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Is there a natural treatment for tinnitus?

Ear Tone is a supplement claimed to help tinnitus. Does it work?

Ear Tone is a supplement claimed to help tinnitus. Does it work?

“Why do you bother blogging?” asked a colleague. “You take hours of your personal time to write, and you do it for free. You’re not even getting any citations for all that work.” I admit I found the questions a bit surprising. True, you won’t find SBM posts abstracted in PubMed. But I’m writing for an entirely different audience. I blog for the same reason that I became a pharmacist: to help people use medicines more effectively. Practicing as a pharmacist is one way to do that. In that setting, you’re helping one patient at a time. And seeing how your advice and support can enhance someone’s care is tremendously gratifying.

I see blogging as another form of pharmacy practice, hopefully with similar effects. Yes I do get regular hate mail, and the occasional legal threat, but there’s also gratitude for a post that resonated with someone, or helped them make better decisions about their health. When Google searches don’t give answers, I get questions — too many to answer. Today’s post is based on a request for help from someone seeking advice on natural supplements to treat ringing in their ears. They have tinnitus, and they’re frustrated at the limits of what their physician (and medicine) can do. They sent me an advertisement for a supplement called Ear Tone, a natural health product which is advertised (and approved) to provide tinnitus relief. Can natural supplements do what conventional medicine cannot? (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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A homeopathic win for consumers

Homeopathy – not medicine

Do you believe in magic? It might surprise you to learn that some people believe sugar pills have healing properties. This belief system, called homeopathy, is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, and it’s growing. While there is no convincing evidence to demonstrate that homeopathic treatments are more effective than a placebo, many consumers and even some health professionals accept homeopathy as a legitimate health treatment, and its providers as legitimate health professionals. Responding to the perceived consumer demand for these products, government regulators have had a difficult decision to make: They could ignore homeopathy as a health practice, treating it like we might think of astrology: firmly outside of medicine. Or they could choose some form of regulation, targeting the providers (homeopaths) or the product (homeopathy), possibly with the goal of managing its use, or perhaps limiting harms to consumers. The risk of regulating nonsense, as has been described before, is the perceived legitimacy that recognition and regulation implies. Regrettably, regulation in many countries has had that exact effect. What’s worse, regulation often seems to have prioritized the commercial interests of homeopaths over the public interest, leaving consumers with little understanding that homeopathy lacks scientific credibility as a health practice. Consequently, homeopathy has attracted regular criticism from SBM’s bloggers, science and health journalists, and other science advocates over the years. It appears this advocacy is finally having an effect. Regular readers will recall several posts over the past few weeks, describing the possibility of new regulation of homeopathy by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And just recently, Health Canada announced two important changes to its homeopathy regulation, which may signal a new direction. Are we witnessing the beginning of more sensible regulation of this prescientific practice? (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Rehydrating with an appeal to nature

Ski faster with coconut water?

Ski faster with coconut water?

I don’t tend to worry too much about hydration, except when I exercise. I’ve been running regularly for over 15 years, and since I started I’ve usually carried water, or for longer runs, I drink old-school Gatorade. The formulation is basic: sugar, salt, and potassium. There are hundreds of electrolyte products marketed for athletics, but I’ve been faithful to the original: It’s cheap, I don’t mind the taste (even when it’s warm), you can buy it nearly anywhere, and it’s the usual liquid (besides water) offered at races. After exercise, I rehydrate with plain water, preferring to get my electrolytes and carbohydrates from food, rather than a specialty beverage, some of which are “designed” to support rehydration after exercise. The science of sports and hydration is constantly evolving, and so is the marketing. I’m apparently an outlier by still running with Gatorade. New hydration products criticize Gatorade for being artificial and inferior, arguing that natural sources of hydration are better. There’s been an explosion of rehydration beverages, marketed both for everyday hydration and sport purposes. Coconut water was the first natural product to find fairly wide popularity as a sports-oriented beverage. Now you can find maple water, cactus water, watermelon juice and even artichoke water. Is “natural” hydration better that substitutes, including plain old water? (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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The evolving story of the harms of anti-inflammatory drugs

Advil (ibuprofen)

Owing to summer vacation, today’s post updates a 2011 post and a 2013 post with some new information.

Anti-inflammatory drugs are among the most well-loved products in the modern medicine cabinet. They can provide good pain control, reduce inflammation, and eliminate fever. We give non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in infancy, continuing through childhood and then adulthood for the aches and pains of modern living. It’s the later stages of life where NSAIDs are used most frequently, usually in the treatment of joint disease like osteoarthritis, which eventually affects pretty much everyone. Over 17 million Americans use NSAIDs on a daily basis, and this number will grow as the population ages. While they’re widely used, they also have a long list of side effects. Not only can they cause stomach ulcers and bleeding by damaging the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular risks are also significant.

It was the arrival (and withdrawal) of the drugs Bextra (valdecoxib) and Vioxx (rofecoxib) that led to a much better understanding of the potential for these drugs to increase the risks of heart attacks and strokes. And it’s now well-documented that these effects are not limited to the “COX-2″ drugs – almost all NSAIDs, including the old standbys we have used for years, raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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It’s time for pharmacies to stop selling sugar pills

Some of these products contain no medicine at all.

Some of these products contain no medicine at all.

Retail pharmacies have a sugar pill problem. Homeopathic “remedies” may look like conventional medicine when they’re stocked on pharmacy shelves, like the photo above. But unlike conventional medicine, homeopathic products don’t contain any “medicine” at all. They are effectively sugar pills – placebos. Not surprisingly, there is convincing evidence to show that homeopathy is useless as a medical treatment, and fundamentally incompatible with a scientific understanding of medicine, biochemistry and even physics. Questions have been raised about the ethics of selling homeopathy in pharmacies to consumers who may not realize what they’re buying. This growing practice is attracting sharp criticism from other health professions. So why do pharmacies sell them? And what will it take for pharmacies to change? (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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This stimulant can kill, yet you can legally buy it online. Why?

Caffeine Powder

This stimulant drug is highly toxic and perfectly legal.

If there’s one thing that unites all countries and cultures, it’s our love of caffeine. Whether it’s coffee, tea or other foods, caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world — more than alcohol, and more than tobacco: 90% of adults worldwide consume caffeine daily. At doses found in food and beverages, the effects are predictable and the side effects are slight. But natural or not, caffeine is a drug; isolate the pure substance, and the risks change. It would be difficult for most people to drink 16 cups of coffee in a row, but that’s the equivalent of just one teaspoon of caffeine powder. If that doesn’t hospitalize you, a tablespoon of the powder will probably kill you. Yet despite the risks, there are no restrictions on the sale of caffeine powder. You can buy a 1kg bag for $35, which provides the caffeine of about 5,000 cups of coffee. Caffeine powder is freely available to buy because regulators treat it differently – not because of its inherent properties, but because it’s “natural” and sold as a dietary supplement rather than a drug. This is a regulatory double-standard that harms consumers. It’s leaving a body count. And it needs to change: (more…)

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

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Medicine doesn’t come from the hardware store: Don’t drink turpentine

This is not a health food. Don't drink it.

This is not a health food. Don’t drink it.

I enjoy feedback from readers. Yes, there’s the regular hate mail accusing me of being a Big Pharma Shill. But there’s the occasional appreciative comment from someone that found a post helpful or informative. The most gratifying feedback is when someone tells me that something I wrote led to a more informed health decision. Often it’s because I was able to answer a question that they couldn’t find a science-based answer to. I’ve answered thousands of questions in my pharmacy career, and have only blogged a handful of them (so far). One of my most fascinating experiences was a stint working evenings in a pharmacy that happened to have a large “natural” health focus. It’s there I began to scrutinize alternative medicine more closely, because it was virtually all the store sold. Homeopathy, ear candles, copper bracelets and salt lamps were all for sale. If it was unproven, proven ineffective, or defied some law of physics or chemistry, this pharmacy probably sold it. But the customers loved these products. I was dumbfounded. Some would buy dozens of supplements, costing hundreds dollars per month, on the advice of their naturopath, treating some vague or non-specific complaints. Others swore by homeopathic remedies, for themselves and their pets. It was common to meet people who were treating conditions that either didn’t exist, or hadn’t been properly diagnosed, like naturopath-diagnosed “food intolerances” or “hormone imbalances”. There were also the occasional “pH balancing” advocates that insisted I was misguided and uneducated for reassuring them that their body’s pH was just fine, despite what their urine test strips were telling them. (more…)

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

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Legislators want “pharmaceutical cost transparency”. Are they asking the wrong question?

Drug Costs

If science-based medicine is unaffordable, then your care won’t be science-based. Prescription drug costs are one of the biggest concerns in health care today. There seems to be no upper limit on prices, with some new treatments costing over $1,000 per day. The arrival of new drugs to treat (and cure) hepatitis C has created a perfect pharmaceutical storm: highly effective treatments, a large population of potential patients, and huge per-patient costs. It’s renewing the debate about whether important medical treatments are being priced out of the reach of the patients that need them. It’s not just hepatitis. Cancer drug costs are rising as well, driven by more patients and new drugs that in some cases are transforming our expectations about what cancer drugs can do. And while many of us rely on some form of drug insurance to protect us from high drug costs, insurers are struggling with balancing coverage and premiums: A report by Express Scripts paints a grim picture:

An estimated 576,000 Americans spent more than the median household income on prescription medications in 2014. This population of patients grew an astounding 63% from 2013. Further, the population of patients with costs of $100,000 or more nearly tripled during the same time period, to nearly 140,000 people. The total cost impact to payers from both patient populations is an unsustainable $52 billion a year.

This isn’t just an issue in the United States. Prescription drug costs are climbing around the world, because we’re effectively all in this together: We all rely on private companies to bring new drugs to market, and we’re largely buying the same drugs from the same small group of companies. Because ready access to safe and effective prescription drugs is so important to the practice of medicine and the delivery of health care, the pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated – not just by the FDA, but by regulators worldwide. Yet despite the dual requirements of regulatory disclosure and the financial obligation to be transparent (as many pharmaceutical companies are publicly-held), little is known about how much it costs to bring drugs to market, and how manufacturers arrive at their selling prices. Pharmaceutical manufacturers claim that high drug costs reflect the high costs of research and development (R&D), and provide the incentives for companies to invest heavily and take risks, when many drugs may never make it to market. Are they correct? (more…)

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

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Activated charcoal: The latest detox fad in an obsessive food culture

charcoal lemonade2Our diet is either the cause of, or solution to, all of life’s problems. I’m paraphrasing a great philosopher. We just can’t seem to let food be food. Today each ingredient we eat seems to be demonized or glorified. Gluten is the latest evil. It used to be fat. At some point in the past, it was MSG. Or it’s a superfood, preferably local, organic and GMO-free. Even on the healthiest diet, however, we’re apparently still ingesting too many harmful chemicals. After all, this is apparently a toxic environment we live in. Gwyneth Paltrow says so. So does the Food Babe. In an era of daily television quackery and loony internet health conspiracy websites, one might think that bizarre food ideas are a recent phenomena. But worries that we’re being poisoned from within are probably innate. One of the oldest surviving written documents is an Egyptian papyrus from the 16th century BCE that linked the cause of disease to digestive wastes in our colon. Since that time, our scientific knowledge about the cause of disease has advanced, but the underlying obsession with diet and elimination hasn’t waned. Anecdotally, it seems to be growing. The idea that our bodies need to “detox” is thriving, despite the fact that it has no scientific basis or validity. Part of the modern appeal of “detox” may be that detoxification is a legitimate medical term and treatment. However, in the alternative-to-health perspective, the word has been co-opted, but the science part has been ignored. Fake “detox” is easy. And now proponents of “detox” have taken it one step further. They’re using real medicine for a fake “detox” with. That’s how activated charcoal has become the latest health fad. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Less benefit, more risk. Our assumptions about health treatments are probably wrong.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

I’m a health professional, but sometimes a patient as well. And like most patients, I generally don’t want health decisions being made without my input. Yes, I want the best medical information, and the advice of medical professionals, but ultimately I want to make my own decisions about my care. That’s the norm in health care today, but relatively new in the history of medicine.

Medical paternalism, where patient preferences are secondary (or even ignored), is disappearing. Even informed consent, where patients are given information on risks and benefits, doesn’t adequately describe the drive towards a two-way exchange, with an empowered, engaged patient. Today the goal is shared decision making, which describes a mutual decision that is informed by a health professional’s medical knowledge and advice, but also incorporates a patient’s own preferences and wishes. Truly shared decision-making includes an explicit consideration of a treatment’s expected benefits and potential harms, yet reflects patient values.

Screening is a textbook example of why shared decision-making should be our goal. Given the benefits of a disease screening program may be modest, and not without harms, understanding and incorporating individual preference is essential. Some may value the small but incremental benefits of screening, and choose to be screened despite the risks of false positives, investigations, and possible overtreatment. Given the exact same circumstances, another individual may opt to forgo screening, making a different, yet equally acceptable decision. While there are some health interventions for which the benefits are unequivocal, and others for which the harms are just as clear, most health treatments (and interventions like screening) have both benefits and potential harms that must be carefully assessed within the context of patient preferences. Research published earlier this year has identified a significant barrier to truly effective shared decision-making and risk assessment: Across a wide range of interventions, we routinely overestimate the benefits of health treatments, and underestimate their risks. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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