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Where science meets supplements

Various herbal remedies and supplements.

Various herbal remedies and supplements.

For those of you that missed the Science-Based Medicine day at NECSS last week, I’ve put the highlights in the following post:

The supplement industry is big business, and the popularity of these products seems to keep growing. I once worked at a small independent pharmacy that specialized in supplements, homeopathy and “alternative medicine” as way to differentiate itself from the big chain pharmacies. A lot has changed in a decade. Today, even national chain pharmacies have aisles and aisles of herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and even homeopathy. Yet despite the preponderance of products on store shelves, there is little evidence to suggest that supplements are necessary or even improve health (and may even cause harm). The right for consumers to buy products for themselves, and make their own self-care decisions, is an important one that respects individual autonomy. Regrettably, the regulations of these products are so weak and ineffective that the sale of these products quite possibly harms, rather than helps, the average consumer. The system is rigged against consumers, and it prevents the use of supplements in an evidence-based way. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Is there a naturopathic standard of care?

Stephans
Public outcry over the death of Ezekiel Stephan, the 19-month-old Alberta toddler who died of bacterial meningitis in 2012, continues to grow following last’s weeks court decision, which found both of his parents guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life. David and Collet Stephan failed to seek appropriate medical care for their obviously-ill child, instead relying on a variety of vitamins, supplements, and remedies from the family’s own home business, Truehope Nutritional Support. While sentencing will not take place until later this year, David Stephan hasn’t hesitated to lash out with an open letter to the jury that suggests he remains unrepentant for the series of decisions that led to the death of his son:

I only wish that you could’ve seen how you were being played by the Crown’s deception, drama and trickery that not only led to our key witnesses being muzzled, but has also now led to a dangerous precedent being set in Canada.

The precedent referred by Stephan seems to his perceived “right” to prioritize his beliefs in what is demonstrable pseudoscience and quackery over the “right” for his child to receive appropriate medical care. Ezekiel had never seen a physician. He had received no vaccinations, including vaccination against Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib), a vaccine which protects against bacterial meningitis. And as he lay dying, the parents chose to use an Echinacea tincture recommended by a naturopath, Tracey Tannis, who never even examined Ezekiel. Given the involvement of Tannis in this tragedy, there are renewed questions about naturopathy in Canada, whether naturopaths are capable of self-regulation, and the standard of care they provide. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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The Brown M&M’s of Science-Based Medicine

David Lee Roth. Quality Guru.

David Lee Roth. Quality Guru.

Medicine is constantly changing, and like most health professionals, I am required to maintain my competency to practice. I doubt pharmacists are unique in being inundated with offers of continuing medical/pharmacy education. Some courses are free, some cost hundreds of dollars, and it can be difficult to distinguish the high-quality programs from the biased or low-quality education that furthers a agenda, rather than seeking to truly educate. You can consider the reputation of the provider, or the author, and sometimes the sponsorship gives a clue. When it comes to determining if a program’s content is science-based or not, I find the learning objectives may be all I need to read. One program I saw recently referred to “integrative” approaches to the treatment of an illness. Another claimed it would teach you a  “holistic” approach to managing complex medical condition. Both programs set off skeptical alarm bells. I realized then I’d found the science-based medicine equivalent of a brown M&M. And I have the band Van Halen to thank for that association. (more…)

Posted in: Commentary, Humor, Science and Medicine

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Statins for everyone? Not so fast.

In rosuvastatin we trust?

In rosuvastatin should we trust?

People love the idea of preventive medicine. Preventing a disease, before it occurs, seems intuitively obvious. But when it comes to taking medicine to prevent a disease before it occurs, people tend to be much less comfortable. Not only are there the concerns about the “medicalization” of healthy people, there are good questions about benefits, risks, and costs. Cardiovascular disease will kill many of us, so there’s been decades of research studying how to prevent that first heart attack or stroke. But even if you’re born with good genes and do everything possible to prevent heart disease (e.g., don’t smoke, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, moderate your alcohol, and keep your weight down) you’re still at risk of heart disease. And if you have one or more risk factors for disease, your lifetime risk goes up dramatically. Once you’ve had your first heart attack or stroke, the effectiveness of medical therapy is clear. Drug therapy with medication like the “statins” class of cholesterol-lowering drugs reduces deaths from cardiovascular disease. Given their unambiguous effectiveness, and the high likelihood that many of us will eventually have cardiovascular disease of some sort, the idea of “pre-treating” otherwise-healthy people with drug therapy to possibly prevent that first event has been held out as a potential public health strategy. There’s new evidence that tests this hypothesis, and the results are surprising. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Public Health

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More drugs, more supplements, and potentially more problems

drugs and supplements

Early in my career I was fortunate to be offered a role as a hospital pharmacist, working on an inpatient ward along with physicians, nurses, and a number of other health professionals. My responsibilities included conducting a detailed medication review with each newly admitted patient. We would sit together, often with family members, going through what was sometimes a literal garbage bag full of medications, and documenting the drug, the dose, and the reason for use. I can’t remember the most medications I ever counted, but a dozen or more was normal. Some were taking medications four or five times per day, every day. Were all these drugs necessary? In many cases, no. They’d been started at different times, often by different physicians. Some drugs treated the side effects of other medications. Few had ever had a health professional document them all in a single list. There had rarely been an overall review for safety and appropriateness. Few patients knew the treatment goals of their medications. Often, they’d never been asked about their treatment preferences.

In addition to auditing every prescribed medication, I asked about vitamins, supplements and over-the-counter drugs. I usually encountered the same scenario – multiple products, often without any clear medical need. There were vitamins for “eyes”, tonics for “the blood”, and supplements believed to treat or prevent illness. There was regular (and sometimes dangerous) over-the-counter painkiller consumption. Sometimes all of these combinations were clearly antagonistic: concurrent laxatives and treatments for diarrhea, or sleeping pills taken along with stimulants. Worryingly, few had disclosed the use of many of these products to their physician beforehand.

Medication reviews were a tremendous amount of work – but enormously rewarding. It was not difficult to find one or more cases of drugs potentially causing harm, or situations with clear drug-drug or drug-supplement interaction. In some cases, it was the medications that had put them in the hospital in the first place. Working with the residents and medical staff we could usually find ways to simplify their regimen, often discontinuing one or more drugs, reducing the doses of others, and suggesting ways to cut their supplement and over-the-counter drug use – or at a minimum, reduce the risk that these products could cause problems. Not only did patients end up with simpler medication schedules, we were helping them feel better, too. Before every patient was discharged, they’d get a follow-up visit from me. I’d provide a detailed list of current medications with a simplified schedule designed to make medication use easier. We’d provide copies for them to take to the pharmacy and to any specialist. In many cases, patients were still on a long list of drugs. But we’d cleaved away the most harmful and unnecessary, trying to leave only the medications that were appropriate. (more…)

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

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Not natural, not safe: Grapefruit Seed Extract

The image is "natural", but is grapefruit seed extract a case of misleading advertising?

The image is “natural”, but is grapefruit seed extract a case of misleading advertising?

Where do you draw the line between “supplement” and “drug”? And how much processing of a “natural” substance can occur before it’s no longer “natural”? These seemingly-philosophical questions are very real when it comes to the supplement industry. In many countries, regulators have implemented weaker safety, effectiveness and quality standards for anything branded a supplement or natural health product. The result has been a boon and boom for manufacturers, with thousands of products flooding the market. This same boom has challenged consumers and health professionals who are seeking products that are safe, effective, and manufactured to high quality standards (and in the bottle you are buying). Nowhere is this challenge better illustrated than a supplement that I’ve seen for sale for some time. Grapefruit seed extract (GSE), according to promoters, is a panacea that destroy bacteria, viruses and fungi anywhere in the body, without any risk of harm. But the actual science is quite telling. Grapefruit seed is a supplement that’s of such poor quality that even herbal medicine boosters recommend against its use. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Genomic testing at your pharmacy: Ready for prime time?

Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?

Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?

Despite science’s ability to develop sophisticated and targeted new drugs, predicting the effect of a drug in an individual is still maddeningly difficult. Not every drug works for everyone that takes it. Similarly, the very same drug can be well tolerated in some, but can cause intolerable side effects in others. So-called “targeted therapies” were supposed to improve our accuracy, by focusing on specific targets on cells. That’s been good – but not sufficient to make drug treatments more consistently effective. Pharmacogenomics is the relationship between your DNA and how your body responds to drugs: how they’re absorbed, how they work, and how they’re eliminated from the body. It has been heralded for some time as the white knight of drug therapy. The genome revolution was supposed to remove (or dramatically reduce) the uncertainty in medicine, telling us which drugs will work more effectively, and which we might want to avoid. And to some extent, the genome-based treatment era is already here. There are over 100 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now that include genomic information in their prescribing information. For a small number of drugs, genomic testing is warranted. Increasingly, genomic testing is more accessible, moving from the research bench directly into retail pharmacies for sale when you pick up your prescription. Given pharmacies have a less-than-stellar record of selling laboratory testing that isn’t validated or even useful, I was immediately skeptical when I saw a new story on pharmacy-based genomic testing. Titled “Your pharmacist’s secret weapon: How your DNA can help perfect your medication,” it appeared in last week’s Globe and Mail: (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Is it ethical to sell complementary and alternative medicine?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.

I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.

Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.

Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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The consumer lab rat: More questions about supplement safety

Laboratory Rats
Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? Over half of all American adults do, making this a $30 billion dollar business. Many of us even take supplements in the absence of any clear medical or health need. I’m often told it’s a form of nutritional “insurance” or it’s being taken for some presumed beneficial effect – like Steven Novella outlined in yesterday’s post on antioxidants. We love the idea of a risk-free magic bullet that improves our health and wellness. Especially one that avoids what are presumed to be toxic, unnatural drugs. Supplements are marketed as safe, natural and effective, and there is no question that messaging has been effective.

I used to take supplements. For me it was multivitamins. But as I’ve taken a closer look at the evidence for supplementation, my personal behaviors changed. The primary reason is a lack of evidence. There is no evidence to suggest that vitamins offer any health benefits in the absence of deficiency. The balance of evidence suggests that routine multivitamins are unnecessary for most people. Vitamins should come from your food, not from supplements. More generally, looking at the broader category of supplements that range from probiotics to herbal remedies, there is little evidence to support most of them. With a few exceptions, the research done on dietary supplements is unconvincing and largely negative. If you don’t supplement, you don’t seem to be missing out on any tremendous health benefits.

Going beyond the lack of evidence, there’s an even more compelling need for consumers to be wary of them. The safety of supplements is increasingly being called into question. Evidence has emerged demonstrating that quality standards for supplements sold in many countries are erratic and unpredictable. The root cause seems to be regulatory systems that prioritize manufacturer interests ahead of consumer protection. With supplements, products are effectively being tested for safety after they are marketed, and the consumer is the unwitting research subject. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Don’t drink hair bleach

H2O2-hydrogen-peroxide-meme-small-480x636

One of the most satisfying parts of being a health professional is the opportunity to help people make better health decisions. In between the emails suggesting I’m a paid lackey of the Pharmaceutical-Industrial Complex™ for not endorsing coffee enemas, vitamin C, or homeopathy, I do receive the occasional note thanking me for my advocacy, or for writing about a subject in a way they found helpful. I’m also sent questions – too many to answer, but occasionally opening my eyes to new “concepts” in alternative medicine. And while I spent years working in a pharmacy with a huge “holistic” health section, containing products that, if they worked, would have defied one or more laws of physics or chemistry, I can still be surprised at novel alternative-to-medicine approaches to health care. Last week I was sent a questions about hydrogen peroxide – not for first aid use (where it may not be as useful as thought), but for oral consumption, as some sort of health “cure-all”. I was baffled, but the concept does exist – and the Big Pharma Overlords apparently don’t want you to know about it. There must be a rule 34 of alternative medicine – if it exists, there is an (inappropriate) alternative medicine use for it. The active ingredient in hair bleach and teeth whitening strips is no exception. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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