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A balanced look at gluten sensitivity

Even though it doesn’t appear on any calendar, May 2014 will go down in history as “gluten sensitivity month.” After RealClearScience picked up on a 2013 paper that brought into question the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), news sites were obliged to post their own analysis of the article, and the blogosphere was alight with pro- and anti-gluten posts. One of the authors of the paper in question, Dr. Peter Gibson of Monash University, was even mentioned on the People magazine website, which gives him the distinction of being the only researcher to be published alongside the Kardashians.

Photo by flickr user surlygirl used under a CC licence.

Photo by flickr user surlygirl used under a CC licence.

The Monash paper,1 which was previously discussed on SBM, suggested that it might be the fructans in wheat and not gluten that is responsible for symptoms in IBS sufferers who feel better on a gluten-free diet. Fructans belong to a group of short-chain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs that are readily fermented by bacteria in the intestine. If fructans were really to blame for wheat-induced gastrointestinal symptoms, this would be good news for IBS sufferers currently on a gluten-free diet — for some, a diet low in FODMAPs would be less restrictive than one without gluten, making it less prone to nutritional deficiencies.

As it stands, the existence of NCGS has neither been proven nor disproven by anyone. But gluten sensitivity sits at the intersection of several dilemmas in medicine today and, unlike how it’s betrayed in the media, is hardly an all-or-nothing affair. Proving it wrong will not instantly heal the people who have prescribed themselves a gluten-free diet. Proving it wrong will not produce a cure for IBS, a shorter time to a celiac diagnosis, or the correct way to handle potential celiac disease. Neither will proving it right. In the eyes of one gluten avoider, “Modern medicine is really good at crisis intervention…[but] they don’t do well with chronic issues”.2

With these issues in mind, it’s time to move past the media debates and fad dieters and take a balanced look at NCGS. This overview will use four recent articles by the Monash group1, 3, 4, 5 as a framework to uncover some of the factors contributing to the gluten sensitivity phenomenon. Even though it has been gone over many times, a discussion of the FODMAPs study is still in order — in fact, essential — to appreciate the central importance of the elimination diet in diagnosing a food sensitivity. Along the way, we’ll get an idea of who the gluten sensitive might be, how successful gluten-free diets really are, and how challenging it is to pursue a celiac diagnosis. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Nocturnal Enuresis

chirobedwetting

There is no role of chiropractic in treating childhood bedwetting

In pediatrics, very few things are completely black and white. This is an aspect of conventional medicine in general that tends to separate the approach of science-based practitioners from that of proponents of the many forms of irregular medicine commonly discussed on SBM. They appear to experience no shame in claiming absolute certainty while doling out all manner of implausible remedies for ailments ranging from the well-established to the fictional.

While we do face questions from patients and their caregivers regarding largely invented diagnoses in pediatrics, with chronic Lyme disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity being just two of many increasingly encountered concerns, my experience has been that alternative medical providers tend to focus their efforts on the same real problems that pediatricians and family practitioners deal with on a daily basis. And I don’t believe that it is mere coincidence that these conditions are largely self-limited in nature, a fact often not shared. Parental and patient buy-in is often more easily obtained with certainty rather than nuance.

Chiropractors, for example, seem to pride themselves on their ability to cure ear infections. Of course in greater than 80% of children with acute ear infections, symptoms will resolve without any intervention whatsoever. This is why the AAP has been trying for years to decrease the rates of antibiotic prescriptions for ear infections, unfortunately with little in the way of success thus far. And when the infections don’t resolve on their own, there is no good evidence that anything a chiropractor has to offer can help. The same can be said for their claims regarding colic and gastroesophageal reflux, which I’ve written about before.

Another condition frequently mentioned by chiropractors as being particularly in their wheelhouse is nighttime bedwetting, the medical term for this being nocturnal enuresis. Rarely have I seen a chiropractic website with a section on the benefits for children that does not mention their success in curing bedwetting. Fred Clary, DC, even claims on his website to be able to cure bedwetting in the newborn baby. And to think I’ve just been ignoring the problem as a newborn hospitalist. Is it because the thought of a newborn infant gaining continence is absurd, or am I just a shill for Big Pampers?
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Naturopathy vs. Science: Prenatal Vitamins

Pregnant1

This is another post in the naturopathy versus science series, where a naturopath’s medical advice is assessed against the scientific evidence. Today’s topic is brought to you by Toronto naturopath Shawna Darou, who recently published her evaluation of prenatal vitamins.

Vitamin supplementation is unnecessary for the vast majority of people. You wouldn’t know this walking through a drug store, where you’ll usually find an entire aisle packed with supplements. Alternative health providers like naturopaths tend to be strong supporters of supplementation, but this advice seems to be based mainly on the belief that “vitamins are magic” rather than good science. The best research hasn’t established a strong evidence base for taking  supplements. We definitely need vitamins in our diet to live. But that’s where we should be getting those vitamins – from our food, instead of from pills. If you eat a reasonable and balanced diet, and have no medical conditions that require special consideration, vitamin supplementation won’t offer meaningful health benefits. In the absence of any deficiency, vitamin supplements seem to be useless at best and harmful at worst. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A Statement on Cervical Manipulation and Dissections

VAD

The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recently published in the journal Stroke a thorough analysis of the evidence for an association between cervical manipulative therapy (CMT) and both vertebral artery dissection (VAD) and internal carotid artery dissection (ICAD). The full article is online: “Cervical Arterial Dissections and Association With Cervical Manipulative Therapy: A Statement for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.” For background, an arterial dissection is essentially a tear in the inner lining of the artery. This tear disrupts the normal flow of blood, and also causes platelets to gather at the site of injury. This can result in a blood clot at the site of the dissection. This blood clot can block flow through the artery, or it can break off and lodge downstream, blocking flow at that point. Dissections, therefore, can result in a stroke (a lack of blood flow to a portion of the brain causing damage). There are four arteries in the neck that bring blood from the heart to the brain, two carotid arteries in the front, and two vertebral arteries in the back. A dissection in one or more of these arteries is associated with 2% of all strokes, but with 8-25% of strokes in patients <45 years old. This is mostly because strokes associated with processes like atherosclerosis are much less common in the younger population. Arterial dissections are classified as either spontaneous or traumatic. Trauma can be either severe, such as whiplash injury from a car accident, or subtle, such as from yoga or simply turning one’s neck to look past the shoulder. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Antibiotics vs. the Microbiome

missing microbes

In 1850, one in four American babies died before their first birthday, and people of all ages died of bacterial infections that could have been successfully treated today with antibiotics. Unfortunately, treatments that have effects usually have side effects, and we are seeing problems due to the overuse of antibiotics. They are given to people with viral infections for which they are useless and to food animals to improve their growth. As a result, antibiotic-resistant organisms are evolving and the development of new antibiotics is not keeping up with the threat. This is common knowledge, but we’re starting to realize that there may be other problems with antibiotics even when they are used correctly to save lives.

The rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, food allergies, hay fever, eczema, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, acid reflux disease, and esophageal cancer are all on the rise. Martin Blaser, MD, director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU, thinks antibiotics may be to blame, either as a causal or a contributing factor. In his book Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, he describes some of the fascinating research he and others have been doing to elucidate the role of the more than 100 trillion microbes that live on and in each of us, and the possibility that antibiotics may have a causal role in several of the so-called diseases of civilization. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution, Obstetrics & gynecology, Pharmaceuticals

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Medical marijuana as the new herbalism, part 2: Cannabis does not cure cancer

marijuana-cancer

About a month ago, I finally wrote the post I had been promising to write for months before about medical marijuana. At the time, I also promised that there would be follow-up posts. Like Dug the Dog seeing a squirrel, I kept running into other topics that kept me from revisiting the topic. However, over the past couple of weeks, the New York Times gave me just the little nudge I needed to come back and revisit the topic, first by openly advocating the legalization of marijuana, then by vastly overstating the potential medical benefits of pot (compare the NYT coverage with my post from a month ago), and finally this weekend by running a story lamenting the federal law that makes research into medical marijuana difficult in this country.

I stated my position on marijuana last time, which is that marijuana should be at least decriminalized or, preferably, legalized, taxed, and regulated, just like tobacco and alcohol. I also likened the cult of medical marijuana to the “new herbalism,” because it (1) vastly inflates the potential of medicinal uses of marijuana and (2) ascribes near-mystical powers to smoking or making extracts out of marijuana, rather than identifying and isolating constituents of the plant that might have medicinal value. All of this is very much like herbalism in alternative medicine. Indeed, promoting laws legalizing medicinal marijuana is such an obvious ploy to open the door to full legalization that some advocates don’t even bother to disingenuously deny it any more. Given that I tend to support legalization, as a physician this sort of deception irritates me. It also has consequences, particularly when overblown claims are made for what cannabis can do. Perhaps the best example of this is the claim that cannabis cures cancer, which pops up all over the Internet in memes such as the one in the image above.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Yet another plague panic


Case #3 from the 1976 Ebola outbreak in Zaire; picture by Dr. Lyle Conrad, Centers for Disease Control – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #7042.

This image is in the public domain and thus free of any copyright restrictions. As a matter of courtesy the CDC requests that the content provider be credited and notified in any public or private usage of this image. Taken from the Wikimedia Commons.

Thirty plus years in medicine has given me some perspective as has infectious diseases (ID). One of the almost TNTC cool things about ID is that infections, unlike the diseases of modernity, have been plaguing humans since before we were humans.

There is a sense, a usually unvoiced assumption, on the part of many people that we are supposed to be healthy, that our default mode is good health and that with the proper diet and attitude we could obtain the health that was ours before the fall.

I think not. I see no perfection in any human, except maybe my wife who would achieve perfection if only she liked beer and steak.

We are a hodgepodge of anatomic and physiologic compromises that allowed us to spread across the world. But if you like to read history, you realize that most of the time we died like flies from infections, trauma and other medical problems. The variations that allowed us to survive malaria or tuberculosis led to sickle crises and the metabolic syndrome. Even with evolution no good mutation ever goes unpunished. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy

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Chiropractic scope of practice includes . . . well, you won’t believe it

Ladies, how would you like a chiropractor to deliver your baby? How about perform your annual well-woman exams, such as breast exam, bi-manual pelvic exam, speculum exam, recto-vaginal exam and Pap smear?

Sound out of their league? I thought so too. Way out. But, in some parts of the U.S., the law allows chiropractors to do all of these things and a great deal more. Including “adjusting” your basset hound.

chiropractor-adjusting-basset-hound

A 2011 survey asked chiropractic regulatory officials whether their jurisdictions (all states, plus D.C., Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but I’ll refer to them collectively as the “states”) allowed 97 different diagnostic, evaluation, and management procedures. The results were recently reported and interpreted in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, in an article authored by Mabel Chang, DC, MPH, who was primarily responsible for the survey. Missouri allows the most procedures (92) and Texas, the fewest (30). A handful of states did not respond or did not respond to all questions, but the overall response rate was 96%. Results from a survey of Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be reported in a separate article. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Obstetrics & gynecology, Politics and Regulation

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Left Brain – Right Brain Myth

hemisity
Years of analyzing popular but dubious claims leads to the impression that just about all knowledge that filters down to the popular consciousness is essentially wrong, at least as a first approximation. This may sound cynical, but think about any area in which you have specialized knowledge and compare that to what the average person believes about that area. Now extrapolate that to every other area of specialized knowledge.

I may be skeptical, but I am not a nihilist. I do think the situation can be and is being improved by popularizing science and other areas of knowledge. Experts need to be directly involved in teaching the public about their area, and when they are, popular beliefs can be corrected.

One example is the myth that we only use 10% of our brain. This is still fairly popular, and was recently a central plot element to the blockbuster movie, Lucy. However, Google “10% brain” and you will find nothing but links to sites debunking this myth, at least in the first few pages.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Misguided Naturopath Claims To Have Cured Cervical Dysplasia

Pap test discoverer

George Papanicolaou, who originated the cervical dysplasia test that bears his name (the Pap smear)

Naturopath Kate Whimster has written a case study of a patient with cervical dysplasia who was allegedly treated successfully with naturopathic treatment. She says:

In many cases conventional treatment can be invasive, ineffective, or can put patients at risk for future complications. Fortunately, there are wonderful naturopathic treatment options available both instead of or in conjunction with conventional medical treatments. This case study is a great example of naturopathic treatment for cervical dysplasia as part of my HPV Healing program.

The Patient

The patient was a 32-year-old woman who first had an abnormal Pap smear at the age of 26. Here is Whimster’s report of the course of events:

  • February 2012: Pap HSIL, Colposcopy CIN I, Biopsy HSIL
  • April 2012: LEEP procedure
  • July 2012: Pap HSIL, Colposcopy CIN I, Biopsy HSIL
  • August 2012: Start of naturopathic treatment
  • Nov 2012: Pap LSIL, Colposcopy normal
  • May 2013: Pap LSIL, Colposcopy CIN I, Biopsy LSIL
  • July 2013: Pap ASCUS, Colposcopy normal, Biopsy normal
  • October 2013: Pap normal, Colposcopy “cannot rule out CIN I,” Biopsy normal
  • May 2014: Pap, Colposcopy and Biopsy all normal.

She was also successfully treated for a bacterial vaginal infection. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Naturopathy

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