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The consumer lab rat: More questions about supplement safety

Laboratory Rats
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…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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More Trouble for Antioxidants

Antioxidants are better acquired through food than pills.

Antioxidants are better-acquired through food than pills.

Antioxidants are now an iconic example of premature hype making its way into marketing and the public consciousness long before the science is adequately understood. There are multiple lessons to be learned in this story, and a new study just emphasizes those lessons further.

A brief history of antioxidants

One of the unavoidable consequences of metabolism (burning food for energy) is the creation of oxygen free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are molecules that are highly reactive. They essentially contain oxygen with an extra electron, which can react with another molecule, breaking bonds and causing damage.

As you might expect, the body has natural antioxidants which react with ROS to form benign molecules.

In the 1990s it became increasingly apparent that oxidative stress was playing an important role in cell damage, even sometimes triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Many degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease, were shown to be driven in part by oxidative stress. In addition, it seemed that ROS play a role in aging.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Cure Is About Caring, Not Curing: Placebos, Alternative Medicine, and Patient Comfort

cure
In a recent post, Dr. Gorski criticized two articles by Jo Marchant on placebos and alternative medicine. He mentioned that she had a book coming out and suggested I might want to review it. The title is Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body.

I don’t know of any evidence that the mind has ever cured a disease, so I would have been prejudiced against this book just from its title, and Dr. Gorski’s post prejudiced me even more. But I was willing to give it a fair trial. The publisher sent me a review copy of the book and I read it. I was expecting to hate it, but I was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed reading it. I found it fascinating. I found myself agreeing with much of what Marchant says, and I was intrigued by some of the recent research she reports that I was not yet aware of. Preliminary studies, to be sure, but thought-provoking. The book challenged me to think more deeply about placebos, alternative medicine, and patient comfort. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Science-based medicine versus the Flint water crisis

This is exactly the sort of cover story you don't want to see about your city in TIME.

This is exactly the sort of cover story you don’t want to see about your city in TIME.

One aspect of science-based medicine that is not covered frequently on this blog, aside from vaccines and antivaccine pseudoscience, but perhaps should be, is the intersection of SBM and public health. Unfortunately, living as I do in southeast Michigan right now, I’ve been on the receiving end of an inescapable lesson in what happens when the government fails in its mission to enforce science-based public health issues. I’m referring, of course, to what has become known worldwide as the Flint water crisis. The Flint water crisis has become so famous that unfortunately it now has its very own Wikipedia page. That is not an “honor” I like to see for my state, and I’m sure the residents of Flint, which is an hour’s drive north of where I live, would agree. This crisis provides an unfortunate illustration of what can easily happen when multiple layers of government fail in a science-based public health task as basic as providing clean water to the citizens they ostensibly serve.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, the Flint water crisis refers to the ongoing contamination of the tap water in Flint, MI with unacceptably high levels of lead that resulted from change in its water supply nearly two years ago to Flint River water. Because river water is more corrosive than the previous supply that came from Lake Huron (why I’ll explain later) and Flint river water was not properly treated to decrease that corrosiveness, the new water leached lead from old pipes. This resulted in the contamination of the drinking water with dangerous levels of lead in many homes in the city. In addition, there has been a marked increase in the number of cases of Legionnaires’ disease thought to be linked to the new water supply.

I was born and raised in Detroit. My parents didn’t move to the suburbs until I was ten years old, and I stayed in southeast Michigan until I graduated from medical school and ended up in Cleveland for my surgical residency and, ultimately, my PhD work. From there I bounced to Chicago and New Jersey. Then, in 2008, nearly twenty years after I had left my hometown, I ended up back in the Detroit area. The point of this story is that my roots in the Detroit area run deep. Michigan is my state, for better or for worse, which is why I get annoyed when bad things happen here. I particularly become outraged when a preventable tragedy occurs here, one that science told us how to prevent but the government went ahead and did anyway. It’s a horrific tale of how science was basically ignored because of politics, and legitimate scientific concerns about a policy that changed the water source for an entire city were downplayed, derided, and even denied by state officials at every level of government. The story has now gone international. Indeed, our state and the city of Flint are featured on the cover of this week’s TIME Magazine.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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The Fog of Medicine

Pictured: Medicine. In space!

Pictured: Medicine. In space!

I often get called on to be a diagnostician. The referring doctor is uncertain what is going on in the patient, often a fever of unknown origin, and they call me to help figure it out. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

Making the correct diagnosis is not easy, even after 35 years. The classic phrase is the fog of war, but the fog of medicine is equally confusing. In retrospect sometimes a diagnosis becomes clearer, but in real time? It is so easy to be wrong and so difficult to be correct.

I remember the first case of my career. A patient developed neutropenia (low white count) from a sulfa antibiotic and over the next two weeks went into multi-organ system failure and died. At autopsy it was discovered that he had miliary tuberculosis. I totally missed the diagnosis, despite all the tests, including liver and bone marrow biopsies before he died.

A decade later a case was presented at conference about a patient with a fever who went into multi-organ system failure and died. At the time of the conference I had zero recollection of the case from a decade earlier, but knew this was a case of miliary TB based on the data presented, although it was far from a textbook case. After the conference the presenter let me know that it had been my case, the one I had missed years ago.

I was ten years wiser in my medical career and more aware of the subtleties and variations of disease presentation. Experience has made me a somewhat better diagnostician. Or so I hope. Making the diagnosis of a common presentation of a common disease should be simple, but patients rarely read the textbooks and we are more likely to see an uncommon presentation of a common disease, a common presentation of an uncommon disease, and most dreaded, an uncommon presentation of an uncommon disease. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking

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Docs v. Glocks: government regulation of physician speech

Glock 19 pistolA few years ago, an Ocala, Florida, pediatrician, as part of a routine visit, asked a patient’s mother whether she kept firearms in the home. She refused to answer, feeling the question constituted an invasion of her right to privacy. The pediatrician then terminated the relationship and told the mother she had 30 days to find a new doctor for her child. In another incident, a mother reported she was separated from her children while medical staff asked them whether their mother owned firearms. And, according to a Florida legislator, he was told to remove firearms from the home during an appointment with his daughter’s pediatrician.

Complaints to Florida legislators about these and similar incidents prompted the introduction of a bill that would have, among other things, criminalized any

verbal or written inquiry by a . . . physician, nurse, or other medical staff person regarding the ownership of a firearm by a patient or the family of a patient or the presence of a firearm in a private home . . .

As finally passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Rick Scott, the 2011 Firearm Owners Privacy Act subjects physicians to disciplinary action for making “verbal or written inquiry” into a patient’s firearm ownership when the physician does not “in good faith believe” such inquiries are “relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety of others.” The Act included amendments to the Florida Patient’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, adding similar provisions. (The Act also applies to health care facilities, but here we will discuss only its effect on physicians and their patients.) Physicians may not enter any information regarding firearm ownership into the patient’s medical record if they know this information is not “relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety, or the safety of others.” They may not “discriminate” against a patient “based solely on the patient’s Second Amendment right to own firearms or ammunition.” Finally, physicians must refrain from “unnecessarily harassing” a patient regarding firearm ownership during an examination. (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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The Clean Eating Delusion

eating-clean-november-400px

While some parts of the world are concerned with eating, because of food insecurity, the “worried and well-fed well” are increasingly obsessed with so-called “clean eating.”

This is nothing new, but like every cultural phenomenon, it seems, has increased partly due to the easy spread of misinformation over the internet. If you are anxious about your health, and who isn’t to some degree, your anxiety is fed by a steady diet of pseudo-experts, con-artists, and internet personalities telling you about all the things you eat that adversely affect your health.

This phenomenon is increasingly being recognized as a health issue among experts. In 1996 Dr. Steven Bratman proposed a formal disorder he calls orthorexia nervosa. He writes:

For people with orthorexia, eating healthily has become an extreme, obsessive, psychologically limiting and sometimes physically dangerous disorder, related to but quite distinct from anorexia.

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Posted in: Nutrition

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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Rituximab Revisited

rituximabThree years ago I wrote about an experimental treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS): rituximab (brand name Rituxan). I was concerned that doctors who offered it, like Andreas Kogelnik, were jumping the gun by offering it before the evidence was in, and that they might be putting patients at risk.

A correspondent who has been following the CFS forums asked me to revisit this issue. She sent me links to forum posts indicating that Dr. Kogelnik is treating CFS patients with the drug, that they are not being enrolled in clinical trials, that information about results is not available, and that at least one patient may have developed a life-threatening side effect. I want to stress that I don’t have any evidence that those statements are true. These are only posts on a forum, and I have no way to verify the information. I tried to get more information from Dr. Kogelnik’s clinic, but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, even if everything in those forum posts is false, I think the issue is serious enough to bring it to the attention of the public again. My purpose is to provide accurate information about rituximab and to get people to think about the principles involved, not to make claims or accusations or cast any blame. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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The cost of repealing mandatory motorcycle helmet laws

GRcartoon

It’s a seldom mentioned aspect of my professional history that I used to do a lot of trauma surgery in my youth. I did my residency at a program that included a county hospital with a busy trauma program where I saw quite a bit of vehicular carnage and an urban hospital (which has since closed) where I saw a fair amount of what we in the surgery biz call gun and knife club action. During my time as a PhD student, I moonlighted as a flight physician for the local helicopter rescue service, Metro Life Flight, where I took care of patients with everything from cardiac disease requiring transfer to the Cleveland Clinic to near-drownings during the summer at the Lake Erie resorts, particularly Put-in-Bay, to obstetrical transfers (which terrified me) to, of course, the unfortunately copious run-of-the-mill vehicular trauma. I saw the sort of tragedy that could result. Then, in the late 1990s, as I did research for my surgical oncology fellowship in Chicago, I also moonlighted as a trauma attending at a local suburban level II trauma center.

At that point, I realized that trauma was not my thing, as I couldn’t see myself at my present advanced age doing the sort of physically and emotionally demanding work that required fast decisions. It stressed me out too much; which is part of the reason why I went into surgical oncology in the first place. However, I have an appreciation for those who do do trauma. I also realize that trauma is, in a way, the “purest” form of surgery in that it involves taking a body broken by mechanical forces and trying to repair it, all the while keeping the patient alive until the repairs can heal. I will, however, miss the enjoyment I get hearing presentations on tree stand falls during hunting season.

I don’t mention my youthful flirtation with trauma surgery so much because I think it’s something so fascinating that I must tell it. (If that were the case, I’d have been mentioning it much more frequently in my blogs and social media than I have before.) Rather, it lets you know why I was so distressed when this story was forwarded to me a few days ago. It’s a Reuters report entitled “Injuries soar after Michigan stops requiring motorcycle helmets“:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Surgical Procedures

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Baby Translating Technology: Revolutionary Parenting Tool or Confirmation Bias Bonanza

stupidbaby
Caring for a young infant, although a potentially rewarding means of producing a labor force for chores and minor home repairs, can be a trying ordeal for both new and experienced parents. The peaks and valleys of parental experience can leave a caregiver both exhilarated and agonizingly frustrated during a single hour of childcare, let alone the first few months. It is not an uncommon experience for a parent to rapidly alternate between extreme states of emotional arousal, one minute gazing down at their sleeping baby with seemingly limitless feelings of joy and love, and the next panicking at the perception that it has been too long since their baby’s last breath.

Babies, especially stupid ones, require near constant attention during the first several weeks of life, and that’s if it is going well. There is no user manual for the care of the newborn human that could possibly describe every situation and how to effectively respond to it in each individual child. A trial and error approach is always necessary to some degree, and it tends to result in a lot of sleepless nights, with many parents finding themselves more exhausted than they ever dreamed possible. So it shouldn’t be surprising that parents are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to the marketing claims of bogus technology aimed at making their lives even the slightest bit easier. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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