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Fashionably toxic

It’s the toxins.

Toujours les toxines.

How many times have I read or heard from believers in “alternative” medicine that some disease or other is caused by “toxins”? I honestly can’t remember, but in alt-world, no matter what the disease or condition under discussion is, there’s a good chance that sooner or later it will be linked to “toxins.” It doesn’t matter if it’s cancer, autism, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, or that general malaise that comes over people who, as British comedians Mitchell and Webb put it, have more money than sense; somehow, some way, someone will invoke “toxins.”

I was reminded of this obsession among believers in unscientific medicine last Friday when I came across an article by Guy Trebay in the New York Times entitled The Age of Purification. The article appeared, appropriately enough, in the Fashion section and was festooned with photos of cupping, surely one of the silliest of the many “detoxification” modalities that alternative medicine practitioners use to claim to draw the “toxins” out of their clients through the application of, well, cups or various other containers in which the air had been heated in order to generate negative pressure when sealed to the skin and presumably thus bring them to a greater level of purification and health. Indeed, the only “detoxification” rituals sillier than cupping that I can think of off the top of my head are detoxifying footpads and “detox foot baths.”

Oh, wait. Scratch that. I forgot about ear candling, which must surely be the undisputed silliest “detox” treatment of all time—until someone thinks of an even sillier one. Or not. There are just so many silly “detox” procedures that it’s hard to select a “winner.”

Be that as it may, Trebay mixes sarcasm with exposition throughout his article in a rather amusing way that’s worth quoting:

My friend, like everyone else around, seemed to believe that mysterious, amorphous sludge had lodged in the anatomical crannies of half the local adult population. Unseen toxins were lurking, like Communists during the Red Scare.

The “toxins” required elimination, somehow, and thus at lunches, at cocktails, at dinner parties, normal conversations turned abruptly from the day’s news to progress reports on juice fasts, energy alignments, radical purging. From painful sessions with traditional healers to toxin-leaching treatments designed, it might seem, to clean out not just body but wallet, a surprising number of New Yorkers (not all of them well-to-do neurotics) are caught up in a new New Age, the Age of Purification.

How had it happened, I wondered, that so many otherwise sensible, urban people found themselves in the grip of a dreadful feeling that systems are down? “I just bought five pounds of carrots, ginger and kale and put it all in my Breville juicer and pounded that all day,” said a corporate adviser of my acquaintance, far from a credulous woo-woo type.

Of course, as we have noted so many times before, hard-nosed skepticism in one area of one’s life does not necessarily translate to other areas. Many are the people who would never ever fall prey to scams in business, for example, but happily fork over money for scams such as “detox footpads”—or fall for anti-vaccine quackery, like J.B. Handley. Whatever the case, why this fascination with “detoxification” in alternative medicine? Why do so many of its treatments, be they dietary, chelation therapy, purges, colon cleanses, or whatever, claim to eliminate “toxins”? Why is it that, if you Google “alternative medicine” and “detoxification,” you find so many references, some of which claim external toxins need to be eliminated, some of which claim that internal toxins need to be purged, and still more of which blame various “parasites” for all manner of health distress? In this post, I’ll try to explain, but first a little history—self-history that is.
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Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Raw Milk in Modern Times

It is hard to get infected. The immune system is robust and has a multitude of interlinking defenses that are extremely efficient in beating off most pathogens. Most of the time.

Fortunately, it is a minority of microbes that have evolved to be virulent in humans. Bacteremia is common with our own microbiome. When you brush or floss, bacteria leak into the blood stream:

We identified oral bacterial species in blood cultures following single-tooth extraction and tooth brushing. Sequence analysis of 16S rRNA genes identified 98 different bacterial species recovered from 151 bacteremic subjects. Of interest, 48 of the isolates represented 19 novel species of Prevotella, Fusobacterium, Streptococcus, Actinomyces, Capnocytophaga, Selenomonas, and Veillonella.

but with a good immune system, low virulence bacteria and no place to go, unfortunately the bacteria rarely cause infections.

Even heroin users rarely get infection. Heroin is a rich melange of  with bacteria and, on occasion, yeasts (I hate to say contaminated, since avoiding microbes is hardly a worry of heroin manufacturers), and the water used for injection is rarely sterile, yet infections are relatively rare despite the filth in which many heroin users exist.

I used to be somewhat fatalistic about hospital acquired infections. However, as the institutions in which I have worked have proven, almost all infections in the hospital are preventable if the institutions aggressively pursue high standards of care.

There are many systems in place in society to prevent infections: flush toilets, good nutrition, public health, vaccines, antibiotics, good hygiene, and an understanding of disease epidemiology, and I suspect people forget there are bugs out there that are pathogenic, just waiting to sicken and kill us. At least a couple of times a year I see patients come into the hospital, previously healthy, who rapidly die of acute infections.  But for most people, most of the time,  it takes a lot of effort to get an infection.

From my perspective we are Charlie Chaplain on skates , mostly unaware of the infections that awaits us if we do something silly, or even when we act with the best intentions to avoid illness. The odds are small we will get a life threatening or serious infection in the US, just as the odds are small we will drown or be killed in a car accident. The germs are there, waiting, and in the end, no matter what we do, we will be consumed by the microbial world. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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The Top Ten Pet Supplements: Do They Work?

An Embarrassment of Riches?

Much has been written here about the dietary supplement business, a multibillion dollar industry with powerful political connections, and about the woeful inadequacy of regulation which allows widespread marketing of supplements without a solid basis in science or scientific evidence. 

The veterinary supplement market is a pittance compared to the human market, but still a billion-dollar pittance that is growing rapidly. Unfortunately, the resources available for good quality research in veterinary healthcare are also a pittance, and it is not at all unusual for our pets to suffer, or even be euthanized, as a result of treatable diseases for want of money to pay for needed care. So $1 billion a year spent on nutritional supplements may not be such a good deal if these products don’t effectively prevent or treat disease. 

The variety of supplements available is staggering. Many proprietary concoctions of vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other ingredients are marketed for health maintenance, “boosting the immune system,” retarding aging, or treating specific diseases. A comprehensive review of this multitude of moving targets is impossible. But the lion’s share of the pet supplement market goes to a few specific compounds, so I will focus on these. Most of these ingredients are also among the most popular supplements for humans, so there will be substantial overlap with previous discussions of the plausibility and evidence for many of these substances. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Veterinary medicine

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Delusional Parasitosis

A new study looks into the disorder known as delusional parasitosis, which many dermatologists believe is the true diagnosis behind the controversial disorder called Morgellon’s disease. Morgellons is a controversial disorder because many patients with symptoms believe they are being infected by an unusual organism, causing excessive itching, but no offending organism has been found. Some patients claim they have strange fibers exuding from the sores in their skin.

The term “Morgellons” was coined in 2002 by Mary Leitao, who was trying to find a diagnosis for her son who was suffering from skin lesions. Since then it has become a grassroots diagnosis – used by some patients to describe themselves but not accepted by the medical community.

Most dermatologists, rather, feel that the disorder is actually a manifestation of delusional parasitosis – a mental disorder. This has set up an unnecessarily confrontational situation. And of course, some charlatans are exploiting the situation by taking the side of the patients and offering them their nostrums as a cure.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Pragmatic Studies and Cinderella Medicine

Explanatory studies are done under controlled conditions to determine whether a treatment has any efficacy compared to a placebo. Pragmatic studies are designed to assess how the intervention performs in everyday real world practice. Pragmatic studies measure practical success but don’t determine actual efficacy: that requires a proper randomized controlled trial (RCT) with an appropriate control. Pragmatic studies have their place, but they can sometimes make an ineffective treatment look good: a phenomenon I have christened Cinderella Medicine.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials

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Surprise, surprise! Dr. Andrew Weil doesn’t like evidence-based medicine

ResearchBlogging.orgDr. Andrew Weil is a rock star in the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM) movement. Indeed, it can be persuasively argued that he is one of its founders, at least a founder of the its most modern iteration, and I am hard-pressed to think of anyone who did more in the early days of the CAM/IM movement, back before it ever managed to achieve a modicum of unearned respectability, to popularize CAM. In fact, no physician that I can think of has over the course of his lifetime done more to promote the rise of quackademic medicine than Dr. Weil. The only forces greater than Dr. Weil in promoting the infiltration of pseudoscience into academic medicine have been the Bravewell Collaborative and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Before there was Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Mark Hyman, or any of the other promoters of IM, there was Dr. Weil.

And why not? Dr. Weil looks like an aging 1960s rock star, and, operating from his redoubt at the University of Arizona, is quite charismatic. For all the world he has the appearance of a kindly, benevolent Arizona desert Santa Claus, an ex-hippie turned respectable dispensing advice about “natural” medicines, writing books, and making himself ubiquitous on television and radio whenever the topic of alternative medicine comes up. Before Dr. Oz told Steve Novella that “Western” science and medicine can’t study woo like acupuncture, Dr. Weil was there, paving the way for such arguments, previously considered ludicrous, to achieve a patina of respectability.

In fact, he’s still at it, doing it far better and far more subtly than the ham-handed Dr. Oz. Unfortunately, it’s the same anti-science message and the same appeal to other ways of knowing built upon tearing down straw men versions of evidence-based medicine (EBM) with gusto. This was brought home last week when Dr. Weil co-authored an opinion piece with Drs. Scott Shannon and Bonnie J. Kaplan for the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies entitled Safety and Patient Preferences, Not Just Effectiveness, Should Guide Medical Treatment Decisions, an article that was noted at the blog Booster Shots in a credulous, fawning post entitled Dr. Weil says there’s a better approach to evaluating clinical drug trials. In contast, Steve Novella put it far more succinctly (and accurately) in the title of his post: Andrew Weil Attacks EBM. That’s exactly what Weil and company did in this article.

While Steve is absolutely correct, I also see it more as Dr. Weil demonstrating once again that, upstarts like Dr. Oz aside, he is still the master of CAM/IM apologia, much as, even though both were Sith Lords, Emperor Palpatine remained master over Darth Vader until just before the end. You’ll see why in terms of the arguments, both subtle and not-so-subtle, that Dr. Weil and his acolytes make. Moreover, even though his disciple Shannon is granted the coveted first author position, the arguments presented leave little doubt that it’s Weil who’s driving the bus.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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Fungus yields new prescription drug for multiple sclerosis

The following post appeared earlier this week at my Chemical & Engineering News CENtral Science blog, Terra Sigillata. For some odd reason – perhaps this week’s frantic academic schedule of commencement activities – it was not highly read there. I thought that our Science-Based Medicine readers would appreciate it because this new prescription drug is derived from a family of fungi that have been used in traditional Chinese medicine. A few editorial changes have been made later in the post to increase the relevance to our readership here.

ResearchBlogging.orgA very well-written review of an orally-active drug for multiple sclerosis has just appeared in the April 25th issue of the Journal of Natural Products, a joint publication of the American Chemical Society and the American Society of Pharmacognosy.

The review, Fingolimod (FTY720): A Recently Approved Multiple Sclerosis Drug Based on a Fungal Secondary Metabolite, is co-authored by Cherilyn R. Strader, Cedric J. Pearce, and Nicholas H. Oberlies. In the interest of full disclosure, the latter two gentlemen are research collaborators of mine from Mycosynthetix, Inc. (Hillsborough, NC) and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. My esteemed colleague and senior author, Dr. Oberlies, modestly deflected my request to blog about the publication of this review.

So, I am instead writing this post to promote the excellent work of his student and first author, Cherilyn Strader. As of [Wednesday] morning, this review article is first on the list of most-read articles in the Journal. This status is noteworthy because the review has moved ahead of even the famed David Newman and Gordon Cragg review of natural product-sourced drugs of the last 25 years, the JNP equivalent of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (the album known for its record 14-year stay on the Billboard music charts.).

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Posted in: Basic Science, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals

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Placebo Prescriptions

Whether it’s acupuncture, homeopathy or the latest supplement, placebo effects can be difficult to distinguish from real effects. Today’s post sets aside the challenge of identifying placebo effects and look at how placebos are used in routine medical practice.  I’ve been a pharmacist for almost 20 years, and have never seen a placebo in practice, where the patient was actively deceived by the physician and the pharmacist. So I was quite surprised to see some placebo usage figures cited by Tom Blackwell, writing in the National Post last week:

The practice is discouraged by major medical groups, considered unethical by many doctors and with uncertain benefit, but one in five Canadian physicians prescribes or hands out some kind of placebo to their often-unknowing patients, a new study suggests.

The article references a paper in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry which, sadly, does not have much of a web presence. The article continues:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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When you can’t win on science, invoke the law…

Late last week, the anti-vaccine underground was all atwitter. The reason was the announcement of an impending press conference, scheduled for yesterday at noon in Washington, DC that proclaimed:

Investigators and Families of Vaccine-Injured Children to Unveil Report Detailing Clear Vaccine-Autism Link Based on Government’s Own Data

Report Demands Immediate Congressional Action

Directors of the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy (EBCALA), parents and vaccine-injured children will hold a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (717 Madison Place, NW in Washington, DC) on Tuesday, May 10 at 12:00 PM to unveil an investigation linking vaccine injury to autism. For over 20 years, the federal government has publicly denied a vaccine-autism link, while at the same time its Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) has been awarding damages for vaccine injury to children with brain damage, seizures and autism. This investigation, based on public, verifiable government data, breaks new ground in the controversial vaccine-autism debate.

The investigation found that a substantial number of children compensated for vaccine injury also have autism. The government has asserted that it “does not track” autism among the vaccine-injured. Based on this preliminary investigation, the evidence suggests that autism is at least three times more prevalent among vaccine-injured children than among children in the general population.

I could hardly wait.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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