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No, the Nobel Prize does not validate naturopathy or herbalism

Herbal medicine
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded Monday, acknowledging the developers behind two drugs used to treat parasite infections. In a shared award, William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura won for the discovery of avermectin, and Youyou Tu won for the discovery of artemisinin. Given both of these products are derived from natural substances, and “natural” remedies are used in different alternative medicine philosophies, it is perhaps not surprising that advocates claimed that this somehow validates practices like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and naturopathy. The Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC) made the following announcement on their Facebook page:
aanmc announcement
Which if you follow the link to the CNN story and actually read it, is surprising. It doesn’t mention naturopathy at all. In fact, when you look closer at the two drugs and their development, this year’s Nobel Prize is actually an excellent case study that illustrates the inherent limitations and weaknesses in alternative medicine systems like naturopathy, herbalism or TCM, while reinforcing just what science-based medicine is capable of delivering. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy

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An aspirin a day to prevent heart attacks, strokes, and cancer?

Low dose aspirin is now recommended to prevent heart disease and cancer.

Low dose aspirin is now recommended to prevent heart disease and cancer.

Despite the remarkable advances in medicine over the past 20 years, cardiovascular disease and cancer will still kill half of us. Beyond the deaths, millions survive heart attacks, strokes and cancer, but many are left with disability and a reduced quality of life. While lifestyle changes can improve our odds of avoiding these diseases, they do not eliminate our risk. Finding ways to medically prevent these diseases before they occur, a term called “primary prevention”, is a holy grail in medicine. Primary prevention can be a tough sell, personally and medically. It means taking medicine (which may cause side effects) when you’re well, with the hope of preventing a disease before it occurs.

The US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) released draft guidelines on the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer last week. The USPSTF is now recommending daily aspirin in some age groups who have at least a 10% risk of cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years. This isn’t the first guideline that’s recommended aspirin for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease, but it is the first major guideline to endorse aspirin to prevent colorectal cancer. Given these recommendations will apply to millions of people, they have attracted considerable controversy. Is this strategy going to reduce deaths and disability? Or are we about to start “medicalizing” healthy people inappropriately? (more…)

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Are guidelines for calcium and vitamin D rooted in evidence, or vested interests?

B0003853 Osteoporotic bone - fully focused image Credit: Professor Alan Boyde. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://images.wellcome.ac.uk Scanning electron micrograph of osteoporotic bone. This sample shows the 4th lumbar vertebra of an 89 year old woman with osteoporosis showing very thin, and some fractured trabeculae. This SEM image has been reconstructed from a series of images in different focal planes to give a completely focused picture of the bone. This enables a much clearer picture to be gained of the osteoclast resorption activity within the bone. The field of view is 2.7mm wide. Scanning electron micrograph Published:  -   Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Osteoporotic bone. Are the mainstay treatments for osteoporosis prevention, calcium and vitamin D, truly useless?

Do osteoporosis guidelines overstate the benefits of calcium and vitamin D supplements? And is their continued presence due to vested interests and conflicts of interest? That’s the provocative argument made by Andrew Grey and Marc Bolland, two endocrinologists who recently detailed their analysis in The BMJ, in a paper entitled “Web of industry, advocacy, and academia in the management of osteoporosis” [PDF]. They introduce their case by noting:

For many years, recommendations for prevention and treatment of osteoporosis have included increasing calcium intake (by diet or supplements) and use of vitamin D supplements. Since the average dietary calcium intake in most countries is much less than that recommended by guidelines, many older people are advised to take calcium supplements to prevent osteoporosis. The recommendations have been implemented successfully: over half of older Americans take calcium and vitamin D supplements, either prescribed or over the counter, and bone health is the most common specific motivation for use of nutritional supplements. However, this behaviour does not reflect evidence that has emerged since 2002 that such supplements do not reduce the risk of fracture and may result in harm. Guideline bodies also continue to recommend calcium and vitamin D supplements. Here, we argue that change is made difficult by a complex web of interactions between industry, advocacy organisations, and academia.

Osteoporosis is a medical condition for which supplements have been considered an accepted part of conventional medicine for some time. Are conflicts of interest trumping good science? And are calcium and vitamin D supplements truly useless? Like many clinical questions, there is evidence to  support a range of opinions, and it’s very  difficult to state, with certainty, that one position is the correct one. Despite this, that’s the case that Grey and Bolland make in their analysis. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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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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