case report

You might remember: I have been badly misquoted in an article in THE DAILY TELEGRAPH. Based on a newly published scientific paper, the Telegraph article was about herbal medicines and their potential to interact with synthetic drugs. Towards its end, it cited me stating this:

Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University said that doctors should make it clear to patients that they could not be taking herbal remedies alongside drugs.

Prof Ernst said there was no good evidence that they work and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to the practice.

Not only did this not make any sense (I felt, it made me look like an idiot), but crucially I had never stated this nor had I even commented to a Telegraph journalist about this scientific paper. This was (27/1) when I wrote my blog-post about it.

Several friends persuaded me to file an official complaint – which I somewhat reluctantly did. Subsequently, I received an email from the paper’s ‘editorial compliance executive’ asking me to supply more details about my grievances. I complied with the request by pointing out that:

The following things are wrong with this passage:

1) I never said this.

2) I have not even been interviewed by your journalist and do not know where this quote is supposed to come from.

3) As far as I am aware, I also never stated anything like this anywhere else.

4) It is not and never has been my view that there is no good evidence that herbal remedies can never be combined with drugs.

5) It is not and never has been my opinion that there is no good evidence to suggest that herbal remedies work.

6) It is not and never has been my view that doctors were contributing to disinformation by turning a blind eye to the use of herbal remedies.

The response came swiftly:

The quoted words were recorded at a briefing at the SMC to launch your new book, More Harm than Good? The Moral Maze of Complementary and Alternative Medicine on 17th January 2018. 

We are aware that you have had correspondence with our Science Editor, Sarah Knapton who has since amended the online article to make this clear. 

We do however accept that one sentence was mistakenly attributed to you. We have therefore amended the online article and added a footnote to explain what has been updated.

This was most bizarre, I thought, because I did NOT  have a correspondence with Sarah Knapton, the author of the Telegraph article. On the plus-side, the Telegraph had indeed changed the passage in question; it now read (and did so until yesterday):

Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University said there was a ‘potential for harm’.

“It’s a lazy way out of the problem,” he said at a briefing to launch his new book More Harm than Good? The Moral Maze of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “In medicine you give treatment for a reason and if there is no reason for the homeopathic remedy why should you support it for the placebo treatment.

“As a good doctor you should be able to transmit a placebo effect any case. I just don’t see a reason, I see the potential for harm.” 

The research was published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Professor Edzard Ernst said there was no good evidence that herbal remedies work and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to their usage. In fact, this was not said by Professor Ernst. The article has been amended.

I felt that this was a correction of one mistake by another mistake and pointed out that the briefing had been about homeopathy and NOT about herbal medicine or herb/drug interactions. Therefore I replied to the ‘editorial compliance executive’ insisting on further corrections and pointing out that such an utterly nonsensical comment might harm my reputation as an expert. I also posted a comment under the Telegraph article explainig that homeopathy is not herbal medicine.

Sadly, nothing happened.

So, a few days later, I sent a reminder to the ‘editorial compliance executive’.

And again nothing happened.

… until yesterday.

I had almost given up and was contemplating what to do next, when I received an email. It was not from the  ‘editorial compliance executive’, but from THE TELEGRAPH’s ‘Head of Editorial Compliance’. He wrote that he had listened to the tapes of the original briefing and realised that my comments were indeed made in a different context. Therefore, they had now erased all of the nonsensical stuff and replaced it with this text:

CORRECTION: This article originally stated​ ​that Professor Edzard Ernst​,​ professor of complementary medicine at Exeter Universit​y, ​had said there​ was​ ‘potential for harm’ ​in herbal remedies and ​that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to ​this.​ These comments did not in fact relate to ​interactions between herbal remedies​ and prescribed medication, and they have been removed. We apologise to the Professor for the error.   

I am pleased!

And I gratefully accept the apology.

This might be a long, convoluted and somewhat boring story, but I think it has at least two important elements to it:

  1. It may seem petty to complain, and complain, and send reminders when the complaint seems to be getting ignored (I certainly did not feel sure that I was doing the right thing). But occasionally, it is worth the effort – not because of the personal satisfaction (nice but not essential), but because the truth has a high value which should be respected.
  2. Wondering how all this mess came about, I am asking myself: Does the author of the Telegraph article perhaps genuinely not know the difference between herbal and homeopathic remedies? Obviously, I don’t know the answer to this question, but it would explain the mess she got herself (and me) into. And it would also suggest that it might be necessary to educate journalists about alternative medicine in general and homeopathy in particular (In case there is any interest, I offer to give a few informative lectures with opportunities to ask questions to London-based health writers and science journalists).

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is popular, not least because it is heavily marketed and thus often perceived as natural and safe. But is this assumption true?

This study analysed  liver tests before and following treatment with herbal Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in order to evaluate the risk of liver injury. Patients with normal values of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) as a diagnostic marker for ruling out pre-existing liver disease were enrolled in a prospective study of a safety program carried out at the First German Hospital of TCM from 1994 to 2015. All patients received herbal products, and their ALT values were reassessed 1-3 d prior to discharge. To evaluate causality for suspected TCM herbs, the Roussel Uclaf Causality Assessment Method (RUCAM) was used.

The report presents data of 21470 patients. ALT ranged from 1 × to < 5 × upper limit normal (ULN) in 844 patients (3.93%) and suggested mild or moderate liver adaptive abnormalities. A total of 26 patients (0.12%) experienced higher ALT values of ≥ 5 × ULN (300.0 ± 172.9 U/L, mean ± SD). Causality for TCM herbs was estimated to be probable in 8/26 patients, possible in 16/26, and excluded in 2/26 cases.

Compared with the large TCM study cohort, patients in the liver injury study cohort were older and contained a higher percentage of women, whereas the duration of the hospital stay was similar in both cohorts. The TCM herbs were rarely applied mostly as mixtures consisting of several herbs adding up to 35 different drugs during the patients’ four-week stay. The daily dosage was 95 ± 30 g and thus slightly higher than in the TCM study cohort. Among the many herbal TCM used by the 26 patients in the liver injury cohort, Bupleuri radix and Scuterllariae radix were the two TCM herbs most frequently implicated in liver injury, with variable RUCAM-based causality gradings. Most of the patients received one to six TCM drugs that were associated with potential liver injury as evidenced from the scientific literature, e.g., one patient (case 8) received six potentially hepatotoxic herbal TCM drugs during their hospital stay.

The authors concluded that in 26 (0.12%) of 21470 patients treated with herbal TCM, liver injury with ALT values of ≥ 5 × ULN was found, which normalized shortly following treatment cessation, also substantiating causality.

In the discussion section of the paper, the authors comment that the use of TCM is widely considered less risky as compared with synthetic drugs, although data on direct comparisons are not available in support of this view. Populations using herbal TCM, drugs, either alone, or combined experience more drug-induced liver injury (DILI) than herb-induced liver injury (HILI), possibly due to a higher use of drugs. Valid data of incidence and prevalence of HILI caused by TCM herbs are lacking, and respective data cannot be derived from the present study.

This study is most valuable, in my view. Its strength is clearly the huge sample size. Top marks for the authors for publishing it!

Having said that, we need to take the incidence figures with a pinch of salt, I think. In reality they could be much higher because:

  • other settings will not be as tightly supervised as the unusual hospital setting;
  • in most other situations the quality of the Chinese herbs might be less controlled;
  • there could be adulteration;
  • there could be contamination.

The ‘elephant in the room’ obviously is the inevitable question about benefit. Like any other treatment, TCM cannot be judged on the basis of its risk but must be evaluated according to its risk/benefit balance. I realise that this was not the subject of the present study, but it is nevertheless crucial: do the benefits of TCM outweigh its risks?

I am not aware that this is the case (but more than willing to consider any sound evidence readers might supply). More importantly, I am not aware of good evidence to show that, for any condition, TCM would be superior in terms of risk/benefit balance than conventional options. This is not a trivial issue: clinicians have the ethical obligation to apply the best (the one with the most positive risk/benefit balance) treatment to their patients.

If I am right, then TCM should not be used in therapeutic routine in or outside hospitals.

If I am right, the ‘First German Hospital of TCM‘ should close asap; it would be violating fundamental ethical principles.

If I am right, the debate about the risks of TCM is almost irrelevant because we simply should not use it.

Or did I misunderstand something here?

What do you think?



Take for instance this tweet I got yesterday:

F SThomas‏ @spenthomf

You go too far @EdzardErnst. In fact I was consulted about a child who hadn’t grown after an accident. She responded well to homoeopathy and grew. How much are you being paid for your attempts to deny people’s health choices?

The tweet refers to my last post where I exposed homeopathic child abuse. Having thought about Thomas’ tweet, I must say that I find it too to be abusive – even abusive on 4 different levels.

  1. First, the tweet is obviously a personal attack suggesting that I am bribed into doing what I do. I have stated it many times, and I do so again: I receive no payment from anyone for my work. How then do I survive? I have a pension and savings (not that this is anyone’s business).
  2. Second, it is abusive because it claims that children who suffer from a pathological growth retardation can benefit from homeopathy. There is no evidence for that at all, and making false claims of this nature is unethical and, in this case, even abusive.
  3. Third, if Thomas really did make the observation she suggests in her tweet and is convinced that her homeopathic treatment was the cause of the child’s improvement, she has an ethical duty to do something more about it than just shooting off a flippant tweet. She could, for instance, run a clinical trial to find out whether her observation was correct. I admit this might be beyond her means. So alternatively, she could write up the case in full detail and publish it for all of us to scrutinise her findings. This is the very minimum a responsible clinician ought to do when she comes across a novel and potentially important result. Anything else is my view unethical and hinders progress.

I do, of course, sympathise with lay people who fail to fully understand the concept of causality. But surely, healthcare professionals who pride themselves of taking charge of patients ought to have some comprehension of it. They should know that clinical improvements after a treatment is not necessarily the same as clinical improvement because of the treatment. Is it really too much to ask of them to know the criteria for causality? There is plenty of easy-reading on the subject; even Wikipedia has a good article on it:

In 1965, the English statistician Sir Austin Bradford Hill proposed a set of nine criteria to provide epidemiologic evidence of a causal relationship between a presumed cause and an observed effect. (For example, he demonstrated the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.) The list of the criteria is as follows:

  1. Strength (effect size): A small association does not mean that there is not a causal effect, though the larger the association, the more likely that it is causal.
  2. Consistency (reproducibility): Consistent findings observed by different persons in different places with different samples strengthens the likelihood of an effect.
  3. Specificity: Causation is likely if there is a very specific population at a specific site and disease with no other likely explanation. The more specific an association between a factor and an effect is, the bigger the probability of a causal relationship.
  4. Temporality: The effect has to occur after the cause (and if there is an expected delay between the cause and expected effect, then the effect must occur after that delay).
  5. Biological gradient: Greater exposure should generally lead to greater incidence of the effect. However, in some cases, the mere presence of the factor can trigger the effect. In other cases, an inverse proportion is observed: greater exposure leads to lower incidence.
  6. Plausibility: A plausible mechanism between cause and effect is helpful (but Hill noted that knowledge of the mechanism is limited by current knowledge).
  7. Coherence: Coherence between epidemiological and laboratory findings increases the likelihood of an effect. However, Hill noted that “… lack of such [laboratory] evidence cannot nullify the epidemiological effect on associations”.
  8. Experiment: “Occasionally it is possible to appeal to experimental evidence”.
  9. Analogy: The effect of similar factors may be considered.

And this brings me to my 4th and last level of abuse in relation to the above tweet and most other claims of this nature: being ill-informed and stupid while insisting to make a nonsensical point is, in my view, offensive – so much so that it can reach the level of abuse.

The title of this post is a statement recently made in an article by Mike Adams in ‘Alternative Medicine News’:

The cancer industry goes to great lengths to deny patients access to any information that they might use to prevent, treat or cure cancer without requiring expensive (and highly toxic) medical interventions. That’s what makes the BMJ documentation of this curcumin cancer cure so astonishing: In years past, the BMJ never would have even tolerated the publishing of such a scientific assessment. So what changed? In truth, the evidence of natural cures for cancer is now so overwhelming that even the BMJ cannot remain in a state of denial without appearing to be hopelessly out of touch with scientific reality.

The story is based on one single patient who apparently was cured of cancer using curcumin (turmeric). The case was also recently (3/1/18) featured on BBC’s ‘YOU AND YOURS’ ( in a similarly uncritical way: no expert was asked to provide an evidence-based assessment and bring some reason into the discussion. Even the DAILY FAIL reported about the story, and predictably, critical assessment had to make way for sensationalism.

So what?

We hear about such nonsense almost every day!

True, but this case is different; it is based on a publication in the highly-respected BMJ (well, actually, it was the ‘BMJ CASE REPORTS’ and not the BMJ, as reported). Here is the article:


A woman aged 57 years was initially diagnosed with monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) in 2007 following an incidental finding of M-protein (18 g/L) during investigation for hypertension.

Within 15 months, the patient had rapidly progressed to ISS stage 3 myeloma with M-protein 49 g/L, urinary protein 1.3 g/24-hour, Bence-Jones protein 1.0 g/24-hour, Hb 9.7 g/dL and increasing back pain. She initially declined antimyeloma treatment but 6 months later, following vertebral collapse at T5 and T12, started cyclophosphamide, thalidomide and dexamethasone (CTD) treatment. However, after a week, the patient was admitted with idiosyncratic syndrome including hyponatraemia, a fall in albumin and worsening of blood counts. She received red cell transfusion and her electrolyte abnormalities were carefully corrected.

Although there was evidence of a response to CTD (M-protein 34 g/L), bortezomib and dexamethasone treatment was initiated as an alternative, but this was discontinued after three cycles due to progressive disease (M-protein 49 g/L). The patient was then treated with lenalidomide and dexamethasone with the aim of reducing disease burden prior to high-dose therapy and autologous stem cell transplantation. Treatment was frequently interrupted and dose adjusted to account for neutropenia and despite a minor response after six cycles (starting M-protein 47 g/L, finishing M-protein 34 g/L), in October 2009, she proceeded with stem cell mobilisation. However, neither cyclophosphamide nor plerixafor/GCSF priming were successful. A bone marrow biopsy revealed 50% myeloma cells and a course of CTD was restarted with cautious titration of thalidomide.

The patient achieved a partial response with CTD retreatment over the course of 17 cycles (M-protein 13 g/L) with no further episodes of idiosyncratic syndrome. However, attempts to harvest stem cells in February 2011 and again there months later, both failed. By then, her M-protein had risen to 24 g/L and the patient was too neutropenic to be considered for a clinical trial.

At this point, the patient began a daily regime of oral curcumin complexed with bioperine (to aid absorption), as a single dose of 8 g each evening on an empty stomach. A few months later, she also embarked on a once-weekly course of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (90 min at 2 ATA) which she has maintained ever since. Her paraprotein levels gradually declined to a nadir of 13 g/L, her blood counts steadily improved and there was no evidence of further progressive lytic bone disease.

Outcome and follow-up

The patient continues to take oral curcumin 8 g daily without further antimyeloma treatment. Over the last 60 months, her myeloma has remained stable with minimal fluctuation in paraprotein level, her blood counts lie within the normal range and she has maintained good quality of life throughout this period. Repeat bone imaging in 2014 identified multiple lucencies <1 cm in the right hip and degenerative changes in both hips, but these were attributed to osteoarthritis rather than the myeloma. Recent cytogenetic analysis revealed she had no abnormal cytogenetics by fluorescent in situ hybridisation.


A small but significant number of myeloma patients consume dietary supplements in conjunction with conventional treatment primarily to help cope with the side effects of treatment, manage symptoms and enhance general well-being. Few, if any, use dietary supplementation as an alternative to standard antimyeloma therapy. Here, we describe a case in which curcumin has maintained long-term disease control in a multiply-relapsed myeloma patient. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report in which curcumin has demonstrated an objective response in progressive disease in the absence of conventional treatment.

Curcumin is a polyphenol derived from the perennial herb Curcuma longa (turmeric) and has, for centuries, been used as a traditional Indian medicine. Several reports published over the two decades have claimed various health benefits of curcumin and this has led to its increasing popularity as a dietary supplement to prevent or treat a number of different diseases.

The biological activity of curcumin is indeed remarkable. It is a highly pleiotropic molecule which possesses natural antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and analgesic properties. More recently, it has demonstrated antiproliferative effects in a wide variety of tumour cells including myeloma cells and exerts its antiproliferative effects through multiple cellular targets that regulate cell growth and survival.

In vitro, curcumin prevents myeloma cell proliferation through inhibition of IL-6-induced STAT-3 phosphorylation and through modulation of the expression of NF-kB-associated proteins such as IkB〈,Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, cyclin D1 and IL-6 and apoptosis-related molecules including p53 and Bax. In other studies, curcumin was shown to circumvent resistance to dexamethasone, doxorubicin and melphalan as well as potentiate the effects of bortezomib, thalidomide and lenalidomide. Furthermore, curcumin-induced cell death was not influenced by myeloma molecular heterogeneity.

The antimyeloma effects of curcumin in the clinical setting however are less clear. Only one phase I/II study has evaluated curcumin treatment in myeloma patients. These patients were either asymptomatic, relapsed or had plateau phase disease. Treatment with curcumin downregulated the expression of NFkB, COX-2 and STAT3 in peripheral blood mononuclear cells, but no objective responses were observed in any subgroup of patients. This may be as a result of small sample size in this study, follow-up was limited to 3 months and clinical responses may have been observed with longer follow-up. However, downregulation of NFkB, COX-2 and STAT3 expression may not correlate with the clinical activity of curcumin and there may be further mechanisms of action that remain unclear, possibly through the modulation of another target. We would not be able to identify any patient-specific mechanisms of activity in this case study, as the patient has been taking curcumin for some time now and baseline bone marrow or peripheral blood samples are not available. However, in the setting of a clinical trial, it may be possible to use next-generation sequencing to help identify a mutation that may be a potential target for curcumin.

Another study examined its effects in preventing the progression of MGUS and smouldering myeloma to myeloma. The results showed that curcumin exerted a trace of biological activity with modest decreases in free light chain and paraprotein levels and a reduction in a marker of bone resorption with curcumin treatment, suggesting the therapeutic potential of curcumin in MGUS and smouldering myeloma. However, more studies are needed to address this further.

Whether such effects are observed in patients with active disease remains to be seen. The fact that our patient, who had advanced stage disease and was effectively salvaged while exclusively on curcumin, suggests a potential antimyeloma effect of curcumin. She continues to take daily curcumin and remains in a very satisfactory condition with good quality of life. This case provides further evidence of the potential benefit for curcumin in myeloma. We would recommend further evaluation of curcumin in myeloma patients in the context of a clinical trial.


What should we make of this?

I think that much of the reporting around the story was grossly irresponsible. It is simply not possible to conclude that curcumin was the cause of the remission. It could be due to a whole host of other factors. And a case report is just an anecdote; it never can prove anything and can only be used to stimulate further research.

I fully agree with the authors of the case report: curcumin seems worthy of further investigation. But recommending it to patients for self-medication is vastly premature and quite simply dangerous, unethical and naïve bordering on stupid.

And, of course, the above-cited drivel of Mike Adams is just beyond the pale – the evidence for ‘alternative cancer cures‘ is very, very far from ‘overwhelming’; and the ‘cancer industry’ is doing what they can to determine whether turmeric or any other natural remedy can be used to treat cancer and other diseases.

If they are ever successful, the Adams of this world will shout ‘EXPLOITATION!!!’

If their endeavours are not successful, they will complain ‘CONSPIRACY!!!’

This is a blog about alternative medicine! A blog that promised to cover all major forms of alternative medicine. So, how could I have so far ignored the incredible health benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)? Realising that this omission is quite frankly scandalous, I now quickly try to make amends by dedicating this entire post to ACV and its fantastic properties.

There is no shortage of information on the subject (almost 1.5 million websites!!!); this article entitled “13 Reasons Apple Cider Vinegar Is the Magic Potion You Need in Your Life”, for instance, tells us about the ’13 Real Benefits of vinegar’. As it was published in the top science journal ‘COSMOPOLITAN’, it must be reliable. The article makes the wonders of ACV very clear:


1. It reduces bloating. Vinegar increases the acidity in the stomach, which allows it to digest the food you’ve eaten and helps propel it into the small intestine, according to Raphael Kellman, MD, founder of the Kellman Center for Integrative and Functional Medicine in New York City. Because slow digestion can cause acid reflux, a burning sensation that occurs when food in your stomach backs up all the way into your esophagus and triggers feelings of fullness, consuming vinegar to move things along can stop you from feeling like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

2. It increases the benefits of the vitamins and minerals in your food. “When your stomach isn’t producing enough acid, this impairs the absorption of nutrients as well as B6, folate, calcium, and iron,” Dr. Kellman explains. Help your body by ingesting a bit more acid in the form of vinegar, and you’ll actually be able to use all the good stuff you consumed by ordering the side salad instead of fries.

3. It cancels out some of the carbs you eat. The acetic acid found in vinegar interferes with the enzymes in your stomach responsible for digesting starch so you can’t absorb the calories from carbs you’ve eaten.

4. It softens your energy crash after eating lots of sugar or carbs. Consuming vinegar before a meal can help by slowing the rush of sugar to your blood stream, so your blood sugar spike resembles a hill instead of a mountain and you don’t crash quite as hard.

5. It keeps you full longer. In a small but thorough study, researchers found that people who consumed vinegar before eating a breakfast of white bread felt more satisfied 90 minutes after eating compared to people who only ate the bread. (Worth noting: Two hours after eating, both groups were equally hungry. It just goes to show why white bread doesn’t make a stellar breakfast food — with or without vinegar.)

6. It can help your muscles produce energy more efficiently before a major push. Endurance athletes sometimes drink diluted vinegar before they carb-load the night before competing because acetic acid can helps the muscles turn carbs into energy to fuel intense exercise, according to well-regarded research conducted on animals.

7. It could lower your blood pressure. Animal studies suggest that drinking vinegar can lower your blood pressure by a few points. Researchers don’t understand exactly how this works or whether it is equally effective among humans, but Johnston is pretty confident it can make at least a modest difference.

8. It cleans fruits and veggies. The best way to clean produce, according to Johnston, is with diluted vinegar: Research suggests its antibacterial properties can significantly reduce pathogens such as Salmonella. Just fill an empty spray bottle with diluted vinegar and spritz your produce (salad stuff, fruits, etc.) then rinse in regular water before serving.

9. It kills bad breath. You might have heard that the antibacterial properties of vinegar can kill microorganisms responsible for bad breath — and in theory, this is true. However, Johnston warns, “it’s no more effective than any other antibacterial agents, and there are better products designed for this purpose.”

10. It deodorizes smelly feet. Just wipe down your clompers with a paper towel dipped in diluted vinegar. The antibacterial properties of vinegar will kill the smelly stuff.

11. It relieves jellyfish stings. In case you’re ever stung by a jellyfish and just so happen to have diluted vinegar on hand, you’ll be awfully lucky: Vinegar deactivates the jellyfish’s sting better than many other remedies — even though hot water still works best, according to a study that compared both techniques.

12. It balances your body’s pH levels, which could mean better bone health. Although vinegar is obviously acidic, it actually has a neutralizing effect once it’s inside of you. Meaning: It makes your body’s pH more basic (i.e., alkaline).

13. It alleviates heartburn — sometimes, according to Johnston, who just wrapped up a study on using vinegar to treat this condition. Vinegar’s effectiveness depends on the source of your heartburn: If you have erosive heartburn caused by lesions in your esophagus or stomach ulcers, a dose of vinegar will only aggravate the problem. But if your heartburn stems from something you ate, adding acetic acid to your stomach can help neutralize the acid in there and help fix the problem, providing you with at least a little bit of comfort.


What, you are not impressed by these claims nor the references? I found another website that offers plenty more science:

  1. Katie J. Astell, Michael L. Mathai, Andrew J. McAinch, Christos G. Stathis, Xiao Q. Su. A pilot study investigating the effect of Caralluma fimbriata extract on the risk factors of metabolic syndrome in overweight and obese subjects: a randomised controlled clinical trial. Biomedical and Lifestyle Diseases (BioLED) Unit, College of Health and Biomedicine, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria 3021, Australia.
  2. Niedzielin, K., Kordecki, H.,,_double_blind,_randomized_study_on.4.aspx
  3. M. Million, et al. Obesity-associated gut microbiota is enriched in Lactobacillus reuteri and depleted in Bifidobacterium animalis and Methanobrevibacter smithii. International Journal of Obesity (2012) 36, 817–825; doi:10.1038/ijo.2011.153; published online 9 August 2011
  4. Rastmanesh R., et al. High polyphenol, low probiotic diet for weight loss because of intestinal microbiota interaction. Chemico-Biological InteractionsPublished 15 October 2010.
  5. Thielecke F, et al. Epigallocatechin-3-gallate and postprandial fat oxidation in overweight/obese male volunteers: a pilot study Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jul;64(7):704-13. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2010.47.
  6. Wang H., Effects of catechin enriched green tea on body composition. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Apr;18(4):773-9. doi: 10.1038/oby.2009.256.
  7. Bitange Nipa Tochi, Zhang Wang, Shi – Ying Xu and Wenbin Zhang, 2008. Therapeutic Application of Pineapple Protease (Bromelain): A Review. Pakistan Journal of Nutrition, 7: 513-520.
  8. Date K, Satoh A, Iida K, Ogawa H. Pancreatic α-Amylase Controls Glucose Assimilation by Duodenal Retrieval through N-Glycan-specific Binding, Endocytosis, and Degradation. J Biol Chem. 2015 May 28. pii: jbc.M114.594937.
  9. Perano SJ,Couper JJ,Horowitz M, Martin AJ, Kritas S, Sullivan T, Rayner CK. Pancreatic enzyme supplementation improves the incretin hormone response and attenuates postprandial glycemia in adolescents with cystic fibrosis: a randomized crossover trial.J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2014 Jul;99(7):2486-93. doi: 10.1210/jc.2013-4417. Epub 2014 Mar 26.

Ok, not plenty; and not very sound or relevant either.

So, let’s do a Medline search! This is sure to produce convincing clinical trials on human patients that back up all of the above claims.

Yes! Medline does indeed generate 58 hits for ACV (just to give you a comparison, searching for ‘atenolol’, a fairly ancient beta-blocker, for instance, generates 7877 hits and searching for ‘acupuncture’ provides more that 27 000 hits):

The first human study of ACV listed on Medline is from one of my favourite journals, the . It is not a clinical trial, but a case report:

A 32-y-old married woman was admitted with intense vaginal discharge with foul odor, itching, groin pain, and infertility for the past 5 y. Candida albicans was isolated from the culture of vaginal swab. The patient was diagnosed with chronic vaginal candida infection. She failed to respond to integrative medicine methods prescribed. Recovery was achieved with the application of apple cider vinegar. Alternative treatment methods can be employed in patients unresponsive to medical therapies. As being one of these methods, application of apple cider vinegar can cure vaginal candida infection.

But surely that cannot be all!

No, no, no! There is more; a pilot study has also been published. It included all of 10 patients and concluded that vinegar affects insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus patients with diabetic gastroparesis by reducing the gastric emptying rate even further, and this might be a disadvantage regarding to their glycaemic control.

That’s what I like! A bold statement, even though we are dealing with a tiny pilot. He who dares wins!

Anything else?

Afraid not! The rest of the 58 references are either animal studies, in vitro experiments or papers that were entirely irrelevant for the clinical effects of ACV.

But how can this be?

Does this mean that all the claims made by ‘COSMOPOLITAN’ and thousands of other publications are bogus?

I cannot imagine – no, it must mean that, yet again, science has simply not kept up with the incredible pace of alternative medicine.


During Voltaire’s time, this famous quote was largely correct. But today, things are very different, and I often think this ‘bon mot’ ought to be re-phrased into ‘The art of alternative medicine consists in amusing the patient, while medics cure the disease’.

To illustrate this point, I shall schematically outline the story of a patient seeking care from a range of clinicians. The story is invented but nevertheless based on many real experiences of a similar nature.

Tom is in his mid 50s, happily married, mildly over-weight and under plenty of stress. In addition to holding a demanding job, he has recently moved home and, as a consequence of lots of heavy lifting, his whole body aches. He had previous episodes of back trouble and re-starts the exercises a physio once taught him. A few days later, the back-pain has improved and most other pains have subsided as well. Yet a dull and nagging pain around his left shoulder and arm persists.

He is tempted to see his GP, but his wife is fiercely alternative. She was also the one who dissuaded  Tom from taking Statins for his high cholesterol and put him on Garlic pills instead. Now she gives Tom a bottle of her Rescue Remedy, but after a week of taking it Tom’s condition is unchanged. His wife therefore persuades him to consult alternative practitioners for his ‘shoulder problem’. Thus he sees a succession of her favourite clinicians.

THE CHIROPRACTOR examines Tom’s spine and diagnoses subluxations to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of spinal manipulations and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE ENERGY HEALER diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital energy as the root cause of his persistent pain. Tom thus receives a series of healing sessions and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE REFLEXOLOGIST examines Tom’s foot and diagnoses knots on the sole of his foot to cause energy blockages which are the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of most agreeable foot massages and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE ACUPUNCTURIST examines Tom’s pulse and tongue and diagnoses a chi deficiency to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of acupuncture treatments and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE NATUROPATH examines Tom and diagnoses some form of auto-intoxication as the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a full program of detox and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE HOMEOPATH takes a long and detailed history and diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital force to be the root cause of his pain. Tom thus receives a homeopathic remedy tailor-made for his needs and feels a little improved after taking it for a few days. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore tries to make another appointment for him.

But this time, Tom had enough. His pain has not really improved and he is increasingly feeling unwell.

At the risk of a marital dispute, he consults his GP. The doctor looks up Tom’s history, asks a few questions, conducts a brief physical examination, and arranges for Tom to see a specialist. A cardiologist diagnoses Tom to suffer from coronary heart disease due to a stenosis in one of his coronary arteries. She explains that Tom’s dull pain in the left shoulder and arm is a rather typical symptom of this condition.

Tom has to have a stent put into the affected coronary artery, receives several medications to lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and is told to take up regular exercise, lose weight and make several other changes to his stressful life-style. Tom’s wife is told in no uncertain terms to stop dissuading her husband from taking his prescribed medicines, and the couple are both sent to see a dietician who offers advice and recommends a course on healthy cooking. Nobody leaves any doubt that not following this complex (holistic!) package of treatments and advice would be a serious risk to Tom’s life.

It has taken a while, but finally Tom is pain-free. More importantly, his prognosis has dramatically improved. The team who now look after him have no doubt that a major heart attack had been imminent, and Tom could easily have died had he continued to listen to the advice of multiple non-medically trained clinicians.

The root cause of his condition was misdiagnosed by all of them. In fact, the root cause was the atherosclerotic degeneration in his arteries. This may not be fully reversible, but even if the atherosclerotic process cannot be halted completely, it can be significantly slowed down such that he can live a full life.

My advice based on this invented and many real stories of a very similar nature is this:

  • alternative practitioners are often good at pampering their patients;
  • this may contribute to some perceived clinical improvements;
  • in turn, this perceived benefit can motivate patients to continue their treatment despite residual symptoms;
  • alternative practitioner’s claims about ‘root causes’ and holistic care are usually pure nonsense;
  • their pampering may be agreeable, but it can undoubtedly cost lives.

The British press recently reported that a retired bank manager (John Lawler, aged 80) died after visiting a chiropractor in York. This tragic case was published in multiple articles, most recently in THE SUN. Personally, I find this regrettable – not the fact that the press warns consumers of chiropractic, but the tone and content of the articles.

Let me explain this by citing the one in THE SUN of today. Here is the critical bit that concerns me:

Ezvard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, published a study showing at least 26 people had died as a result. He said: “The evidence is not in favour of chiropractic treatments. Nobody knows how many have suffered severe complications or died.” Edvard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, says many have suffered complications or died from chiropractors treatments… A study from Exeter University shows at least 26 people have died as a result of treatment.

And what is wrong with this?

The answer is lots:

  • My first name is consistently misspelled (a triviality, I agree).
  • I am once named as Emeritus Professor and once as Professor of Complementary Medicine. The latter is wrong (another triviality, perhaps, but some of my more demented critics have regularly accused me of carrying wrong titles)
  • The mention of 26 deaths after chiropractic treatments is problematic and arguably misleading (see below).
  • Our ‘study’ was not a study but a systematic review (another triviality?).

Now you probably think I am being pedantic, but I feel that the article is regrettable not so much by what it says but by what it fails to say. To understand this better, I will below copy my emails to the journalist who asked for help in researching this article.

  • My email of 17/10 answering all 7 of the journalist’s specific questions:
  • 1. Why are you sceptical of chiropractic?
  • I have researched the subject for more than 2 decades, and I know that the evidence is not in favour of chiropractic
  • 2. How many people do you believe have died in Britain as a result of being treated by a chiropractor? If it’s not possible to say, can you estimate?
  • nobody knows how many patients have suffered severe complications or deaths. there is no system to monitor such events that is comparable to the post-marketing surveillance of conventional medicine. we did some research and found that the under-reporting of cases of severe complications was close to 100% in the UK.
  • 3. What is so dangerous about chiropractic? Is there a particular physical treatment than endangers life?
  • manipulations that involve rotation and over-extension of the upper spine can lead to a vertebral artery breaking up. this causes a stroke which sometimes is fatal.
  • 4. Is the industry well regulated?
  • UK chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council. it is debatable whether they are fit for purpose (see here:
  • 5. Should we be suspicious of claims that chiropractic can cure things like IBS and autism?
  • such claims are not based on good evidence and therefore misleading and unethical. sadly, however, they are prevalent.
  • 6. Who trains chiropractors?
  • there are numerous colleges that specialise in that activity.
  • 7. Is it true Prince Charles is to blame for the rise in popularity/prominence of chiropractic?
  • I am not sure. certainly he has been promoting all sorts of unproven treatments for decades.
  • My email of 18/10 answering 3 further specific questions
  • 1. Would you actively discourage anyone from being treated by a chiropractor?
    yes, anyone I feel responsible for
    2. Are older people particularly at risk or could one wrong move affect anyone?
    older people are at higher risk of bone fractures and might also have more brittle arteries prone to dissection
    3. If someone has, say, a bad back or stiff neck what treatment would you recommend instead of chiropractic?
    I realise every case is different, but you are sceptical of all complementary treatments (as I understand it) so what would you suggest instead?
    I would normally consider therapeutic exercises and recommend seeing a good physio.
  • 3. My email of 23/10 replying to his request for specific UK cases
  • the only thing I can offer is this 2001 paper
  • where we discovered 35 cases seen by UK neurologists within the preceding year. the truly amazing finding here was that NONE of them had been reported anywhere before. this means under-reporting was exactly 100%.

I think that makes it quite obvious that much relevant information never made it into the final article. I also know that several other experts provided even more information than I did which never appeared.

The most important issues, I think, are firstly the lack of a monitoring system for adverse events, secondly the level of under-reporting and thirdly the 50% rate of mild to moderate adverse-effects. Without making these issues amply clear, lay readers cannot possibly make any sense of the 26 deaths. More importantly, chiropractors will now be able to respond by claiming: 26 deaths compare very favourably with the millions of fatalities caused by conventional medicine. In the end, the message that will remain in the heads of many consumers is this: CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN CHIROPRACTIC!!! (The 1st comment making this erroneous point has already been published: Don’t be stupid Andy. You wanna discuss how many deaths occur due to medication side effects and drug interactions? There is a reason chiros have the lowest malpractice rates.)

Don’t get me wrong, I am not accusing the author of the SUN-article. For all I know, he has filed a very thoughtful and complete piece. It might have been shortened by the editor who may also have been the one adding the picture of the US starlet with her silicone boobs. But I am accusing THE SUN of missing a chance to publish something that might have had the chance of being a meaningful contribution to public health.

Perhaps you still think this is all quite trivial. Yet, after having experienced this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds of times, I disagree.

According to its authors, the objective of this paper was “to demonstrate the need for using both alternative and conventional treatments to improve clinical outcomes in the treatment of schizoaffective disorder”.

Instead of doing anything remotely like this, the authors present two case histories:

  • a 23-y-old female (case 1)
  • and a 34-y-old female (case 2).

Both patients had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder of the bipolar type. Individualized homeopathic treatment was initiated for both patients, who were also on conventional medications. A Likert scale was used to evaluate the intensity of each patient’s symptoms at each follow-up, based on self-reporting.

During the course of treatment, both patients’ symptoms normalized, and they regained their ability to hold jobs, attend school (at the age of 23/34 ???), and maintain healthy relationships with their families and partners while requiring fewer pharmaceutical interventions.

The authors concluded that these two cases …  illustrate the value of individualized homeopathic prescriptions with proper case management in the successful treatment of that disorder. Future large-scale, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies should investigate individualized homeopathic treatments for mental health concerns, because the diseases cause great economic and social burden.

The article was published in Altern Ther Health Grise DE, Peyman T, and Langland J who seem to be from the ‘Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, Tempe, Arizona’. Two of the authors have recently published similarly odd case reports:

  1. This case report demonstrates a successful approach to managing patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus (DM2). Botanical herbs (including Gymnema sylvestre) and nutrients (including alpha lipoic acid and chromium) were used alongside metformin to help improve insulin sensitization; however, the greatest emphasis of treatment for this patient centered on a low-carbohydrate, whole-foods diet and regular exercise that shifted the focus to the patient’s role in controlling their disease. Research on DM2 often focuses on improving drug efficacy while diet and lifestyle are generally overlooked as both a preventive and curative tool. During the 7 months of treatment, the patient’s hemoglobin A1c and fasting glucose significantly decreased to within normal ranges and both cholesterol and liver enzyme markers normalized. A significant body of evidence already exists advocating for disease management using various diets, including Mediterranean, low-carb, and low-fat vegan diets; however, no clear dietary standards have been established. This study supports the use of naturopathic medicine as well as dietary and lifestyle changes to develop the most efficacious approach for the treatment of DM2.
  2. This case report illustrates the improvement of an acupuncture-treated patient who incurred a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a snowboarding accident. Over 4 years, the patient progressed from initially not being able to walk, having difficulty with speech, and suffering from poor eyesight to where he has now regained significant motor function, speech, and vision and has returned to snowboarding. A core acupuncture protocol plus specific points added to address the patient’s ongoing concerns was used. This case adds to the medical literature by demonstrating the potential role of acupuncture in TBI treatment.
  3. The current case study intended to evaluate the benefits of an alternative, multifaceted approach-including botanical and homeopathic therapies in conjunction with a low-FODMAP diet-in the treatment of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and its associated symptoms. Design • The research team performed a case study. Setting • The study was conducted at SCNM Medical Center (Tempe, AZ, USA). Participant • The participant was a female patient at the SCNM Medical Center with chronic, daily, severe abdominal bloating and pain that particularly worsened after meals and by the end of the day. The patient also had a significant history of chronic constipation that had begun approximately 10 y prior to her experiencing the daily abdominal pain. Intervention • Based on a lactulose breath test for hydrogen and methane, the research team diagnosed the patient with a case of mild SIBO. The treatment approach was multifaceted, involving a low-FODMAP diet, antimicrobial botanical therapy, and homeopathic medicine. Results • The patient’s abdominal pain and bloating resolved with the treatment of the SIBO, although her underlying constipation, which was likely associated with other factors, remained. Conclusions • This case study supports an alternative, multifaceted approach to the treatment of SIBO and commonly associated symptoms.
  4. The study intended to examine the benefits of treating plantar warts with a topical, botanical blend that has had clinical success treating herpes simplex virus cold sores. Methods • A synergistic botanical blend was applied topically. Setting • The case report was completed at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine (Tempe, Arizona, USA). Participant • The participant was a 24-y-old male soccer player, 177.8 cm tall, and weighing 69 kg with previously diagnosed, viral mosaic warts. Intervention • The patient used a pumice stone during bathing for the first week to remove dead tissue and ensure sufficient contact and entry of the botanical gel into infected tissue. After drying the area, the patient applied the botanical gel blend 1 to 2 times daily postshower, spreading it evenly across the surface of the entire lesion. The patient discontinued the exfoliation technique after the first week. Results • Within the first week of treatment, the patient noted changes to the infected area of the hallux epidermal tissue. The combination of exfoliation and application of the gel caused marked, visible differences in presentation by the fifth day of treatment. At 1-mo postintervention, or day 90, the epidermal tissue was asymptomatic and devoid of petechiae, malformations, or visible infection. Conclusions • The results of the current case study directly contrast with the drawbacks of commonly accepted, first-line interventions in the treatment of viral plantar warts and, in many respects, demonstrate better efficacy and fewer side effects than the standard of care. The positive results also highlight the necessity for additional study in the fields of sports medicine and podiatry to further establish the botanical blend when treating viral plantar in athletes, an overall at-risk population for the condition.
  5. This study intended to examine the benefits of treatment of a pediatric patient with natural supplements and an elimination diet for IgG food allergies. Design • The research team reported a case study. Setting • The study was conducted at Southwest Naturopathic Medical Center (Tempe, AZ, USA). Participant • The participant was a 10-y-old Caucasian female who had diagnoses of allergic rhinitis and reactive bronchospasm, the second of which was exacerbated by allergens such as wheat, perfumes, and seasonal flora. Intervention • Following testing for IgE- and IgG-reactive foods, the patient was treated with natural supplements to reduce her allergic responses and was instructed to make dietary changes to eliminate the IgG-reactive foods. Outcome Measures • The patient’s symptom severity was tracked starting 1 mo after her initial visit to Southwest Naturopathic Medical Center. The severity was based on the patient’s subjective reports about her congestion to her mother and on her mother’s observations of the effect of symptoms on her attention and school performance. The bronchospasm severity was based on the frequency of a sensation of wheezing and chest tightness, the frequency of inhaler use, and the occurrence of any exacerbation of symptoms with acute respiratory illness Results • After 1 mo, in which the patient used the natural supplements, she experienced a 90% improvement in coughing; a 70% improvement in nasal congestion; less chest tightness; and no need for use of loratadine, diphenhydramine, or albuterol. At the 8-mo follow-up visit, her nasal congestion was reported to be entirely gone. Conclusions • The case demonstrates the effectiveness of natural supplements and a diet eliminating IgG-reactive foods in the treatment and management of pediatric allergic rhinitis and reactive bronchospasm.

These articles are all quite similarly ridiculous, but the first one reporting two patients who felt better after taking individualised homeopathic remedies (together with conventional medicines) is, I think, the ‘best’. I suggest the authors continue their high-flying careers by publishing a series of further case reports on similar themes:

  • How the crowing of the cock in the morning causes the sun to rise.
  • The danger of WW 3 causes Americans to elect an idiot as president.
  • Increase of CO2 emissions due to global warming.
  • Immunisation neglect caused by measles outbreaks.
  • Brexit vote due to economic downturn.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption caused by hangover.
  • Why does lying in bed cause tiredness?

Please feel free to suggest more ‘post hoc propter hoc’ research themes for our aspiring team of naturopathic pseudo-scientists to be published in Altern Ther Health Med.




We all know Epsom salt, don’t we? This paper provides an interesting history of it: The purgative effect of the waters of Epsom, in southern England, was first discovered in the early seventeenth century. Epsom subsequently developed as one of the great English spas where high society flocked to take the medicinal waters. The extraction of the Epsom Salts from the spa waters and their chemical analysis, the essential feature of which was magnesium sulphate, were first successfully carried out by Doctor Nehemiah Grew, distinguished as a physician, botanist and an early Fellow of the Royal Society. His attempt to patent the production and sale of the Epsom Salts precipitated a dispute with two unscrupulous apothecaries, the Moult brothers. This controversy must be set against the backcloth of the long-standing struggle over the monopoly of dispensing of medicines between the Royal College of Physicians and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.

Epsom salt has the reputation of being very safe. But unfortunately, even something as seemingly harmless as Epsom salt can become dangerous in the hand of people who have little understanding of physiology and medicine. Indian doctors have just published a paper in (‘BMJ Case Reports’) with the details of a 38-year-old non-alcoholic, non-diabetic man suffering from gallstones. The patient was prescribed three tablespoons of Epsom salt to be taken with lukewarm water for 15 days for ‘stone dissolution’ by a ‘naturopathy practitioner’. He subsequently developed loss of appetite and darkening of urine from the 12th day of treatment and jaundice from the second day after treatment completion. The patient denied fevers, skin rash, joint pains, myalgia, abdominal pain, abdominal distension and cholestatic symptoms.

Examination revealed a deeply icteric patient oriented to time, place and person without an enlarged liver or stigmata of chronic liver disease. Liver function tests were abnormal, and a  liver biopsy revealed sub-massive necrosis with dense portal-based fibrosis, mixed portal inflammation, extensive peri-venular canalicular and hepatocellular cholestasis with macro-vesicular steatosis and peri-sinusoidal fibrosis (suggestive of steato-hepatitis) without evidence of granulomas, inclusion bodies or vascular changes suggestive of acute drug-induced liver injury.

After discontinuation of Epsom salt and adequate hydration, the patient had an uneventful recovery with normalisation of liver function tests after 38 days.  The Roussel Uclaf Causality Assessment score was strongly suggestive of Epsom salt-induced liver injury.

I was invited to provide a comment and stated that, in my view, this case reminds us:

1) that naturopaths prescribe a lot of nonsense,

2) that not everything which is promoted as natural is safe,

3) that treatments which apparently have ‘stood the test of time’ can still be rubbish, and

4) that even a relatively harmless remedy can become life-threatening, if one takes it at a high dose for a prolonged period of time.

Naturopaths have advocated Epsom salt for gall-bladder problems since centuries, yet there is no good evidence that it works. It is time that alternative practitioners abide by the rules of evidence-based medicine.

A quick Medline search reveals that there is only one further report of a serious adverse effect after Epsom salt intake: a case of fatal hypermagnesemia caused by an Epsom salt enema. A 7-year-old male presented with cardiac arrest and was found to have a serum magnesium level of 41.2 mg/dL (33.9 mEq/L) after having received an Epsom salt enema earlier that day. The medical history of Epsom salt, the common causes and symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the treatment of hypermagnesemia are reviewed. The easy availability of magnesium, the subtle initial symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the need for education about the toxicity of magnesium should be of interest to physicians.

… and to alternative practitioners, I hasten to add.

How often have we heard that chiropractic has moved on and has given up the concept of subluxation/malalignment? For sure there is no evidence for such nonsense, and it would be high time to give it up!  But, as has been argued here and elsewhere, if chiros give it up, what is there left? What then would differentiate them from physios ? The answer is not a lot.

In any case, chiros have by no means given up subluxation. One can argue this point ad nauseam; yet, most chiros remain in denial.

For this post, I have chosen a different approach to make my point. I simply went on twitter and had a look what messages chiros tweet. The impression I got is that the majority of chiros are totally immersed in subluxation. To provide some proof, I have copied a few images – if chiros do not listen to words, perhaps they understand pictures, I thought.

So, here we go – enjoy!

[please click to see them full size]


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