Alpha Brain – What’s Wrong with the Supplement Industry

There is an endless stream of supplement products on the market that are of questionable value. They tend to follow a similar pattern: put an essentially random assortment of vitamins, minerals, perhaps herbs and nutritional elements into a pill and then make whatever pseudo-health claims you want. Usually the claim is implied in the name of the product itself – sleepwell, or brainboost. The popular product Airborne fits this mold. It is essentially a multivitamin with the unfounded claim that it will prevent infection by boosting the immune system.

In the US, regulations (under DSHEA) specifically allow “structure/function” claims without any requirement for evidence to back up the claims. In other words, as long as you don’t mention a disease by name, you can make pretty much whatever claim you want. This was supposed to be good for the consumer, when in fact it is springtime for industry at the expense of the consumer. If your claims are outrageous enough the FTC can still go after you, but they are playing a game of whack-a-mole and losing.

Another pattern that is common is for a supplement product to contain specific components that are claimed to have specific benefits. Often these claims are based upon evidence – just the wrong kind of evidence. Basic science evidence is used inappropriately to support clinical claims. This strategy is more insidious, as it gives the public the sense that the product is science-based when it isn’t.


Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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KA at U Minnesota and Michigan State

I’ll be giving a talk, “Homeopathy and Skepticism,” to skeptical students this Thursday, Oct 27, at the University of Minnesota (7:00 PM at MCB 3-120) and this Friday, Oct. 28, at Michigan State University (7:00 PM at Holmes Hall 106). Here is the abstract:

Homeopathy is an extraordinary popular delusion that has persisted for more than 200 years. It is now a mainstay of “complementary and alternative medicine” in spite of longstanding, definitive scientific refutations. It is of particular interest to skeptics because its history evokes fundamental concepts such as sympathetic magic, Ockham’s razor, and Hume’s Maxim, and major historical figures such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Hume himself.

Show up in Halloween costume if you like; I may do that myself.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Steven Fowkes (Part 1 of 2): How to Cure Alzheimer’s and Herpes

A correspondent asked me to review a video presentation by Steven Fowkes, “Nutrients for Better Mental Performance,” one segment of a 9-part series on preventing and curing Alzheimer’s that was mentioned recently by an SBM commenter. Fowkes is an organic chemist without a PhD; he says this means:

I am not institutionalized [This begs for a joke, but I will refrain.] and see the world differently. Everything I know I learned outside the system.

He is associated with CERI, the Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute and has written extensively on nutrition and health. I’ll comment on his claims for Alzheimer’s and herpes first, and then return to the “Nutrients for Better Mental Performance” video next week.


He says he can prevent Alzheimer’s disease and cure it in the early stages, although later damage will not be reversible. And yet he doesn’t actually specify the details of how he accomplishes that miracle: apparently it’s complicated (I would imagine so) and varies with the individual. Science doesn’t know what causes Alzheimer’s, but Fowkes does. The current thinking of scientists is that it is due to genetic factors interacting with environmental factors, and it might be a natural consequence of the aging process that would eventually affect anyone who lives long enough. Fowkes says it involves a complicated domino cascade of effects, but the cause boils down to loss of glutathione cycling and failure of sulfhydryl enzymes, which  interferes with the detoxification of mercury in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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More Breast Cancer Awareness Month pseudoscience from (who else?) Joe Mercola

I have mixed emotions regarding Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On the one hand, I look forward to it because it provides us with a pretext to get out science-based messages about breast cancer and to highlight a lot of the cool science that we do at our cancer center. On the other hand, the quacks see an opportunity in Breast Cancer Awareness Month to spread their message too. That message, not surprisingly, generally involves attacking science-based modalities for the detection and treatment of breast cancer and promoting their “alternative” methods. For example, last year, Christiane Northrup promoted thermography as somehow being better than mammography for the early detection of breast cancer. It’s not. Yet there she is this year again, still promoting the same nonsense. In years past, I’ve seen people like Dennis Byrne promoting a link between abortion and breast cancer, a link that is not supported by science. I’ve seen the likes of Mike Adams claiming that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is nothing more than a conspiracy by the male-dominated “cancer industry” to keep women down and misinformation about “myths” of breast cancer while likening the “cancer industry” to Nazi extermination camp commanders and chemotherapy to Zyklon-B. I kid you not about that last part. Indeed, during October, I frequently get to look forward to images like this one (click for a larger image):

Or this one:

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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Steve Jobs’ medical reality distortion field

As I pointed out in my previous post about Steve Jobs, I’m a bit of an Apple fan boy. A housemate of mine got the very first Mac way back in 1984, and ever since I bought my first computer that was mine and mine alone back in 1991 (a Mac LC), I’ve used nothing but Macintosh computers, except when compelled to use Windows machines by work—and even then under protest. Indeed, as I searched for jobs at various times in my life, I asked myself whether I could accept a job at an institution that didn’t permit me to have a Mac in my office, such as the V.A. Fortunately, I never had to make that choice. All of this explains why I paid a lot of attention to Steve Jobs and also why his death saddened me and, relevant to this blog, the clinical history of the cancer that killed him fascinates me.

It’s often been said that there was a sort of “reality distortion field” around Steve Jobs. It was a part joking, part derogatory, part admiring term applied to Jobs’ talent for persuasion in which, through a combination of personal charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, and persistence, Jobs was able to persuade almost anyone, even developers and engineers, of almost anything. In particular, it referred to his ability to convince so many people that each new Apple product was the greatest thing ever, even when that product had obvious flaws. Unfortunately, as more news comes out about how Steve Jobs initially dealt with his diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (specifically, an insulinoma) back in 2003 and 2004, it’s become apparent that Jobs had his own medical reality distortion field, at least in the beginning right after his diagnosis of a rare form of pancreatic cancer, that allowed him to come to think that he might be able to reverse his cancer with diet plus various “alternative” modalities.

In the immediate aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death, I summarized the facts about Jobs’ case that were known at the time. In particular, I took issue with the claims of a skeptic that “alternative medicine killed Steve Jobs.” At the time, I pointed out that, although it was very clear that Steve Jobs did himself no favors by delaying his initial surgery for nine months after his initial diagnosis, we do not have sufficient information to know what his clinical situation was and therefore how much, if at all, he decreased his odds of survival by not undergoing surgery expeditiously. To recap: Did Steve Jobs harm himself by trying diet and alternative medicine first? Quite possibly. Did alternative medicine kill him? As I’ve argued before, that’s impossible to say, and any skeptic who dogmatically makes such an argument has taken what we known beyond what can be supported. Regular readers know that when I see a story that looks as though “alternative medicine” directly contributed to the death of someone, I usually pull no punches, but in this case I had a hard time being so definitive because the unknowns are too many, with all due respect to Ramzi Amri, a Research Associate at Harvard Medical School who in my opinion also went too far. I did, however, point out that I’m always open to changing my opinion if new evidence comes in. Jobs was always incredibly secretive about his medical condition, so much so that it didn’t even come out in the press until after it had happened that he had undergone a liver transplant in 2008 for metastatic insulinoma in his liver, just as his cancer diagnosis in 2003 remained secret for 9 months, not being revealed until he sent an e-mail to Apple employees announcing that he had undergone surgery.

It turns out that, with the imminent release of a major biography of Steve Jobs, more information is finally trickling out about his medical history. For instance, Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson is going to appear on 60 Minutes this Sunday, and apparently he is going to say this:

Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Alternative Vaccination Schedules

Evidently the 7 billionth human is going to be born on October 31. Happy birthday and welcome to the Earth.  If you were unfortunate enough to be born into a developing country or a affluent California family, you may not receive your vaccinations, and may join one the 57 million who die each year of vaccine preventable diseases (VPD).

I totally misread the table.  It’s about 4,320,000 who die of VPD. Well, I said I was no damn good at stats.

And if you are doubly unlucky, you may be exposed to illness from an unvaccinated friend, family or health care worker before you can get your vaccines, and join the ranks of the ‘only’s.’  The ‘only’s’ are those who die of vaccine preventable diseases and are mentioned in anti-vaccine literature in a sentence like ‘VPD X is a mild illness in most children and only kills Y% of cases ’.  As I have said before the anti-vaxers do not care for whom the bell tolls.

I am no good at statistics.  I signed up for, and dropped, statistics at least 4 times in college.  Once they got past the bell shaped curve, it was one incomprehensible huh?  Part of the problem with statistical concepts such as risks, both relative and absolute, is that it is often impossible to get a feel from what they represent. For me it is like metric measurements.  I know what a 8 mile hike represents, but not an 8 kilometer hike.  Same with centigrade and liters.  I have been unable to internalize what metric means in my daily life. (more…)

Posted in: Vaccines

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The Cure

Legislative Alchemy

In Legislative Alchemy I: Naturopathy, II: Chiropractic and III: Acupuncture, we learned how state legislatures transform scientifically implausible and unproven diagnostic methods and treatments into legal health care practices. Examples typical of the sheer nonsense found in both proposed and actual legislation include:

Naturopathic health care [is] a system of health care practices for the prevention, diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of illnesses, injuries and conditions of the human body through the use of education, nutrition, natural medicines and therapies and other modalities which are designed to support, stimulate or supplement the human body’s own natural self-healing processes.

[Chiropractic is] the science of adjustment, manipulation and treatment of the human body in which vertebral subluxations and other malpositioned articulations and structures that may interfere with the normal generation, transmission and expression of nerve impulse between the brain, organs and tissue cells of the body, which may be a cause of the disease, are adjusted, manipulated or treated.

[Acupuncture is] a form of health care that is based on a theory of energetic physiology that describes and explains the interrelationship of bodily organs or functions with an associated acupuncture point or combination of points that are stimulated in order to restore the normal function of the bodily organ or function.

This is gobbledygook, tarted up with a few scientific-sounding terms — “physiology,” “tissue cells,” “diagnosis.”



Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Reiki (pronounced raykey) is a form of “energy healing,” essentially the Asian version of faith healing or laying on of hands. Practitioners believe they are transferring life energy to the patient, increasing their well-being. The practice is popular among nurses, and in fact is practiced by nurses at my own institution (Yale).

From, we get this description:

Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.

Reiki is therefore a form of vitalism – the pre-scientific belief that some spiritual energy animates the living, and is what separates living things from non-living things. The notion of vitalism was always an intellectual place-holder, responsible for whatever aspects of biology were not currently understood. But as science progressed, eventually we figured out all of the basic functions of life and there was simply nothing left for the vital force to do. It therefore faded from scientific thinking. We can add to that the fact that no one has been able to provide positive evidence for the existence of a vital force – it remains entirely unknown to science.


Posted in: Energy Medicine

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Birth Control

From a message posted on Facebook:

 Is the pill safe? The International Agency for Research on Cancer in a 2007 study made by 21 scientists reported that the pill causes cancer, giving it the highest level of carcinogenicity, the same as cigarettes and asbestos. It also causes stroke, and significantly increases the risk of heart attacks. Several scientific journals have stated that the natural way of regulating births through the Billings Ovulation Method has no side-effects, and is 99.5 % effective.

The Billings Ovulation Method (BOM) is a method of natural family planning where women are taught to recognize when they have ovulated by examining their cervical mucus, allowing them to avoid intercourse during fertile periods or conversely, to have intercourse during fertile periods when pregnancy is desired. We used to call people who used the rhythm method “parents,” but BOM is more reliable than older abstinence methods.

I’m a big fan of oral contraceptives. They contributed to women’s liberation by giving us a reliable method of planning, delaying, or avoiding pregnancy.  They also have medical uses that go beyond contraception. Birth control pills (BCPs) have had such an important impact that they are known as simply “The Pill.” We have always known they were not 100% risk free; but we also know they are less risky than pregnancy itself. There are other methods of birth control; but they are generally less effective and less convenient.  For those who want permanent solutions, tubal ligation and vasectomy are available; but even they have occasional failures. What does science tell us about the effectiveness and safety of BCPs as compared to other methods?  (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology, Pharmaceuticals

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Cranial Osteopathy in Dentistry

Editor’s note: Having just submitted a major grant on Friday and then having had to turn around and head to an NIH study section meeting today in Bethesda, I just didn’t have the time to produce something up to the usual standards of SBM for today. (And, being managing editor, I should know what’s up to the usual standards of SBM; what I started to write wasn’t it. Trust me on this.) Fortunately, Dr. Grant Ritchey and Dr. Steve Hendry, two skeptical, science-based dentists, did submit something up to SBM’s usual standards. Even better, since we’ve been having a number of requests for posts involving dentistry, it seemed like a perfect time to publish their first contribution to SBM and see how our readers like it. Maybe next time around, I’ll have them update the “state of knowledge” regarding amalgams.

Form follows function, as the old saying goes. Nowhere in the human body is this adage more fitting than in the oral cavity.  In less than two generations, the practice of dentistry has evolved from basic pain relief and function-based procedures (such as extractions and fillings), into today’s practices of complex cosmetic rehabilitation, orthopedic and orthodontic management of the teeth, jaws, and facial structures, replacing missing teeth with dental implants, and treatment of sleep apnea and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, to name but a few.   With such rapid progress, it is to be expected that for every science based advance made in our field, there are just as many claims that are either dubious in their evidential support or outright pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific nonsense.

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the roles that health care practitioners such as chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, and physical therapists, are attempting to play in the dental field.  We will also see how well-meaning dentists have been trained in and apply their pseudo-scientific principles in their dental practices. In particular, we’ll be examining Cranial Osteopathy (also known as Craniosacral Therapy or Cranial Therapy) in the management of the dental patient, the purported benefits claimed by practitioners of cranial osteopathy, and the quality and quantity of evidence for this type of treatment in the scientific literature.

Posted in: Chiropractic, Dentistry, Science and Medicine

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