Should you try a “natural alternative” before medication?

Herbal remedies are often promoted as a substitute for drug therapies.

Natural and herbal remedies are often promoted as a substitute for drug therapies. But do they actually work?

The idea of taking medication can be frightening. And as consumers and patients that want to make our own informed health decisions, it’s understandable and even appropriate to question our physicians when they recommend drug treatments. We need to understand the rationale for any medication that’s recommended or prescribed, the benefits of therapy, the side effects, and if there are any other approaches that might be more appropriate. Dietary supplements and natural health products are widely marketed as being safe and effective, and are occupying more and more shelf space in pharmacies, usually right beside the pharmacy counter. Many of my patient encounters in the pharmacy have included a discussion on the merits of drug therapy, versus the supplements that may have flashy packaging and impressive claims of effectiveness.

One encounter from my time working at a local pharmacy still sticks with me. I met a new patient who was anxious and eager to get my advice. He’d been cautioned by his family doctor that he was on the borderline of being diagnosed with diabetes. He had come to the pharmacy seeking a supplement that could help him avoid diabetes and medication. Rather than recommend any supplement, I suggested that the best approach he could probably take would be to lose some weight and get some exercise – it could be more effective than any supplement or drug, and would definitely help his health. He agreed, and then asked me what supplement he could take that could help him with some weight loss.

This type of discussion occurs all the time, and seems more common when there’s a lack of trust in the physician, or when the goals of treatment aren’t understood. The patient, reluctant to accept the physician’s recommendation, heads to the pharmacy for what they believe is a second opinion. In some cases, the patient may question the physician’s advice: “All my physician wants to do is prescribe drugs,” is a statement I’ve heard more than once. In those that are reluctant to accept medical treatment, there’s often a willingness to consider anything that’s available without a prescription – particularly if it’s perceived as “natural.” Natural products and dietary supplements are thought to be gentle, safe, and effective, while medicine may be felt to be unnatural, harsh, and potentially dangerous. Yet when I explain to patients that there’s actually little evidence to suggest most supplements offer any meaningful health benefits, I am sometimes met with puzzled or dismissive looks. The supplement industry’s marketing has been remarkably effective, glossing over the fact that the research done on dietary supplements is overall unconvincing and largely negative when it comes to having anything useful to offer for health. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy

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Thinking With Your Emotions About Medicine

"Miracle" is an almost literal health halo.

“Miracle” is an almost literal health halo.

The mental pathway of least resistance, what psychologists often refer to as the “default mode” of human thought, is to go with our “gut feelings.” We evolved emotions, heuristics, and cognitive biases partly so that we could make quick judgments that are good enough and err on the side of survival.

This can be adaptive – if we smell something rotten we have an emotional disgust response and avoid it. We don’t have to make a calculation about the odds of getting sick from the rotten food vs the calories and nutrients we can derive from it, we just feel disgust and avoid it.

This apparatus, however, does not deal well with a complex technological civilization that contains things like marketing and social media. The low-energy cognitive process of doing what feels right is easily manipulated and often leads us astray. (more…)

Posted in: Commentary

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Diatomaceous Earth? No Thank You!

Would you eat this? It might look like a crunchy new breakfast cereal, but it's a close-up of diatomaceous earth, the fossilized microscopic skeletons of diatoms.

Would you eat this? It might look like a crunchy new breakfast cereal, but it’s a close-up of diatomaceous earth, the fossilized microscopic skeletons of diatoms.

Diatoms are unicellular algae, one of the two major classes of the phytoplankton that constitute the bottom of the food chain in oceans and freshwater. Diatomaceous earth is a soft, siliceous sedimentary rock containing the fossilized skeletal remains of diatoms. It has been used as a bug killer: it is hypothesized that the sharp particles physically cut up the insects and also damage their waxy protective layer, causing dehydration. It is also used as an abrasive, a filter, an anticaking agent, and in various other industrial and agricultural applications. It contains silica, mainly in the form of amorphous silicon dioxide but with some crystalline silica. Silica is dangerous when inhaled, causing lung disease in workers exposed to silica dust. Silicosis is the most common occupational disease worldwide.

Those are the indisputable facts. So far, so good. Now for the unsupported claims. Diatomaceous earth is being sold as a dietary supplement and is being promoted as “one of the cheapest and most versatile health products on the market.” One of the red flags for quack remedies is the claim that the remedy works for a long list of disparate ailments. Another is that the claims are supported only by testimonials, not by scientific studies. Another is the claim that it “detoxifies.” And most of those who claim it works just happen to have their own brand that they want to sell you. Diatomaceous earth fits the bill, on all counts. But just because it walks like a duck doesn’t mean we can summarily dismiss it. To be fair, we must examine the claims and the evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious


I’ve finally seen it. I’ve finally seen Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s “documentary” VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, and I didn’t even have to pay to see it! Now, having watched Wakefield and Bigtree’s “masterpiece,” I can quite confidently say that it’s every bit as accurate and balanced a picture of vaccine benefits and risks as Eric Merola’s two movies about the quack Stanislaw Burzynski and his Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering are about cancer and cancer research, The Beautiful Truth is about the Gerson protocol for cancer, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is about diet and diabetes, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed is about evolution, and The Greater Good is about…vaccines! Of course, based on what I knew of the story, saw of the VAXXED trailer (which deceptively edited together statements by William Thompson), and have discussed about the efforts of Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polly Tommey to use VAXXED as a tool in a publicity campaign to try to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines using the “CDC whistleblowerconspiracy theory (about which a primer can be found here), I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was actually surprised (slightly) at the manipulative depths to which this film sinks.

On the plus side, its production values are better than those Eric Merola’s films (although I, with no experience, could probably make a film with better production values than Merola), but that just makes it somewhat more effective propaganda. In my review and discussion of the movie and its claims, I will discuss the claims made by Bigtree and Wakefield as well as the movie as a movie. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation in this 91 minute documentary that I will only be able to hit the “high” points without going far, far beyond even a Gorski level of logorrhea in this post. Worse, there is a considerable amount of dishonest framing, in which actual facts and events are presented in a deceptive manner to tell a distorted narrative. Before that, though, let’s meet the key players.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The New Chiropractic. And I thought SBM had an uphill battle.

Sisyphus, our enervating mascot.  Join us!  We're tired.

Sisyphus, our enervating mascot. Join us, we’re tired!

Over at the Society for Science-Based Medicine we have Sisyphus as the logo on the website. Sisyphus, as you may know, is the Greek who had to push a boulder up a hill every day, the archetypal metaphor for futile labor. It was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek, but only a bit. As quackademia proudly expands I sometime feel we were overly optimistic. Perhaps it should have been Prometheus

But if SBM has it tough, it pales next to the work of Bruce Walker DC, an Australian chiropractor who is calling for The new chiropractic.

His goal is to remake chiropractic, turning it into an evidence-based spine specialty, abandoning all the pseudo-scientific baggage.

I wish him luck. He will need it. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Commentary, Humor

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FDA efforts to improve compounded drug safety upsets naturopaths

Favorite naturopathic treatments comprise pumping patients full of dubious mixtures by injection, including IV drips. Naturopaths also employ topicals (salves, ointments and creams), rectal, and vaginal suppositories, and oral medications, such as bio-identical hormone replacement therapy, all made from “natural” substances.

According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP)

these nutritional, herbal and homeopathic remedies are compounded to meet unique patient needs and are not typically available from the large drug manufacturers that don’t make small batches of such specialized products.

Not to mention the fact that it is highly doubtful these questionable remedies could make it through the FDA drug approval process, which requires proven safety and efficacy.

The FDA’s recent steps to improve drug compounding safety is a welcome curb on these practices. Draft Guidance issued in April addresses both compounding for office use and by prescription. (“Office use” refers to creating a supply of a compounded drug to be used by a health care practitioner as needed, as opposed to compounding a drug per a specific prescription for an individual patient.) In June, the FDA also issued an Interim Policy on substances that can be used in compounding a drug. We’ll discuss how these affect naturopathic practice in a moment. (more…)

Posted in: Guidelines, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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New Study Questions fMRI Validity

One way to describe our overall editorial stance at SBM is that we are criticizing medical science in a constructive way because we would like to see higher standards more generally applied. Science is complex, medical science especially so because it deals with people who are complex and unique. Getting it right is hard and so we need to take a very careful and thoughtful approach. There are countless ways to get it wrong.

One way to get it wrong is to put too much faith in a new technology or scientific approach when there has not been enough time to adequately validate that approach. It’s tempting to think that the new idea or technology is going to revolutionize science or medicine, but history has taught us to be cautious. For instance, antioxidants, it turns out, are not going to cure a long list of diseases.

One recent technology that is very exciting, but insiders recognize is very problematic, is perhaps even more problematic than we thought –functional MRI scans (fMRI). A new study suggests that the statistical software used to analyse the raw data from fMRIs might be significantly flawed, producing a flood of false positive results.

An fMRI primer

MRI scanning uses powerful magnets to image soft tissue in the body. The magnets (1.5-3 Tesla, typically) align the spin of hydrogen atoms in water molecules with the magnetic field. The time it takes for the atoms to align and then relax depends on the characteristics of the tissue. The MRI scan therefore sees subtle differences in tissue (density, water content) and uses this information to construct detailed images. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Vegan Betrayal: The Myths vs. the Realities of a Plants-Only Diet

If vegans really followed these guidelines, they could get adequate nutrition; but all to often they don't.

If vegans really followed these guidelines, they could get adequate nutrition; but all too often they don’t.


NOTE: The original version of this book review was criticized for not making it clear when I was simply reporting the book’s content and when I was expressing support for one of its arguments. I have revised it to make it more clear. The additions are marked by brackets.


Vegetarians come in several flavors. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs, ovo-lacto-vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy products. Pescatarians eat fish but no other animals. Vegans eat nothing derived from animals. Vegans have claimed that a plants-only diet offers a multitude of health benefits, is better for the environment, and is the only ethical choice. While some of them respect the dietary choices of others, some of them proselytize with religious-like fervor and are working to get their diet adopted by all of humanity. In her new book, Vegan Betrayal: Love, Lies, And Hunger In A Plants-Only World, Mara Kahn questions those beliefs, pointing out that no human population has ever endured on a plants-only diet; that while some studies have shown short-term health benefits, long-term follow-up is missing; that long-term vegans frequently experience “failure to thrive,” go off their diet, and feel better when they return to eating meat; and that veganism might actually harm the environment and might not even save animal lives overall.

The book is really three books interleaved into one:

  • The story of her own experiences as a vegan.
  • An evidence-supported analysis of veganism and vegetarianism
  • Some rather woo-woo ideas about finding a unique diet for each individual

I can highly recommend the first two, but I deplore the third. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Nutrition

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Forget stem cell tourism: Stem cell clinics in the US are plentiful

Snake Oil Salesman & Wagon
I had planned on writing about something else this week, but late last week another story caught my eye, because it served as a perfect follow-up to what I wrote about last week. To recap, I wrote about a man named Jim Gass, a former chief legal counsel for Sylvania, who had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009 that left him without the use of his left arm, and weak left leg. He could still walk with a cane, but was understandably desperate to try anything to be able to function more normally in life. Mr. Gass was both driven enough, credulous enough, and wealthy enough to spend $300,000 pursuing stem cell tourism in China, Mexico, and Argentina over the course of four years. The result is that he now has a tumor growing in his spinal column, as reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The New York Times (NYT). Genetic analysis has demonstrated that the cells in this tumor mass did not come from Jim Gass, and the mass has left him paralyzed from the neck down, except for his right arm, incontinent, and with severe chronic back pain. Worse, although radiation temporarily stopped the tumor from growing, apparently it’s growing again, and no one seems to know how to stop it. Given that the traits that make stem cells so desirable as a regenerative treatment, their plasticity and immortality (ability to divide indefinitely), are shared with cancer, scientists doing legitimate stem cell research have always tried to take precautions to stop just this sort of thing from happening in clinical trials. Clearly, “stem cell tourist” clinics, which intentionally operate in countries where the regulatory environment is—shall we say?—less than rigorous are nowhere near as cautious, as they charge tens of thousands of dollars a pop for stem cell treatments that might or might not actually have real stem cells in them.

At the time I wrote that article, I emphasized primarily clinics outside of the US, where shady operators locate in order to be able to operate largely unhindered by local governments. You’d think that such a thing couldn’t possibly be going on in the US. You’d be wrong. Last week, Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist who has previously contributed to Science-Based Medicine, teamed up with Leigh Turner to publish a paper in Cell Stem Cell estimating the number of stem cell clinics in the US. The number they came up with astonished me. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Horses, Zebras, and the Availability Heuristic

It was a chevrotain.

It was a chevrotain. (Josh More, Flickr)

During a particularly difficult shift early in my career, I spent the better part of two hours at the bedside with a patient’s family discussing the unexpected discovery of a large tumor in their child’s brain. The implications of the finding were grave, and the family was understandably devastated. I was just a few years out of residency and this was the first time I had made such a life altering diagnosis by myself, and it was by far the hardest news I had ever had to break to a family. Needless to say it was an experience that I will never forget, and one that has influenced my approach to medicine ever since.

The diagnosis was a surprise to everyone. There were of course red flags that appropriately led to the ordering of an MRI, but I really didn’t expect it to find anything. It wasn’t based on the fear of a lawsuit or the discomfort with uncertainty, influences that dictate the practice of medicine far too often, with the latter being considerably more of a problem (in my opinion). There was enough to support embarking on an encephalic expedition, but nothing so blatant as to really raise my suspicions.  My guard was down and my emotional response to the situation was intense. Later, after care of the patient had been transferred to the pediatric oncology service, my introspective nature took over.

The sound of approaching hoofbeats

In medical school, there is an old adage often passed down to learners by seasoned physicians that serves to rein in an overly broad differential diagnosis, particularly when it includes increasingly unlikely etiologies. When one hears the sound of approaching hoofbeats, the inexperienced students are cautioned, one should expect to see horses rather than zebras. The world of medicine rarely mimics an episode of House, M.D. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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