Alternative medicine, like all good marketing, is largely about creating a narrative. Once you have sold people on the narrative, products essentially market themselves. That narrative has been evolving for literally centuries, although it seems to have accelerated with the advent of mass media and now the internet. It is optimized to push emotional buttons in order to sell products.
There are countless examples available on the internet, with many peaking above the crowd for their 15 minutes of fame. In my feed this morning came this typical example: “Cancer Cells Die In 42 Days: This Famous Austrian’s Juice Cured Over 45,000 People From Cancer And Other Incurable Diseases!“
The story has many of the typical alternative medicine narrative talking points: natural is good, a healthful diet can cure anything, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidants, and detoxification are all good.
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.
We’re all going to die, but we don’t like to think about it. I’ll reach the proverbial threescore years and ten next month, so I’ve been thinking more about it, wishing I knew some reliable way to ensure that I would live many more years and remain fully functional until I suddenly collapsed like the Deacon’s wonderful one-hoss shay. There are myriad “longevity clinics” and “anti-aging” formulas, and every centenarian has an explanation that is the direct opposite of some other centenarian’s explanation. But what does the scientific evidence say? In his new book Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying), Bill Gifford has done us a great service by investigating the latest scientific evidence about aging and presenting his findings in an engaging narrative form. He interviews some of the major players and introduces us to health fanatics who are convinced they can prolong their lives by doing things like monitoring their own blood cholesterol levels on a weekly basis, exercising obsessively, severely restricting their calorie intake, fasting intermittently, deliberately exposing themselves to stress like swimming in icy water, competing in extreme athletics, taking boatloads of hormones and supplements, experimenting on themselves with investigational drugs, and doing other questionable and sometimes bizarre things.
Are there limits to human life expectancy?
There is no documented case of anyone living longer than Jeanne Calment of France, who died at the age of 122. Jay Olshansky thinks biological forces limit how long we can live. Aubrey de Grey thinks some people alive today will live to be a thousand years old. Gifford explains the controversy and the reasoning behind both sides. Will we someday be able to re-engineer human biology to overcome the limits? The jury is still out. (more…)
One of the greatest triumphs of marketing over evidence was the incredible rise of vitamin supplement use in the 20th century. Supplement makers successfully created a “health halo” around vitamins, and taking your vitamins became a virtue, something mothers told their children to do. The evidence, however, does not tell such a simple story.
In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that there are unintended consequences to taking vitamin supplements, and in fact there may be a net negative health effect. This is especially true for those who are healthy and don’t need vitamins, and for those who exceed the recommend dosages.
A recent review of the last 20 years of literature on the subject, presented at the American Association for Cancer Research 2015 meeting, found an overall increased risk of cancer among vitamin users. Dr. Tim Byers presented the study, which echoes the result of a 2012 review that he and others published. He specifically refers to two famous studies showing an increased risk of cancer from vitamins.
The 2011 SELECT trial found an overall increased risk of prostate cancer among men taking vitamin E. (more…)
Another kind of coffee pyramid scheme. Largest pyramid of coffee cups from the India Book of Records.
When my husband was helping a friend with a project at the house of someone he didn’t know, the lady of the house gave him an earful about the health benefits of the coffee sold by Healthy Habits Global (HHG), a multilevel marketing (MLM) enterprise for which she is a distributor. She sent him home with samples and a brochure with a long list of health claims. She told him she could provide lots of testimonials, and there was a wealth of evidence for her products on PubMed.
Before believing any health claims, especially from an unknown source, it is only prudent to examine the evidence. I consulted the company website, PubMed, and other sources; and I learned that the company’s advertising was full of false information and the whole rationale of the products was questionable. I am not persuaded that HHG coffee has any health benefits. It appears to be just another in a long line of gimmicks used by MLM businesses to sell untested, usually ineffective “health” products to gullible consumers who have little knowledge of science. (more…)
I’ve already devoted more time to Protandim than it deserves. I’ve written about it twice on SBM: here and here . But I can’t resist covering a new Protandim study that not only serves as a bad example but that made me laugh.
Protandim is a mixture of 5 herbal supplements intended to upregulate the body’s own production of antioxidants. Its patent application claimed that it was useful to treat or prevent an astounding 126 diseases and medical conditions, from tinnitus to aging, from hemorrhoids to cancer. At the time of my last article, only one human study had been done. It found increases in blood test markers and interpreted them as a surrogate for increased antioxidant activity in the body, but did not even attempt to assess whether those increases corresponded to any measurable clinical benefit, for cancer or for anything else. I begged Protandim supporters not to ask me about it again until there were human clinical studies with meaningful outcomes.
Now there is finally a second human study, although still not one that qualifies as a clinical trial. Curiously, it is not listed on the company’s website. I wonder why? Perhaps because it showed Protandim didn’t work. Oops.
Multivitamin supplementation has been getting a rough ride in the literature, as evidence emerges that routine supplementation for most is, at best, unnecessary. Some individual vitamins are earning their own unattractive risk/benefit profiles: Products like folic acid, calcium, and beta-carotene all seem inadvisable for routine supplementation in the absence of deficiency or medical indication. Vitamin E, already on the watch list, looks increasingly problematic, with data recently published confirming the suspected association of supplementation with an elevated risk of prostate cancer.
Reading through the vitamin posts here at SBM, one issue comes through repeatedly: The danger of assuming therapeutic benefits in the absence of confirmatory evidence. Vitamin supplement have the patina of safety and of health, a feature that’s reinforced when you purchase them: You don’t need a prescription, you don’t get counseled on their use, and there isn’t a long list of frightening potential side effects to accompany the product. You can pull a bottle off the shelf, and take any dose you want. After all, how harmful can vitamins be when you can buy 5 pounds of vitamin C at a time, or vitamin E capsules in a 1000-pack? But the research signals seem to be getting stronger, and most are pointing in the same direction: what we though we knew about antioxidants was based on simplistic hypotheses about nutrition and health. And while we thought we were doing ourselves good with antioxidant supplements, we may have been doing harm. (more…)
I’m fed up! In August 2009 I wrote about Protandim, pointing out that it’s not supported by good evidence. I thought I had made myself clear; but apparently I had only made myself a target. True believers have deluged the Internet with attacks on my article, calling it mere “opinion,” ignoring its main points, and denigrating me personally. I have ignored the Internet attacks, but I’m beginning to feel personally harassed: I have lost count of the e-mails I have received from Protandim enthusiasts trying to convince me that it works and that I should change my mind. I’ve spent hours trying to explain my reasoning in e-mails, and it’s becoming a repetitive chore, so I am writing this so that next time I get an e-mail inquiry I can simply forward this link.
What Is In It?
Protandim is a mixture of milk thistle, bacopa extract, ashwagandha, green tea extract, and turmeric extract (all of which, incidentally, can be purchased individually at much lower cost).
What Do They Claim It Does?
As described on Wikipedia:
The manufacturers of Protandim claim the product can indirectly increase antioxidant activity by up-regulating endogenous antioxidant factors such as the enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase, as well as the tripeptide glutathione, and by activation of theNrf2 pathway.
Nrf2 is a transcription factor that upregulates the expression of various genes that may regulate oxidative stress. Drugs to target that pathway might have benefits for diseases that are caused or exacerbated by oxidative stress. Such drugs are investigational at this point, but the makers of Protandim have skipped the investigational stage and are marketing a product that they think is effective for almost every ailment known to man and that they are promoting as an anti-aging supplement.
Four years ago I received an e-mail inquiry about Protandim. I had never heard of it; but I looked it up and wrote a quick, informal, somewhat snarky answer that got posted on the Internet. It got a lot of attention. Googling for Protandim now brings up my critique right after the Protandim website itself: that can’t be good for sales. Over the years, several e-mails and blog comments have informed me that I was wrong (usually offering testimonials or calling me closed-minded), and recently I’ve been getting inquiries asking if I’ve changed my mind now that a clinical study has been published. I haven’t.
Instead of providing antioxidants directly, Protandim is supposed to stimulate the body to produce its own antioxidants. The website tells us it is “the only supplement clinically proven to reduce oxidative stress by 40%, slowing down the rate of cell aging to the level of a 20 year old.” It provides “thousands of times more antioxidant power than any food or conventional antioxidant supplement.” It signals the body’s genes to produce the enzymes SOD (superoxide dismutase) and CAT (catalase) that act as catalysts to neutralize free radicals and are not “used up” like ingested antioxidants are. It “creates a cascade of your body’s natural catalytic antioxidants that are able to destroy millions of free radicals per second.” It raises the level of glutathione by 300%. Glutathione is good, apparently.
What is Protandim? It’s a combination of Milk thistle, Bacopa extract, Ashwagandha, Green tea extract, and Turmeric extract. I looked these up in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. None of them is known to have any significant clinical benefit from antioxidant effects. Some of them are listed as “not enough information” to know if they are safe. One has estrogenic properties and more than one has known side effects and potential interactions with other drugs. The only one that even sounds remotely like it might have some pertinent data behind it is green tea. Green tea contains antioxidant catechins that are “thought to possibly have a protective effect against atherosclerosis and heart disease” and contains flavonoids that “might reduce lipoprotein oxidation; however benefits have not yet been described in humans.”
A Pubmed search for “Protandim” yielded only 3 studies: One in mice, one in cell cultures and one in humans. (more…)