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…)
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…)
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…)
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…)
New Year, New You, right? Here’s a perennially popular post, revised for 2016.
With 2016 upon us, it’s finally time get serious about your health. You’re resolving to eat better and exercise more. But first, you need to reset your body – and purge yourself of all of your lifestyle and dietary overindulgences. But how? The options seem limitless, and everyone has advice: There’s Dr. Oz, Gwyneth, and even your favourite Kardashian has advice: They’re all telling you how it’s essential to “detox”, “cleanse” and “flush” away all of your toxins. Your local pharmacy has an ever-growing section of products promising a newer, more pure you: supplements, homeopathy, ear candles, and an entire aisle of “detox kits” all promise to suck toxins out of your body. Don’t forget your local naturopath who sells IV vitamin drips as the detoxification solution to your problems. The approaches may differ but all the advocates are completely convinced of one fact: Detoxing will deliver a renewed body and better health. Not only will you look better, you’ll feel better. It is a new year. Wouldn’t a purification from last year’s habits (dietary and otherwise) of last year be the best way to start? Well before you pull out your credit card, there is one fact that “detox” advocates are reluctant to tell you. (more…)
Two weeks ago I detailed the pervasive problem of poor quality supplements. The main reason for this seems to be weak regulatory standards that prioritize the rights of manufacturers to sell supplements over the rights of consumers to buy safe, high quality, properly-labelled products. Call it “health freedom“, where the freedom belongs to producers, who in many countries are largely freed from most of the quality and safety regulations that are in place for licensed prescription and non-prescription pharmaceuticals. The result of weak regulation is that few supplements sold on the market today have been properly tested for safety or effectiveness, and there are few quality standards for the production of these products.
Not surprisingly, there are persistent signs that consumers may face real risks to their health from using these products. Now a new study from Australia confirms what past studies have already shown: adulterated and contaminated herbal remedies are the rule, rather than the exception. They often contain undeclared ingredients ranging from potential allergens to heavy metals to endangered species. (more…)
The idea that “natural” products are safe and effective has been so effectively marketed to us that many don’t recognize it as a fallacy. Much of the supplement industry is built around an appeal to nature. Supplements are described as natural, gentle, and “holistic”. Medicine, especially prescription drugs, is the opposite. They’re “chemicals”. They’re risky and dangerous – just look at that list of side effects! Supplements are packaged beautifully, have impressive claims, and are for sale at Whole Foods. Drugs are hazardous: They may come in a plain vial, with warning labels, detailed information sheets, and cautious statements about their effectiveness. Is it any wonder that many consumers, when faced with health concerns or medical issues, instinctively think of supplements as a safer alternative? Purveyors of supplements and alternative medicine have leveraged this fallacy so effectively that it’s even guided the regulations that allow their sale. Regrettably, the result is a marketplace that puts consumers’ interests last. The supplement industry has completely stacked the odds against the consumer, challenging their ability to make informed decisions about their health. Most supplements on the market have never been properly tested for safety or effectiveness. And those that have been tested have largely been shown to be ineffective – or in the case of products like vitamins, often unnecessary. And while there are undoubtedly some ethical companies out there, the industry is regularly revealed to resemble a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Despite this, the industry has gone from success to success – in terms of sales, at least. In 1994 supplement sales were about $4 billion in the US. It’s now a $37 billion industry that is remains only lightly regulated – or largely unregulated. With recent action taken against fraudulent products, there are more questions than ever about how to force the supplement industry to make consumer protection a priority. A new paper in Drug Testing and Analysis makes a provocative suggestion: Local and state governments already regulate another hazardous product: tobacco. Can lessons learned from the tobacco wars improve the safety of supplements? (more…)
Health care systems around the world are being pressured to “do more and spend less”, to make healthcare more cost effective. Owing to aging populations and the growing cost of providing health services, there’s more scrutiny than ever on the value of different health treatments, with the goal of reducing the use of treatments that don’t help. The Choosing Wisely initiative was establishing expressly for this purpose. Regrettably, while well-intentioned, Choosing Wisely hasn’t had as much of an effect as you might expect. Medicine can be slow to change, as David Gorski discussed earlier this week. Unless we ruthlessly scrutinize what we do for effectiveness, and are willing to act on what we learn, self-driven change is unlikely. One way that governments (and insurers) can dramatically reduce the use of a health service or treatment is to simply stop offering it, or paying for it. Yet stopping funding is something that is relatively uncommon in health care. It seems to be much more difficult to stop a practice, possibly owing to inertia, a reluctance to change, and the sometimes-vociferous protests that can emerge from patients or physicians that may feel that their preferred therapy is effective. The formidable challenge of stopping health care funding, once it has started, is one reason why this blog has been very critical of the expanding scope of practice being granted to alternative medicine purveyors – the legislative alchemy that is the first step towards insurance coverage. Because once that’s in place, it will be far more difficult to stop it. So it’s essential to understand the evidence. (more…)
If there’s one area of “alternative” medicine that saddens (and angers) me, it’s the antivaccine movement. Most alternative medicine only risks harm to the user. But antivaccinationists threaten public health. Their actions can harm the most vulnerable in our society – often children, and others who depend on the herd immunity that vaccination provides. After my last few naturopathy vs. science posts I thought I’d take a bit of a break with another subject. However, last week ex-naturopath (and friend of the blog) Britt Hermes flagged a post from a naturopath that stunned me. Here was antivaccinationism and naturopathy, all rolled into a blog post about three children with a parent that doesn’t vaccinate. Heather Dexter, who claims to be a “Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor” in Michigan, blogs at likemindedmamas.com. She recently used her blog to describe, in astonishing, horrific, gut-wrenching detail, how she let three of her children suffer with whooping cough without seeking proper medical attention. The post was pulled down after a few days, but has recently reappeared with some modifications. (The original post, which I am quoting from below, has been archived and can be found here or here). I strongly encourage you to read the entire post in its entirety. Because amazingly, not only did Heather Dexter let her three children suffer through weeks of pain with whooping cough, she also subjected them repeatedly to invasive (and useless) alternative medicine. Yet she claims to have no regrets. (more…)
Does naturopathy offer something special or uniquely effective for the treatment of diabetes? Naturopaths are alternative medicine practitioners who claim to provide primary care, like medical doctors. Among naturopaths and their supporters, it’s regularly claimed that naturopathy offers something that “conventional” medicine does not: Naturopaths are described as “doctors plus”, using unconventional approaches to coax the body to “heal itself” with methods that are claimed to be safer and more effective than conventional drugs and medical interventions. The superiority of naturopathy over conventional medicine is an argument that showed up in the comments to my last post, when I pointed out that this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine failed to validate either naturopathy or herbalism. Here’s one example:
Someone diagnosed with pre-Type 2 diabetes could visit a Naturopathic Doctor and stop the disease in its tracks. The doctor would recommended a simple diet change to a high-fat, low-carb, zero refined sugar diet, maybe some supplements, and exercise. Bye, bye, Type 2 diabetes. The same person could visit an MD, and before you know it would be taking insulin and Metformin (and other horrible drugs) for the rest of his or her life. An added bonus with the insulin is weight gain. Notice that the diabetes commercials feature overweight actors and actresses? Yes, there are natural cures. Is this is a site promoting good health, or is it a front for the pharmaceutical companies?
Allopath – you will be taking insulin, Metformin and other drugs for the rest of your life. Your diabetes will be managed, but there will be a slow deterioration in the quality of your life.
Naturopath – we can reverse this with a change in your diet, along with exercise.
Now this individual never claimed to be a naturopath – but testimonials like these are not surprising. I’ve written several posts in the past about the claims made by naturopaths, and how they stack up against the scientific evidence. Naturopaths offer an array of disparate health practices like homeopathy, acupuncture and herbalism that are linked by the (now discarded) belief in vitalism – the idea we have a “life force”. From this philosophy can sometimes emerge sensible health advice, but not because naturopaths are following the evidence. As long as a treatment is viewed as being congruent with the naturopathic belief system, it’s acceptably “naturopathic”. In past posts I’ve looked at the naturopathic perspectives on fake diseases, infertility, autism, prenatal vitamins, vaccinations, allergies, and even scientific facts themselves. Britt Hermes is a former naturopath and has written extensively about naturopathy from the perspective of an insider, and her evaluation is scathing: There are no naturopathic standards of care, naturopathic training is much different than what naturopaths purport, and the accreditation of naturopathic schools is questionable. Now, diabetes is a widely prevalent chronic disease. It causes a huge burden of illness on society. And while we have a fair understanding of its causes and how to treat it, there are still far too many people suffering from complications of the disease. Diabetes already requires care from multiple medical professionals, including physicians, nurses, dietitians, and pharmacists. Should naturopathy be included? Is there any evidence that demonstrates that naturopathy can “stop” diabetes? And how does advice from a naturopath differ from “conventional” medical advice? (more…)