In my best-selling book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, in the chapter on “Colonics,” co-author Donal O’Mathuna, PhD, and I conclude: “There is no scientific basis for using or recommending colonics for general health.” A new report confirms our recommendations. Continue reading
WebMD reported, “Most Americans believe that prescription medications are the most effective treatments for many common illnesses, but a Consumer Reports survey of more than 45,000 people finds that three-fourths of us are turning to alternative therapies like yoga and acupuncture.” Continue reading
In my evidence-based book on alternative medicine, Alternative Medicine: The options, the claims, the evidence, how to choose wisely, I wrote a cautionary chapter on the risks and dangers of many alternative therapies and natural medications in children in which we concluded, “In general, we believe that alternative medicine isinappropriate for children. The potential risks are too high. Until high-quality studies show clearlythat a particular alternative therapy is safe and effectivefor children, that therapy should be avoided.” Now a new report highlights the many potential dangers of complementary and alternative medicines for children. Continue reading
I’ve had several questions from readers about my views on chiropractic care. It’s a topic I reviewed for my evidence-based book, Alternative Medicine: The options, the claims, the evidence, how to choose wisely, that was co-published and endorsed by the Christian Medical and Dental Associations (CMDA) as “medically reliable and biblically sound.”
Here’s an excerpt from our chapter on chiropractic care: Continue reading
People have been using herbal supplements for centuries to cure all manner of ills and improve their health. But for all the folk wisdom promoting the use of such plants as St. John’s wort and black cohosh, much about their effect on human health remains unknown. Therefore, I’m delighted that the federal government is spending millions of dollars to support research dedicated to separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to herbal supplements. Here are the details from USA Today:
“A lot of these products are widely used by the consumer, and we don’t have evidence one way or the other whether they are safe and effective,” said Marguerite Klein, director of the Botanical Research Centers Program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “We have a long way to go. It’s a big job.”
In August, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Office of Dietary Supplements awarded about $37 million in grants to five interdisciplinary and collaborative dietary supplement centers across the nation.
The grants were part of a decade-long initiative that so far has awarded more than $250 million toward research to look into the safety and efficacy of health products made from the stems, seeds, leaves, bark and flowers of plants.
Reliance on botanical supplements faded in the mid-20th century as doctors began to rely more and more on scientifically tested pharmaceutical drugs to treat their patients, said William Obermeyer, vice president of research for ConsumerLab.com, which tests supplement brands for quality.
But today, herbal remedies and supplements are coming back in a big way.
People in the United States spent more than $5 billion on herbal and botanical dietary supplements in 2009, up 22% from a decade before, according to the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit research and education organization.
The increase has prompted some concern from doctors and health researchers. There are worries regarding the purity and consistency of supplements, which are not regulated as strictly as pharmaceutical drugs.
“One out of four of the dietary supplements we’ve quality-tested over the last 11 years failed,” Obermeyer said. The failure rate increases to 55%, he said, when considering botanical products alone.
Some products contain less than the promoted amount of the supplement in question — such as a 400-milligram capsule of echinacea containing just 250 milligrams of the herb. Other products are tainted by pesticides or heavy metals.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned supplement makers that any company marketing tainted products could face criminal prosecution. You can read my blog on this — “FDA targets manufacturers of tainted supplements.”
The agency was specifically targeting products to promote weight loss, enhance sexual prowess or aid in body building, which it said were “masquerading as dietary supplements” and in some cases were laced with the same active ingredients as approved drugs or were close copies of those drugs or contained synthetic synthetic steroids that don’t qualify as dietary ingredients.
But even when someone takes a valid herbal supplement, it may not be as effective when taken as a pill or capsule rather than used in the manner of a folk remedy. For example, an herb normally ground into paste as part of a ceremony might lose its effectiveness if prepared using modern manufacturing methods, Obermeyer said.
“You move away from the traditional use out of convenience, and you may not have the same effect,” he said.
Researchers also are concerned that there just isn’t a lot of evidence to support the health benefits said to be gained from herbal supplements. People may be misusing them, which can lead to poor health and potential interactions with prescription drugs.
“Consumers often are taking them without telling their doctor, or taking them in lieu of going to the doctor,” Klein said.
Botanical research efforts that received recent federal funding include:
- Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, to investigate how supplements such as artemisia and St. John’s wort can reduce a person’s chances of developing metabolic syndrome.
- University of Illinois at Chicago, to examine how the body processes herbal supplements.
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to investigate the safety and efficacy of such botanical estrogens as wild yam, soy and dong quai, and particularly their potential to contribute to cancer in women.
- University of Missouri, Columbia, to look at the molecular pathways used by supplements such as garlic and elderberry to affect human health.
- Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, N.C., to study the potential of botanical oils to boost the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Despite the concerns of the medical community, researchers believe there are a lot of valid health benefits that can be derived from botanical supplements. These benefits just need to be proven in the lab.
“We wouldn’t be supporting a multimillion-dollar program if we didn’t feel there was potential,” Klein said.
You can learn more about the current research supporting or refuting various natural medications (herbs, vitamins, and supplements) in my book, Alternative Medicine: The claims, the evidence, the options, how to choose wisely. Signed copies are available here.
I’ve written about chelation for many years. In my book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, I conclude, “Evidence against (chelation’s) effectiveness in heart disease is so clear, its continued use raises serious ethical questions. The therapy is very expensive and can be very lucrative for providers. But, it’s virtually worthless for consumers.” Some of my past blogs on chelation have included: Chelation therapy for autism not only potentially harmful, it’s based on faulty premise and Federal investigators uncover major problems with chelation study. Now, finally, comes news that the FDA is going to crack down on these quacks.
The Washington Post reports that officials from the Food and Drug Administration have “announced a crackdown on” chelation, “a controversial therapy widely hawked on the Internet and elsewhere as an alternative treatment for conditions such as autism, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease by ‘cleansing’ the body.”
In fact, the FDA “said it has sent warning letters to several companies notifying them that the substances they sell without a prescription for …’chelation’ are ‘unapproved drugs and devices,’ which makes them illegal.”
The Chicago Tribune reports that the chemicals used in chelation, “which help remove metals from the body, are potent drugs that carry serious risks, including kidney damage, dehydration, and even death, said FDA Medical Officer Dr. Charles Lee.”
In a separate but related piece, the Chicago Tribune notes that the FDA letters “come a year after a Chicago Tribune investigation found chelation treatment is popular among parents of children with autism, even though the therapy is … based on a disproven hypothesis that children with the disorder are actually suffering heavy metal poisoning.”
In fact, “in 2008, the National Institutes of Health halted a controversial government-funded study of chelation before a single child with autism was treated” after investigators “had found that rats without lead poisoning showed signs of cognitive damage after being treated with a chelator.”
The AP reported that the agency’s “warning letters call on each company to immediately stop marketing and selling their products or face legal action.” The products in question are freely available online and “come in a variety of forms, including sprays, capsules and drops.”
You can learn more about chelation is the QuackWatch.com article, Chelation Therapy: Unproven Claims and Unsound Theories, or read my chelation chapter in Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook.
In the book on alternative medicine that I co-wrote with Donal O’Mathuna, PhD, we have an extensive chapter on the topic of yoga. The book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, has gone on to become a best-seller and is endorsed by the Christian Medical Association as “medically reliable and Biblically sound.” In the book, we have an entire chapter on our evaluation of yoga. We conclude, “Given its origin and the potential for spiritual problems, the burden rests with the yoga advocate to demonstrate why this form of exercise should be chosen when so many other breathing, exercise, and stretching routines exist that have no spiritual underpinnings.” Here’s the basis for our conclusion:
Yoga: What It Is
Yoga in the United States has frequently been presented as a gentle exercise and relaxation therapy. It is frequently taught at health clubs, senior citizen centers, adult education programs, and similar lo- cations. And it is increasingly available in Christian churches. It is also used for stress management and may be recommended to business executives.
However, yoga is more than an exercise program. The word yoga literally means “union.” As an integral part of Hindu religion, it implies union with the “divine.” It is fundamentally a spiritual exercise designed to bring spiritual enlightenment.
Yoga incorporates both asanas (physical postures) and pranayamas (breathing exercises). The asanas are assumed to relax the body and the mind and bring them into spiritual harmony. The pranayamas, while focused on physical breathing, are designed to regulate the flow of prana, the Hindu term for life energy. The exercises are to help bring a person into a meditative state from which union with the Great Unconscious occurs, leading to spiritual enlightenment.
Advancement in yoga is expected to bring moral and character changes, with the ultimate goal being the realization of one’s divine nature. Given these Eastern roots, yoga is a deeply religious practice.
However, yoga is viewed by many as simply a set of breathing and posture exercises designed to improve strength and flexibility and promote relaxation. The different exercises address breathing, movement, and posture. Certain movements are done while exhaling, others while inhaling. The breathing is coordinated to help maintain various postures.
Different forms of yoga exist, each with its own set of positions of varying difficulty. The form most commonly practiced in the West is called “hatha yoga.”
Yoga is an alternative therapy that raises difficult questions for Christians. The physical and breathing exercises taught in yoga classes may improve general well-being. However, as a deeply religious practice with the goal of union with the divine, it is antithetical to biblical Christianity.
Most commonly, yoga is promoted as a way to reduce stress, increase flexibility, and promote better blood circulation. Other claims have been made that yoga can relieve back and neck pain and treat epilepsy and asthma.
Those committed to the spiritual roots of yoga claim it leads to spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine. The pinnacle of such enlightenment is called “Kundalini arousal.” In Hindu mythology, Kundalini is the serpent goddess who rests at the base of the spine. When aroused, the serpent travels up the spine, activating a person’s prana and clearing the person’s chakras (“energy transformers”). The latter action releases psychic abilities, including healing powers. Ultimately, Kundalini reaches the head chakra that opens practitioners to enlighten- ment from occult sources and spirit guides.
Clinical research shows that yoga exercises can improve physical fitness. Studies have shown it can reduce stress and help relieve chronic pain. Numerous studies have been done with yoga for specific conditions, but many of them have had methodological flaws. A few small studies examined the impact of yoga on asthmatic patients. (Our chapter) on Breathing Techniques gives more detail, but the results have been inconsistent. Overall, these studies have not been able to determine whether any beneficial effects came from the stress reduction and breathing exercises or from the life energy and spiritual nature of yoga.
An important point to keep in mind when evaluating these studies is that the benefits came only with sustained, regular practice. The most encouraging study had asthmatic patients practice yoga daily for one hour for six weeks. If yoga is practiced less consistently or for shorter periods of time, there will most likely be less benefit, if any at all.
Yoga, it must be remembered, does not cure illness. Using it in place of effective conventional therapies may exacerbate problems. If people believe yoga and meditation can prevent diseases, they may resist seeking help for serious illnesses until the disease has progressed too far. In addition, some of the postures and the physical exertion may cause physical problems. As with any exercise program, people should ensure they have no underlying health problems and start slowly.
The spiritual dimensions of yoga must also be kept in mind. People who start yoga as a form of exercise may find themselves exposed to its religious teachings. Gradually, people may find themselves seeking the spiritual enlightenment that yoga was originally designed to produce. Apart from the spiritual dangers, intense involvement with Eastern spiritual practices is known to cause psychological and emotional problems. People who have progressed to the point of Kundalini experiences have been known to have psychotic breakdowns.
In spite of its reputation as a simple calisthenics program, reports of physical and spiritual harm continue to surface. A debate between Christian practitioners and opponents of yoga was triggered by Holly Robaina’s 2005 article in Today’s Christian Woman. The author interviewed a woman who was introduced to destructive beliefs through yoga. Robaina noted that terms commonly used in “secular” yoga have religious meanings. The “salute to the sun” posture used to begin many classes pays homage to the Hindu sun god, and namaste, used to end yoga classes, literally means “I bow to the God within you.”
However, a faithful user of yoga responded that her faith in Christ is invigorated by yoga. As she goes through the positions, she reflects on Christ and his character. While some people’s faith may be too weak to resist the temptation to explore the worldview behind yoga, this person’s faith is strong and she claims she benefits from yoga. Robaina responded that the bottom line is not whether we are strong enough to practice yoga but whether we should refrain from yoga for the sake of those who may be too weak to withstand its spiritual lure (1 Corinthians 8:12 – 13).
We agree with Robaina’s view. There may not be clear reasons for Christians to condemn all forms of yoga. Some people may be able to practice it beneficially and without spiritual problems. But the results are not all that matter.
Paul gives some helpful advice in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “ ‘Everything is permissible for me’ — but not everything is beneficial.”
Given its origin and the potential for spiritual problems, the burden rests with the yoga advocate to demonstrate why this form of exercise should be chosen when so many other breathing, exercise, and stretching routines exist that have no spiritual underpinnings.
Investigators “enrolled 379 patients with non-small cell lung cancer that could not be treated surgically.” All of the participants “received standard radiation and chemotherapy,” while 50% of the participants were also given a shark cartilage extract known as AE-941.
The Time “Wellness” blog reported that “after nearly four years, patients taking shark cartilage … showed no better survival from their cancer than those swallowing a placebo — on average, the shark cartilage group lived 14.4 months after treatment began, while the control group lived 15.6 months.”
If you want to learn more about alternative medicine and natural medications (herbs, vitamins, and supplements), consider reading my best-selling book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook.
According to the experts at the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, Cobroxin and Nyloxin are new homeopathic products used for chronic pain. They come as an oral spray and topical gel.
The bad news is that these products contain a “5X homeopathic dilution” of cobra venom. This means that they contain a concentration of about 0.001% cobra venom.
As I discuss in my chapter on “Homeopathy,” in my best-selling book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, although virtually all homeopathic products contain no detectable active ingredient (no even a single molecule), these two chronic pain products contain a small amount that could potentially have some effect.
Preliminary research has evaluated cobra toxin given as an injection. But there is no reliable evidence about this homeopathic dose when taken orally or applied topically.
The NMCD advises healthcare professionals, “Until more is known about safety and effectiveness, advise patients not to take these products.”
Reuters Health is reporting on a new study examining the treatment of fibromyalgia with acupuncture. Indeed, acupuncture may provide some temporary pain relief for people with fibromyalgia, but does not help with fatigue, sleep problems, or physical function, according to a new research review. However, the results are too inconsistent to recommend acupuncture as a treatment fibromyalgia, the reviewers conclude.
Fibromyalgia, a debilitating pain syndrome that affects an estimated 2 to 4 percent of the population, is characterized by chronic pain, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. It’s a somewhat mysterious condition with no clear-cut cause.
Winfried Hauser of the Klinikum Saarbrucken in Germany and colleagues reviewed seven randomized controlled trials of acupuncture that included a total of 385 people with fibromyalgia. The study subjects were mostly white middle-aged women.
All of the studies used traditional Chinese acupuncture, where fine needles are inserted into specific points in the skin. In addition, two of the studies used electroacupuncture, where the practitioner fits the needles with clips that are attached to a small device that delivers a continuous electrical impulse to stimulate the acupuncture point. Three of the studies used control groups with various kinds of sham or simulated acupuncture, and one compared simulated acupuncture to no treatment.
While the investigators found “strong evidence” that acupuncture relieves fibromyalgia pain, they caution that the results were too inconsistent to recommend it for the management of the condition.
They came to this conclusion mainly because, in one of the seven studies, sham and simulated acupuncture yielded better results than real acupuncture treatment. Furthermore, the authors found that acupuncture-related pain relief only occurred right after treatment, and did not last until the next follow-up.
“Choosing appropriate control conditions in clinical acupuncture trials on chronic pain syndromes is a particularly difficult problem,” Hauser noted in an email to Reuters Health.
“Acupuncture is an effective treatment for several painful conditions, and most acupuncture therapists achieve good results for treatment. However, in most studies on acupuncture and pain, there is no difference between acupuncture and the control condition (often sham or minimal acupuncture),” the investigator added.
Despite this lack of strong evidence for acupuncture in treating fibromyalgia, the authors acknowledge that the treatment is still popular among patients.
They therefore recommend that further studies be undertaken, including larger, multi-center studies; studies involving comparisons with traditional medical treatments; and different forms and intensities of stimulation (i.e., manual vs. electric stimulation).
You can read more about acupressure and acupuncture in my book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook:
In my best-selling book, co-written with Donal O’Mathuna, PhD, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, I wrote a chapter on Gingko biloba and said this:
While ginkgo looks promising as a means of delaying the memory loss related to a variety of diseases, some studies have found no benefit. Studies have found memory benefits only for about six months. Ginkgo may prove helpful for retarding age-related memory loss, dementia, and peripheral arterial disease. However, studies have not examined the benefits or safety of taking ginkgo long-term.
Now we may have the answer. I was first informed of it by watching the CBS Evening News where it was reported, “Americans spend a quarter billion dollars a year on” gingko biloba supplements, “hoping to improve their memory and slow cognitive decline.”
NBC Nightly News that same evening reported that “now, a major study shows” that gingko biloba, “one of the most popular supplements, flat out does not work.”
USA Today reported that, according to a study published in the Dec. 23-30 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, “the popular botanical … does not improve memory, nor does it prevent cognitive decline in older people.”
After analyzing data “from the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory study” on “more than 3,000 people between ages 72 and 96 for seven years,” researchers from the University of Virginia Medical School “found that a twice-daily dose of 120 milligrams of ginkgo biloba extract was not effective in reducing the incidence of Alzheimer’s dementia or dementia overall.”
According to the Los Angeles Times “Booster Shots” blog, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “a branch of the National Institutes of Health, has been researching ginkgo for 10 years to see whether the type of clinical trials required for FDA-regulated pharmaceuticals would reveal any benefit. The new findings are in line with several other studies, including a Cochrane review published this year that found ‘no convincing evidence’ that the herb preserves mental function in any way.”
The investigators “found no evidence that ginkgo delayed or prevented normal declines in memory, language, attention, visuospatial abilities, or executive functions, such as anticipating outcomes and adapting to changing situations and thinking abstractly,” HealthDay reported. Moreover, “these results remained the same regardless of sex, age, race or education,” the investigators found. However, the supplement was found to be safe, “and no serious side effects were noted,” study author Steven T. DeKosky, MD, said.
Likely this study will lead us to prescribe even more caution about this herb — one for which we once had significant hope.
In a gripping series exploring autism and its treatments, the Los Angeles Times reports that “after reviewing thousands of pages of court documents and scientific studies and interviewing top researchers in the field, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that many of these treatments amount to uncontrolled experiments on vulnerable children.”
According to results of the investigation, “the therapies often go beyond harmless New Age folly,” with many being “unproven and risky, based on flawed, preliminary or misconstrued scientific research.”
Moreover, “lab tests used to justify therapies are often misleading and misinterpreted,” and “the few clinical trials conducted to evaluate the treatments objectively” have yielded “disappointing results.”
The Times reports that “up to three-quarters of families with children who have autism try at least some alternative therapies.”
While some physicians and people in the autism “recovery movement … say their treatment protocols rest on a foundation of solid science,” the Tribune discovered “otherwise after speaking with dozens of scientists and physicians and reviewing thousands of pages of research and court testimony.”
Chelation seen as emblematic of alternative therapies for autism
The Los Angeles Times is also reporting, “No treatment is more emblematic of the world of alternative therapies for autism than chelation.”
But, according to “pediatric toxicology experts … all chelation” medications “carry risks — even when used to treat severely lead-poisoned children.”
Barbara Strupp, PhD, of Cornell University, said that when “rats with no lead exposure were treated with succimer, a common chelator given to children with autism, the animals showed lasting impairments of cognitive function and emotional regulation.”
In fact, after Strupp “learned that the National Institutes of Health planned to conduct a clinical trial of chelation in children with autism, she alerted the researchers to her findings,” and the “study was later canceled.”
Alternative therapies seen as getting undeserved credit
In their final report on the topic, the Los Angeles Times reports that stories of “children who could suddenly speak” are, “for many parents … more persuasive than what experts say.”
Nevertheless, “in evaluating a therapy, the challenge is determining how much, if any, of the progress can be credited to the treatment,” because, “over time, children with autism do develop, said” pediatric neurologist and autism expert Max Wiznitzer, MD.”
In fact, “between 10% and 20% of children with autism who were diagnosed early may make so much progress that they are indistinguishable from peers,” and whether or not they are “undergoing alternative therapies,” said Susan Levy, MD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, progress which parents may attribute to alternative therapies.
You can read more about evaluating alternative therapies and natural medicines in my book Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook.
- You can order an autographed copy here.
- You can read the Table of Contents here, and
- You can read a sample chapter here.
Two products failed to properly list the part of the milk thistle plant used — a FDA requirement. Among the remaining supplements, only one contained the expected amount of silymarin compounds, which are believed to be the active constituents of milk thistle.
Studies suggest silymarin may be helpful in type 2 diabetes and, possibly, certain liver conditions.
While most products claimed that their milk thistle extracts were standardized to 80% silymarin, ConsumerLab.com found actual amounts to range from 47% to 67%.
Sales of milk thistle in the U.S. have climbed for several years, reaching $95 million in 2008 according to the latest figures from Nutrition Business Journal.
ConsumerLab.com’s Vice President for Research, Dr. William Obermeyer, a former scientist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), suggested supplement makers may be relying on non-specific tests, such as UV spectrophotometric analysis, that can falsely inflate a product’s silymarin content by counting other compounds that are not silymarin.
In contrast, ConsumerLab.com used a highly specific HPLC method to test the products.
Some ingredient suppliers offer both a higher priced and a lower priced milk thistle extract. The higher cost product is certified with the HPLC test, while the lower cost product is certified with the non-specific UV test.
The FDA does not set standards for the quality or testing of herbal supplements, so manufacturers may choose either form of milk thistle. Consumers normally have no way of knowing which form they purchase.
An abstract of the Product Review of Milk Thistle Supplements can be found here, however, the full review, including the full results, reviews, and comparisons of ten supplements selected by ConsumerLab.com is only available by subscription.
The Review provides information on how to choose and use these supplements. Brands included in report are 1Fast400, Enzymatic Therapy, Finest Natural, Jarrow Formulas, Natural Factors, Nature’s Plus, Nutrilite, Pharmex, Smart Basics (Vitacost.com), and Whole Foods.
ConsumerLab.com is one of my favorite web sites for evidence-based information on natural medications (herbs, vitamins, and supplements) and a leading provider of consumer information and independent evaluations of products that affect health and nutrition.
Reviews of other popular types of supplements are available from www.consumerlab.com. Subscription to ConsumerLab.com is available online here. The company is privately held and based in Westchester, New York. It has no ownership from, or interest in, companies that manufacture, distribute, or sell consumer products.
You may also enjoy these blogs:
- Trustworthy consumer websites for NATURAL MEDICATION information (herbs, vitamins, and supplements)
- Physician calls for increased FDA regulation of dietary supplements
- Herbal remedies need real regulation
- The Ten Commandments of Preventive Medicine – Part 8 – Alternative Medicine
- Study Links Herbal Medicines to Lead Poisoning. How can you find safe herbs?
In my best-selling book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, I explain the reasons that natural medications (herbs, vitamins, and supplements) received so little regulation in the United States, and the many problems this causes for health consumers.
Now, David Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the author of six books, including “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” and the editor of frumforum.com, has weighed in with a thoughtful article on CNN:
Did you know that there exists an all-natural remedy for memory loss? Weight gain? Macular degeneration? Prostate enlargement? These products are so successful that clinical testing has already begun! Just listen to the following testimonial from an unidentified person …
As these ads blare at you from your favorite AM radio station, perhaps you wonder: How can this be legal? Since the late 1960s, aspirin makers have been trying to win the right to tell the public that a daily low-dose tablet can help prevent heart disease. They have been told no, and no, and no again.
Federal regulators are so nervous about over-selling aspirin’s benefits that they have restricted statements about aspirin to the most bland and basic. Yet while the statements about aspirin have to be cushioned in the vaguest generalities, snake oil flim-flam can be huckstered in the most truth-defying way, thanks to a 1994 law coaxed through Congress by the people who make these drugs.
The law bears the long title of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. It was sponsored in House of Representatives by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana, and in the Senate by Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.
The DSHEA law draws a line between synthesized medicines like aspirin and remedies made from herbs, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. This latter group was recategorized as “dietary supplements” — that is, as foods rather than drugs.
“Drugs” are subjected to exacting scientific trial to prove them both safe and also effective. Sellers of dietary supplements are not required to prove that their remedies work. They are not even required to prove them safe — as “foods” they are presumed safe unless shown otherwise. “Drugs” must disclose any risk of side effect. (That’s why those erectile dysfunction ads terrify TV audiences with their references to four-hour erections.)
Dietary supplements bear no such burden — which is why St. John’s wort can be sold as an anti-depressant, without any mention of the disturbing indications that the herb weakens the effectiveness of birth control pills.
“Drug” advertising must be pre-approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which minutely reviews the ads’ accuracy. Dietary supplement advertising is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.
So long as supplements avoid promises to cure a specific disease, their sellers can say pretty much whatever they want, provided only that they have some kind of supporting evidence on file.
That evidence does not have to meet any kind of scientific test: pretty much any pattern of ink on paper will do the job. I cannot say, “My rosemary-sage-thyme-and-oregano tablets cure AIDS.” But if I pay my cousin $100 to do a few experiments, I can claim, “My tablets boost the immune system — and clinical trials are under way!”
(There is an exception to the permissive rules about advertising natural products: wine. There is substantial evidence that a glass of red wine a day reduces the risk of heart attack. The laws of most states forbid any hint or suggestion that moderate alcohol use might confer health benefits. Still, if you ask the scientists, wine has better grounds to call itself a health food than does, say, echinacea!)
Fifteen years after receiving the favor of Congress, dietary supplements have grown into a $24 billion a year industry. Most of the products sold by the industry are merely useless.
For those who eat a balanced diet, scientists have found no quantifiable benefit from taking multivitamins. On the other hand, multivitamins probably won’t do any harm. It would be better to give the $10 you spend on a jar of pills to the Salvation Army, but at least you are not poisoning yourself.
The same could not be said, alas, for the unfortunate customers of a Belgian herbal dispensary who bought a supplement that contained the herb Aristolochia fangi. The A. fangi herb is rich in aristolochic acid, a carcinogen — and users experienced an outbreak of urinary tract cancers. A. Fangi has since been banned in the European Union. It remains legal in the United States.
As outrages go, Congress’ special favor to the herbal supplement industry might seem relatively small stuff: a splash in the torrent of the $2 trillion per year that Americans spend on health and wellness.
And yet in the midst of a great national debate over health care, this small outrage has some serious implications. Advocates for the herbal supplement industry justify their special sweet deal by championing the right of consumers to make their own “health choices.”
Individual choice certainly sounds like the American way. But the fact is that most of us are not well positioned to make intelligent health choices. If we try to play our own doctor, we are going to expose our health — and our money — to risk and exploitation.
As individuals, we have trouble distinguishing between anecdotes: “My neighbor took zinc for her cold and she said it really helped,” and data: Most colds last four days, so you could smoke yak-dung cigarettes on day three and feel better on day four.
We are poor balancers of risk: Look at the rising number of Americans who resist taking vaccines because of astronomically remote chances that something might go wrong.
We are vulnerable to placebos: “Hey — I took the 30-day free sample and I feel sure my vision did improve!”
We are swayed by prejudice and ideology: The film-maker Spike Lee wrote in Rolling Stone in 1992: “I’m convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease.”
The reason we should defer to experts is not that the experts know everything. Of course they don’t. It’s just that they know more than non-experts do.
It’s not that science has all the answers. It doesn’t. It’s just that astrologers, shamans, and natural healers have none of them.
Americans spend over 50 percent more per person on their health than anyone else on earth. For all that extra money, Americans see very little benefit. Americans rank 42nd on earth in life expectancy, 29th in infant mortality.
Improving and rationalizing this costly and dysfunctional system is a gigantic, maybe impossible, task. But one small reform could strike a meaningful blow for reason and cost-effectiveness: Apply the rules governing the advertising of aspirin to the advertising of oregano tablets. Repeal the DSHEA law and give the Food and Drug Administration full authority over every manufactured substance that purports to promote health or relieve illness.
In my book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, I lament the lack of regulation of dietary supplements in the U.S. Because of this lack, it’s very difficult for consumers to know, when it comes to herbs, vitamins, and supplements, if what they purchase actually contains what the label says. It’s almost impossible to know if the natural medication is contaminated or not. As a result, there are now other voices beginning to call out for at least some regulation of these substances. Continue reading
In my latest book, 10 Essentials of Happy, Healthy People, I teach people how to utilize these ten essentials that are necessary to live a happy and highly healthy life. Under The Essential of Self-Care, teach what I call “The 10 Commandments of Preventive Medicine. Here’s the eighth installment of this ten-part series. Continue reading
- Dr. Walt Named in “Guide to America’s Top Family Doctors”
- Dr. Walt Finally on Facebook
- New Title for Dr. Walt’s First Novel: The Gabon Virus
- Dr. Walt writes chapter for Joe Gibbs’ new book: Game Plan for Life
- Nice Blog Review of Bryon City Seasons and Bryson City Secrets
- Nice Blog Review of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook
- Dr. Walt and Barb to be featured on the Focus on the Family Radio Broadcast in July
Events of the last month and Upcoming Events
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This is the last entry in this series — which has been one of the most popular I’ve written. I hope it’s been helpful for you and hope you recommend this blog series to your friends as the Bible gives clear principles on which we can rely when making decisions about alternative therapies with spiritual roots. Some have noted that most of the passages condemning occult practices come from the Old Testament. Most theologians teach that Christians are not bound by many of the Old Testament laws, such as those related to worshiping in God’s temple. Does that mean that prohibitions of divination and magic no longer apply to Christians?
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When investigating an alternative therapy, be concerned about those that involve listening to other spirits. But what about listening to an inner guiding voice? Guidance by intuition and inner voices has become more in vogue today than guidance through reason and objective evidence. Postmodernism has contributed to this acceptance with its notion that we all create our own reality, that whatever we believe is OK. But, is it?
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Alternative medicine as a whole is not rooted in any particular religious tradition, but some therapies are. A number of healing rituals and traditions are part of the Wiccan religion (also called “white witchcraft”). Eastern religions often view healing as dependent on the movement of “life energy” through nonphysical channels that coincide with the physical body. Native-American religion uses herbs as part of its healing rituals. In a number of nature religions, shamans contact spirit beings or guides to get advice on how to treat and heal those under their care. Should Christians be concerned about these practices?
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The herbal remedy St. John’s Wort effectively treats symptoms of major depression, an analysis of previous studies found on Wednesday. St. John’s Wort extracts tested in the different trials were better than placebos and as effective as standard antidepressants with fewer side effects, the researchers reported in the Cochrane review, a journal that analyses medical and scientific studies.
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