undergone a liver transplant in 2008 for metastatic insulinoma in his liver, just as his cancer diagnosis in 2003 remained secret for 9 months, not being revealed until he sent an e-mail to Apple employees announcing that he had undergone surgery.

It turns out that, with the imminent release of a major biography of Steve Jobs, more information is finally trickling out about his medical history. For instance, Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson is going to appear on 60 Minutes this Sunday, and apparently he is going to say this:
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Vitamins and Mortality

The discovery of various vitamins – essential micronutrients that cause disease when deficient – was one of the great advances of modern scientific medicine. This knowledge also led to several highly successful public health campaigns, such as vitamin-D supplementation to prevent rickets.

Today vitamins have a deserved reputation for being an important part of overall health. However, their reputation has gone beyond the science and taken on almost mythical proportions. Perhaps it is due to aggressive marketing from the supplement industry, perhaps recent generations have grown up being told by their parents thousands of times how important it is to take their vitamins, or eat vitamin-rich food. Culture also plays a role – Popeye eating spinach to make himself super strong is an example this pervasive message.

Regardless of the cause, the general feeling is that vitamins are all good – they are not only important for health, they promote health. Many people take vitamin supplements on the idea that more is better, or for nutritional “insurance” to make sure they are getting enough of every vitamin.

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Posted in: Nutrition

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Steve Jobs’ cancer and pushing the limits of science-based medicine

Editor’s note: There is an update to this post.

An Apple fanboy contemplates computers and mortality

I’m a bit of an Apple fanboy and admit it freely. My history with Apple products goes way back to the early 1980s, when one of my housemates at college had an Apple IIe, which I would sometimes use for writing, gaming, and various other applications. Indeed, I remember one of the first “bloody” battle games for the IIe. It was called The Bilestoad and involved either taking on the computer or another opponent with battle axes in combat that basically involved hacking each other’s limbs off, complete with chunky, low-resolution blood and gore. (You youngsters out there will be highly amused at the gameplay here.) Of course, it’s amazing that nothing’s changed when it comes to computer games except the quality of graphics. Be that as it may, this same roommate was one of the first students to get a hold of the new Macintosh when it was released in early 1984. I really liked it right from the start but only got to play with it occasionally for a few months. After using a Macintosh SE to do a research project during my last year of medical school, I have used the Macintosh platform more or less exclusively, and the first computer I purchased with my own money was a Mac LC back in 1990 or 1991. Today, I have multiple Apple products, including my MacBook Air, my iPhone, and my old school iPod Classic, among others. Oddly enough, I do not have an iPad, but that’s probably only a matter of time, awaiting software that lets me do actual work on it.

All of this is my typical long-winded way of explaining why I was immensely saddened when I learned of Steve Jobs’ death last week. Ever since speculation started to swirl about his health back 2004 and then again in 2008, capped off by the revelation that he had undergone a liver transplant for a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2009, I feared the worst. Last week, the end finally came. However, there is much to learn relevant to the themes of this blog in examining the strange and unusual case of Steve Jobs. Now, after his death five days ago, which coincidentally came a mere day after the launch of iCloud and the iPhone 4S, it occurs to me that it would be worthwhile to try to synthesize what we know about Jobs’ battle with cancer and then to discuss the use (and misuse) of his story. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do because Jobs was notoriously secretive and I can only rely on what has been published in the media, some of which is conflicting and all of which lacks sufficient detail to come to any definite conclusions, but I will try, hoping that the upcoming release of his biography by Walter Isaacson in couple of weeks might answer some of the questions I still have remaining, given that Isaacson followed Jobs through his battle with cancer and was given unprecedented access to Jobs and those close to him.

In the meantime, I speculate. I hope my speculations are sufficiently educated as not to be shown to be completely wrong, but they are speculations nonetheless.
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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Artificial Sweeteners: Is Aspartame Safe?

Note: This was originally published as a “SkepDoc” column in Skeptic magazine under the title “Aspartame: Safe Sweetener or Perilous Poison?” and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Michael Shermer. There are other artificial sweeteners not specifically addressed here, but as far as I know there are no convincing health concerns about any of them, just this same kind of hype and fearmongering based on animal studies and speculation with no validation from human clinical studies.


Aspartame is a low calorie sugar substitute marketed under brand names like Equal and Nutrasweet. It is a combination of two amino acids: L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. It is available as individual packets for adding to foods and it is a component of many diet soft drinks and other reduced-calorie foods. Depending on who you listen to, it is either a safe aid to weight loss and diabetes control or it is evil incarnate, a deadly poison that is devastating the health of consumers.

A reader sent me an ad from his local newspaper that recommended using stevia instead of aspartame and made these startling claims about aspartame:

  1. It is derived from the excrement of genetically modified E. coli bacteria
  2. Upon ingestion, it breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid.
  3. It accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA each year including seizures, migraines, dizzinesss, nausea, muscle spasms, weight gain, depression, fatigue, irritability, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety, tinnitus, schizophrenia and death.

Let’s look at those claims one by one.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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TIME Magazine, Dr. Oz, What to Eat, and Supplements

Here on SBM we have frequently had cause to criticize the media for poor science reporting and for spreading misinformation. Among many other individual offenders, we have criticized Dr. Oz for promoting alternative medicine on his TV show and gullibly promoting guests who pretend to talk to the dead and pretend to heal people with carnival sideshow tricks. We tend to be negative and critical because somebody has to do it, but it’s not pleasant.  For once, I have some good things to say.

The September 12 issue of TIME magazine was a Special Nutrition Issue. The cover featured pictures of food and the title “What to Eat Now: Uncovering the Myths about Food by Dr. Oz.” It devotes 7 pages to an article by him entitled “The Oz Diet: No more myths. No more fads. What you should eat — and why.” This is followed by a 5 page article by John Cloud “Nutrition in a Pill? I took 3000 supplements over five months. Here’s what happened.” Both articles have a rational, science-based perspective without any intrusions of woo-woo. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Science and the Media

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