Herbs & Supplements

Archive for Herbs & Supplements

About Herbs: an app to avoid

Pictured: A better source of health information than "About Herbs".

Pictured: A better source of health information than “About Herbs”.

Medicine has an intellectual hierarchy. Supposedly the best and the brightest are in the academic medical centers and are the thought leaders in their field.

Those of us lower in the hierarchy are well aware of some of the warts present on our betters, but I would expect those at the top would adhere to the highest intellectual and ethical standards. People being, well, people, expecting exceptional standards is admittedly an unrealistic expectation.

It would appear that many academic centers are doing their best to avoid meeting my expectations, attempting to abandon all standards.

I mentioned over at SfSBM that Dana-Farber is spending 2 million dollars on a renovation to, in part, offer the unmitigated steer manure that is reiki and reflexology to their cancer patients. Yes. Reiki. Reflexology.

Those are not fracking earthquakes in Kentucky, those tremors are the result of the tremendous kinetic energy of Flexner spinning in his grave as his life’s work becomes a farce.

Dana-Farber is just one of many academic medical centers who are putting their imprimatur on nonsense.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Integrative has released “About Herbs”, an iPad/iPhone guide to Botanicals, Supplements, Complementary Therapies and More. Spoiler alert: the ‘More’ does not include critical thinking. This guide is not anywhere as ludicrous as offering reeky, sorry, reiki, but at times it comes close. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Commentary, Critical Thinking, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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The rise and inevitable fall of Vitamin D

Is Vitamin D a panacea? The evidence says otherwise.

Is vitamin D a panacea? The evidence says otherwise.

It’s been difficult to avoid the buzz about vitamin D over the past few years. While it has a  long history of use in the medical treatment of osteoporosis, a large number of observational studies have linked low vitamin D levels to a range of illnesses. The hypothesis that there is widespread deficiency in the population has led to interest in measuring vitamin D blood levels. Demand for testing has jumped as many physicians have incorporated testing into routine care. This is not just due to alternative medicine purveyors that promote vitamin D as a panacea. Much of this demand and interest has been driven by health professionals like physicians and pharmacists who have looked at what is often weak, preliminary and sometimes inconclusive data, and concluded that the benefits of vitamin D outweigh the risks. After all, it’s a vitamin, right? How much harm can vitamin D cause? (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Fooling Myself

They may have different packages, but these products are all the same inside.

Nothing says opportunistic like selling water for pain control.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve been fooled by my own experience again and again. I’ve made bad decisions and wasted time and money believing what I was seeing, instead of being objective and looking at the evidence. One of my most memorable lessons has come over the past 14 years with my Labrador Retriever, Casey.

First the personal

We acquired Casey as a puppy, and she was less than a year old when she started limping. Investigations confirmed dysplasia, a genetic condition that leads to degenerative joints, arthritis, and pain. We were devastated. After considering the few treatment options that existed, we decided to skip surgery and treat it conservatively. I had no desire to start her on a lifetime of anti-inflammatory drugs, being very familiar with their side effect profile. I was familiar with a supplement used widely in humans that had some weak but somewhat promising evidence: We started giving her glucosamine and chondroitin supplements regularly. And we watched and waited.

It took some time, but Casey did appear to improve. We were thrilled. Life went on, and other than the occasional rough play session, Casey’s limping was mild, and she thrived. We continued the supplements, confident that we were doing good. But eventually I started paying attention to the emerging evidence on glucosamine and chondroitin. Once touted as a panacea for arthritis and joint pain, there had finally been some high-quality trials conducted – and the results were disappointing. Even this blog covered the issue, and contributors like Harriet were skeptical of glucosamine. Its supposed mechanism of action really wasn’t even that plausible. I started to wonder if the supplements were really doing anything for my dog’s pain. Eventually I decided on a trial – so I stopped the supplements about seven years after I started them. Neither my wife nor I could notice any difference at all in her mobility. Nor did the veterinarian. We’d been fooling ourselves, spending hundreds of dollars in the process. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Supplements, Lies, and a Lengthy Transcript

Thanks, Congress, for making bull testicles available as a dietary supplement!

Thanks, Congress, for making bull testicles available as a dietary supplement!

On October 21, 1993, there was a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee for Labor and Human Resources, with the long-winded title:

Examining How the Federal Government Should Regulate the Marketing and Use of Dietary Supplements and Related Measures, Including S. 784, To Strengthen Federal Standards with Respect To Dietary Supplements.

S. 784, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, would eventually be enacted as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).

I discovered this bit of Congressional theater when doing research for my recent talk at NECSS. Scott Gavura and I joined forces to present “Natural Disaster: Dietary Supplements.” Scott focused on pharmacology, while I talked about FDA regulation of dietary supplements (or lack thereof). Thanks to him, I now have a rudimentary knowledge of pharmacokinetics, the science behind how a drug or supplement works (or doesn’t) in the body. If you haven’t read his post from last week explaining this, and more, you should.

Reading the lengthy hearing transcript (well, ok, a lot of it) confirmed my suspicions that the fix was in even before the gavel went down to begin the hearing. What I had not realized was, at least according to some proponents of DSHEA, part of the deal was that consumers would have access to accurate information backing efficacy claims made for supplements and their safety. Nor had I realized that the weaknesses of DSHEA, which have become painfully obvious in the 20-plus years since the law was passed, were anticipated from the get-go and that Congress was well-informed of what they were. Finally, I was not previously aware of the provenance (shall we say) of the “experts” asked to testify at the behest of Sen. Hatch.

First, let’s set the stage on which this drama plays out, according to two excellent books on dietary supplements, Natural Causes and Vitamania. In 1991, Congress passed the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act (NELA). Most famously, NELA, for the first time, required that all foods bear the now-familiar nutrition label. It also required that any health claims made for foods be backed by “significant scientific agreement.” Rep. Henry Waxman and others wanted the same standard applied to dietary supplement health claims. After all, if food companies had to meet a certain standard to make health claims for, say, calcium in their products, why shouldn’t claims for the health benefits of calcium in dietary supplement form be held to the same standard? But the supplement industry knew it couldn’t survive under such stringent rules and Sen. Hatch made sure it didn’t happen. All parties agreed to let the FDA decide what standard should be required of supplement health claims and left it at that. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Legal, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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CAM use and chemotherapy: A negative correlation

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

It turns out that the use of certain forms of CAM makes it less likely that breast cancer patients will receive the chemotherapy they need.

So-called “alternative” medicine is made up of a hodge-podge of health care practices and treatments based on beliefs that are unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific. These modalities include practices as diverse as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, reflexology, reiki and other forms of “energy medicine” based on vitalism, chiropractic, and naturopathy, and that’s a short list of the quackery that falls under the rubric of the term “alternative medicine.” Unfortunately, this unscientific, pre-scientific, and pseudoscientific hodge-podge of treatments rooted in nonsense is rapidly being “integrated” into real medicine, thanks to an unfortunately influential movement in medicine whose members have been seduced into thinking that there might be something to them and view “integrating” them into medicine as means of practicing more “holistic” and “humanistic” medicine. This “integration” started out by being called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) but now among believers the preferred term is usually “integrative medicine,” largely because it eliminates the word “alternative,” which implies (correctly) that the modality is not real medicine, and “complementary,” which implies a subsidiary status, a status of being nice to have but not essential.

Particularly harmful is the hostility towards conventional medicine that often strongly correlates with use of alternative medicine. Indeed, some people even choose to rely on alternative medicine instead of real medicine to treat cancer. Unsurprisingly, the results of such a decision are generally not very good. Actually, they are almost always terrible. Very, very terrible indeed. Not surprisingly, the use of alternative medicine is associated with bad outcomes. Cancer patients who might have survived die because of it. It’s not as though it hasn’t been studied either, although the main studies I’m aware of tend to look at the bad outcomes in patients who choose alternative medicine. There is another question, and it’s one that a new study published in JAMA Oncology last week seeks to answer. It’s a study that briefly made the news, producing headlines like:

Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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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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Parents Convicted in Death of Toddler


David and Collet Stephan, parents to the now-deceased Ezekiel Stephan.

This is a very sad and tragic case, and I have great sympathy for the extended family of Ezekiel Stephan, the 19-month-old who died of meningitis four years ago. In my opinion, there are many victims in this case.

The jury, apparently, agreed. Yesterday they returned a guilty verdict for Ezekiel’s parents, David and Collet Stephan, who now face sentencing for failing to provide the basic necessities of life to their son. It is reported that many of the jurors were crying when the verdict was given – clearly this was a difficult and emotional case.

Just the facts

As is often the case, there are different narratives of what happened, depending on your perspective. It is likely the jury had access to more facts than the public, and so their verdict, which was clearly difficult, needs to be taken seriously. Here are the basic facts as being reported:

In March of 2012 Ezekiel became ill with flu-like symptoms. His parents report that they thought this was a normal childhood illness and would pass. His mother reported to police that she thought he had croup. They treated him with natural remedies, mostly supplements. (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy

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Functional medicine: The ultimate misnomer in the world of integrative medicine

Functional Medicine practitioners like to make patients think that this diagram actually means something.

Functional Medicine practitioners like to make patients think that this diagram actually means something.

We at Science-Based Medicine often describe “integrative medicine” as integrating quackery with medicine (at least, I often do), because that’s what it in essence does. The reason, as I’ve described time and time again, is to put that quackery on equal footing (or at least apparently equal footing) with science- and evidence-based medicine, a goal that is close to being achieved. Originally known as quackery, the modalities now being “integrated” with medicine then became “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), a term that is still often used. But that wasn’t enough. The word “complementary” implies a subordinate position, in which the CAM is not the “real” medicine, the necessary medicine, but is just there as “icing on the cake.” The term “integrative medicine” eliminates that problem and facilitates a narrative in which integrative medicine is the “best of both worlds” (from the perspective of CAM practitioners and advocates). Integrative medicine has become a brand, a marketing term, disguised as a bogus specialty.

Of course, it’s fairly easy to identify much of the quackery that CAM practitioners and woo-friendly physicians have “integrated” itself into integrative medicine. A lot of it is based on prescientific ideas of how the human body and disease work (e.g., traditional Chinese medicine, especially acupuncture, for instance, which is based on a belief system that very much resembles the four humors in ancient “Western” or European medicine); on nonexistent body structures or functions (e.g., chiropractic and subluxations, reflexology and a link between areas on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet that “map” to organs; craniosacral therapy and “craniosacral rhythms”); or vitalism (e.g., homeopathy, “energy medicine,” such as reiki, therapeutic touch, and the like). Often there are completely pseudoscientific ideas whose quackiness is easy to explain to an educated layperson, like homeopathy.

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Herbs & Supplements

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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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