clinical trial

Sipjeondaebo-tang is an East Asian herbal supplement containing Angelica root (Angelicae Gigantis Radix), the rhizome of Cnidium officinale Makino (Cnidii Rhizoma), Radix Paeoniae, Rehmannia glutinosa root (Rehmanniae Radix Preparata), Ginseng root (Ginseng Radix Alba), Atractylodes lancea root (Atractylodis Rhizoma Alba), the dried sclerotia of Poria cocos (Poria cocos Sclerotium), Licorice root (Glycyrrhizae Radix), Astragalus root (Astragali Radix), and the dried bark of Cinnamomum verum (Cinnamomi Cortex).

But does this herbal mixture actually work? Korean researchers wanted to find out.

The purpose of their study was to examine the feasibility of Sipjeondaebo-tang (Juzen-taiho-to, Shi-Quan-Da-Bu-Tang) for cancer-related anorexia. A total of 32 participants with cancer anorexia were randomized to either Sipjeondaebo-tang group or placebo group. Participants were given 3 g of Sipjeondaebo-tang or placebo 3 times a day for 4 weeks. The primary outcome was a change in the Anorexia/Cachexia Subscale of Functional Assessment of Anorexia/Cachexia Therapy (FAACT). The secondary outcomes included Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) of anorexia, FAACT scale, and laboratory tests.

The results showed that anorexia and quality of life measured by FAACT and VAS were improved after 4 weeks of Sipjeondaebo-tang treatment. However, there was no significant difference between changes of Sipjeondaebo-tang group and placebo group.

From this, the authors of the study concluded that sipjeondaebo-tang appears to have potential benefit for anorexia management in patients with cancer. Further large-scale studies are needed to ensure the efficacy.

Well, isn’t this just great? Faced with a squarely negative result, one simply ignores it and draws a positive conclusion!

As we all know – and as trialists certainly must know – controlled trials are designed to compare the outcomes of two groups. Changes within one of the groups can be caused by several factors unrelated to the therapy and are therefore largely irrelevant. This means that “no significant difference between changes of Sipjeondaebo-tang group and placebo group” indicates that the herbal mixture had no effect. In turn this means that a conclusion stating that “sipjeondaebo-tang appears to have potential benefit for anorexia” is just fraudulent.

This level of scientific misconduct is remarkable, even for the notoriously poor 

I strongly suggest that:

  1. The journal is de-listed from Medline because similarly misleading nonsense has been coming out of this rag for some time.
  2. The paper is withdrawn because it can only mislead vulnerable patients.

Cranio-sacral therapy is firstly implausible, and secondly it lacks evidence of effectiveness (see for instance here, here, here and here). Yet, some researchers are nevertheless not deterred to test it in clinical trials. While this fact alone might be seen as embarrassing, the study below is a particular and personal embarrassment to me, in fact, I am shocked by it and write these lines with considerable regret.

Why? Bear with me, I will explain later.

The purpose of this trial was to evaluate the effectiveness of osteopathic manipulative treatment and osteopathy in the cranial field in temporomandibular disorders. Forty female subjects with temporomandibular disorders lasting at least three months were included. At enrollment, subjects were randomly assigned into two groups: (1) osteopathic manipulative treatment group (n=20) and (2) osteopathy in the cranial field [craniosacral therapy for you and me] group (n=20). Examinations were performed at baseline (E0) and at the end of the last treatment (E1), and consisted of subjective pain intensity with the Visual Analog Scale, Helkimo Index and SF-36 Health Survey. Subjects had five treatments, once a week. 36 subjects completed the study.

Patients in both groups showed significant reduction in Visual Analog Scale score (osteopathic manipulative treatment group: p = 0.001; osteopathy in the cranial field group: p< 0.001), Helkimo Index (osteopathic manipulative treatment group: p = 0.02; osteopathy in the cranial field group: p = 0.003) and a significant improvement in the SF-36 Health Survey – subscale “Bodily Pain” (osteopathic manipulative treatment group: p = 0.04; osteopathy in the cranial field group: p = 0.007) after five treatments (E1). All subjects (n = 36) also showed significant improvements in the above named parameters after five treatments (E1): Visual Analog Scale score (p< 0.001), Helkimo Index (p< 0.001), SF-36 Health Survey – subscale “Bodily Pain” (p = 0.001). The differences between the two groups were not statistically significant for any of the three endpoints.

The authors concluded that both therapeutic modalities had similar clinical results. The findings of this pilot trial support the use of osteopathic manipulative treatment and osteopathy in the cranial field as an effective treatment modality in patients with temporomandibular disorders. The positive results in both treatment groups should encourage further research on osteopathic manipulative treatment and osteopathy in the cranial field and support the importance of an interdisciplinary collaboration in patients with temporomandibular disorders. Implications for rehabilitation Temporomandibular disorders are the second most prevalent musculoskeletal condition with a negative impact on physical and psychological factors. There are a variety of options to treat temporomandibular disorders. This pilot study demonstrates the reduction of pain, the improvement of temporomandibular joint dysfunction and the positive impact on quality of life after osteopathic manipulative treatment and osteopathy in the cranial field. Our findings support the use of osteopathic manipulative treatment and osteopathy in the cranial field and should encourage further research on osteopathic manipulative treatment and osteopathy in the cranial field in patients with temporomandibular disorders. Rehabilitation experts should consider osteopathic manipulative treatment and osteopathy in the cranial field as a beneficial treatment option for temporomandibular disorders.

This study has so many flaws that I don’t know where to begin. Here are some of the more obvious ones:

  • There is, as already mentioned, no rationale for this study. I can see no reason why craniosacral therapy should work for the condition. Without such a rationale, the study should never even have been conceived.
  • Technically,  this RCTs an equivalence study comparing one therapy against another. As such it needs to be much larger to generate a meaningful result and it also would require a different statistical approach.
  • The authors mislabelled their trial a ‘pilot study’. However, a pilot study “is a preliminary small-scale study that researchers conduct in order to help them decide how best to conduct a large-scale research project. Using a pilot study, a researcher can identify or refine a research question, figure out what methods are best for pursuing it, and estimate how much time and resources will be necessary to complete the larger version, among other things.” It is not normally a study suited for evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy.
  • Any trial that compares one therapy of unknown effectiveness to another of unknown effectiveness is a complete and utter nonsense. Equivalent studies can only ever make sense, if one of the two treatments is of proven effectiveness – think of it as a mathematical equation: one equation with two unknowns is unsolvable.
  • Controlled studies such as RCTs are for comparing the outcomes of two or more groups, and only between-group differences are meaningful results of such trials.
  • The ‘positive results’ which the authors mention in their conclusions are meaningless because they are based on such within-group changes and nobody can know what caused them: the natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean, placebo-effects, or other non-specific effects – take your pick.
  • The conclusions are a bonanza of nonsensical platitudes and misleading claims which do not follow from the data.

As regular readers of this blog will doubtlessly have noticed, I have seen plenty of similarly flawed pseudo-research before – so, why does this paper upset me so much? The reason is personal, I am afraid: even though I do not know any of the authors in person, I know their institution more than well. The study comes from the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Medical University of Vienna, Austria. I was head of this department before I left in 1993 to take up the Exeter post. And I had hoped that, even after 25 years, a bit of the spirit, attitude, knowhow, critical thinking and scientific rigor – all of which I tried so hard to implant in my Viennese department at the time – would have survived.

Perhaps I was wrong.

Difficulties breastfeeding?

Some say that Chinese herbal medicine offers a solution.

This Chinese multi-centre RCT included 588 mothers considering breastfeeding. The intervention group received the Chinese herbal mixture Zengru Gao, while the control group received no therapy. The primary outcomes were the percentages of fully and partially breastfeeding mothers, and a secondary outcome was baby’s daily formula intake.

At day 3 and 7 after delivery, significant differences were found in favour of Zengru Gao group on the percentage of full/ partial breastfeeding. At day 7, the percentage of full/ partial breastfeeding of the active group increased to 71.48%/20.70% versus 58.67%/30.26% in the control group, the differences remained significant. No statistically significant differences were detected on primary measures at day. While intake of formula differed between groups at day 1 and 3, this difference did not achieve statistical significance, but this difference was apparent by day 7.

The authors concluded that the Chinese Herbal medicine Zengru Gao enhanced breastfeeding success during one week postpartum. The approach is acceptable to participants and merits further evaluation.

To the naïve observer, this study might look rigorous, but it is a seriously flawed RCT. Here are just some of its most obvious limitations:

  • All we get in the methods section is this explanation: Participants were randomly allocated to the blank control group or the intervention group: Zengru Gao, orally, 30 g a time and 3 times a day. This seems to indicate that the control group got no treatment at all which means there was no blinding nor placebo control. The authors even comment on this point in the discussion section of their paper stating that because we included new mothers who received no treatment as a control group, we were able to prove that the improvement in breastfeeding was not due to the placebo effect. However, this is a totally nonsensical argument.
  • The experimental treatment is not reproducible. The authors state: Zengru Gao, a Chinese herbal formula, which is composed of 8 herbs: Semen Vaccariae, Medulla Tetrapanacis, Radix Rehmanniae Praeparata, Radix Angelicae Sinensis, Radix Paeoniae Alba,Rhizoma Chuanxiong, Herba Leonuri, Radix Trichosanthis. This is not enough information to replicate the study outside China where the mixture is not commercially available.
  • The primary outcome was the percentage of fully, and partially breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding was defined as mother’s milk given by direct breast feeding. Full breastfeeding meant that no other types of milk or solids were given. Partially breastfeeding meant that sustained latch with deep rhythmic sucking through the length of the feed, with some pause, on either/ or both breasts. We are not being told how the endpoint was quantified. Presumably women kept diaries. We cannot guess how accurate this process was.
  • As far as I can see, there was no correction for multiple testing for statistical significance. This means that some or all of the significant results might be false-positive.
  • There is insufficient data to show that the herbal mixture is safe for the mothers and the babies. At the very minimum, the researchers should have measured essential safety parameters. This omission is a gross violation of research ethics.
  • Towards the end of the paper, we find the following statement: The authors would like to thank the Research and Development Department of Zhangzhou Pien Tze Huang Pharmaceutical co., Ltd. … The authors declare that they have no competing interests. And the 1st and 3rd authors are “affiliated with” Guangzhou Hipower Pharmaceutical Technology Co., Ltd, Guangzhou, China, i. e. work for the manufacturer of the mixture. This does clearly not make any sense whatsoever.

I have seen too many flawed studies of alternative medicine to be shocked or even surprised by this level of incompetence and nonsense. Yet, I still find it lamentable. But, in my view, the worst is that supposedly peer-reviewed journals such as ‘BMC Complement Altern Med’ publish such overt rubbish.

It would be easy to shrug one’s shoulder and bin the paper. But the effect of such fatally flawed research is too serious for that. In our recent book MORE HARM THAN GOOD? THE MORAL MAZE OF COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we discuss that such flawed science amounts to a violation of medical ethics:  CAM journals allocate peer review tasks to a narrow range of CAM enthusiasts who often have been chosen by the authors of the article in question. The raison d’être of CAM journals and CAM researchers is inextricably tied to a belief in CAM, resulting in a self-referential situation which is permissive to the acceptance of weak or flawed reports of clinical effectiveness… Defective research—whether at the design, execution, analysis, or reporting stage—corrupts the repository of reliable medical knowledge. Ultimately, this leads to suboptimal and erroneous treatment decisions…

Many hard-nosed sceptics might claim that there is no herbal treatment for upper respiratory infections that makes the slightest difference difference. But is this assumption really correct?

According to my own research of 2004, it is not. Here is the abstract of our systematic review:

Acute respiratory infections represent a significant cause of over-prescription of antibiotics and are one of the major reasons for absence from work. The leaves of Andrographis paniculata (Burm. f.) Wall ex Nees (Acanthaceae) are used as a medicinal herb in the treatment of infectious diseases. Systematic literature searches were conducted in six computerised databases and the reference lists of all papers located were checked for further relevant publications. Information was also requested from manufacturers, the spontaneous reporting schemes of the World Health Organisation and national drug safety bodies. No language restrictions were imposed. Seven double-blind, controlled trials (n = 896) met the inclusion criteria for evaluation of efficacy. All trials scored at least three, out of a maximum of five, for methodological quality on the Jadad scale. Collectively, the data suggest that A. paniculata is superior to placebo in alleviating the subjective symptoms of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection. There is also preliminary evidence of a preventative effect. Adverse events reported following administration of A. paniculata were generally mild and infrequent. There were few spontaneous reports of adverse events. A. paniculata may be a safe and efficacious treatment for the relief of symptoms of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection; more research is warranted.

A. Paniculata (Burm.f.) Wall ex Nees (Acanthaceae family), also known as nemone chinensi, Chuān Xīn Lián, has traditionally been used in Indian and Chinese herbal medicine mostly as an antipyretic for relieving and reducing the severity and duration of symptoms of common colds and alleviating fever, cough and sore throats, or as a tonic to aid convalescence after uncomplicated respiratory tract infections. The active constituents of A. paniculata include the diterpene, lactones commonly known as the andrographolides which have shown anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-allergic, and immune-stimulatory activities. A. Paniculata has also been shown, in vitro, to be effective against avian influenza A (H9N2 and H5N1) and human influenza A H1N1 viruses, possibly through blocking the binding of viral hemagglutinin to cells, or by inhibiting H1N1 virus-induced cell death.

But our systematic review was published 14 years ago!

We need more up-to-date information!

And I am pleased to report that a recent paper provided exactly that.

This systematic review included published and unpublished RCTs. Quasi-RCTs, crossover trials, controlled before and after studies, interrupted time series (ITS) studies, and non-experimental studies were not included due to their potential high risk of bias.

Thirty-three trials involving 7175 patients with ARTIs were included. Their methodological quality was restricted as randomisation was not well documented; 73% of the trials included were not blinded; where ITT analysis were performed, loss to follow-up data were counted as no effect; and most trials were published without a protocol available.

Findings suggested limited but consistent evidence that A. Paniculata improved cough and sore throat when compared with placebo. A. Paniculata (alone or plus usual care) had a statistically significant effect in improving overall symptoms of ARTIs when compared to placebo, usual care, and other herbal therapies. A. Paniculata in pillule tended to be more effective in improving overall symptoms over A. Paniculata in tablet. Evidence also suggested that A. Paniculata (alone or plus usual care) shortens the duration of cough, sore throat and sick leave/time to resolution when compared versus usual care. Reduction in antibiotic usage was seldom evaluated in the included trials.

The authors concluded that A. Paniculata appears beneficial and safe for relieving ARTI symptoms and shortening time to symptom resolution. However, these findings should be interpreted cautiously owing to poor study quality and heterogeneity. Well-designed trials evaluating the effectiveness and potential to reduce antibiotic use of A. Paniculata are warranted.

In case you wonder about conflicts of interest: there were none with my 2004 paper, and the authors of the new review state that this paper presents independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Primary Care Research (NIHR SPCR). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR, the NHS or the Department of Health.

Yes, the RCTs are not all of top quality.

And yes, the effect size is not huge.

But maybe – just maybe – we do have here an alternative therapy that does help against a condition for which conventional drugs are fairly useless!?!

The aim of this three-armed, parallel, randomized exploratory study was to determine, if two types of acupuncture (auricular acupuncture [AA] and traditional Chinese acupuncture [TCA]) were feasible and more effective than usual care (UC) alone for TBI–related headache. The subjects were previously deployed Service members (18–69 years old) with mild-to-moderate TBI and headaches. The interventions explored were UC alone or with the addition of AA or TCA. The primary outcome was the Headache Impact Test (HIT). Secondary outcomes were the Numerical Rating Scale (NRS), Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, Post-Traumatic Stress Checklist, Symptom Checklist-90-R, Medical Outcome Study Quality of Life (QoL), Beck Depression Inventory, State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, and expectancy of outcome and acupuncture efficacy.

Mean HIT scores decreased in the AA and TCA groups but increased slightly in the UC-only group from baseline to week 6 [AA, −10.2% (−6.4 points); TCA, −4.6% (−2.9 points); UC, +0.8% (+0.6 points)]. Both acupuncture groups had sizable decreases in NRS (Pain Best), compared to UC (TCA versus UC: P = 0.0008, d = 1.70; AA versus UC: P = 0.0127, d = 1.6). No statistically significant results were found for any other secondary outcome measures.

The authors concluded that both AA and TCA improved headache-related QoL more than UC did in Service members with TBI.

The stated aim of this study (to determine whether AA or TCA both with UC are more effective than UC alone) does not make sense and should therefore never have passed ethics review, in my view. The RCT followed a design which essentially is the much-lamented ‘A+B versus B’ protocol (except that a further groups ‘C+B’ was added). The nature of such designs is that there is no control for placebo effects, the extra time and attention, etc. Therefore, such studies cannot fail but generate positive results, even if the tested intervention is a placebo. In such trials, it is impossible to attribute any outcome to the experimental treatment. This means that the positive results are known before the first patient has been enrolled; hence they are an unethical waste of resources which can only serve one purpose: to mislead us. It also means that the conclusions drawn above are not correct.

An alternative and in my view more accurate conclusion would be this one: both AA and TCA had probably no effect; the improved headache-related QoL was due to the additional attention and expectation in the two experimental groups and is unrelated to the interventions tested in this study.

In our new book, MORE HARM THAN GOOD, we discuss that such trials are deceptive to the point of being unethical. Considering the prominence and experience of Wayne Jonas, the 1st author of this paper, such obvious transgression is more than a little disappointing – I would argue that is amounts to overt scientific misconduct.

As I have stated repeatedly, I am constantly on the look-out for positive news about alternative medicine. Usually, I find plenty – but when I scrutinise it, it tends to crumble in the type of misleading report that I often write about on this blog. Truly good research in alternative medicine is hard to find, and results that are based on rigorous science and show a positive finding are a bit like gold-dust.

But hold on, today I have something!

This systematic review was aimed at determining whether physical exercise is effective in improving cognitive function in the over 50s. The authors evaluated all randomised controlled trials of physical exercise interventions in community-dwelling adults older than 50 years with an outcome measure of cognitive function.

39 studies were included in the systematic review. Analysis of 333 dependent effect sizes from 36 studies showed that physical exercise improved cognitive function. Interventions of aerobic exercise, resistance training, multicomponent training and tai chi, all had significant point estimates. When exercise prescription was examined, a duration of 45–60 min per session and at least moderate intensity, were associated with benefits to cognition. The results of the meta-analysis were consistent and independent of the cognitive domain tested or the cognitive status of the participants.

The authors concluded that physical exercise improved cognitive function in the over 50s, regardless of the cognitive status of participants. To improve cognitive function, this meta-analysis provides clinicians with evidence to recommend that patients obtain both aerobic and resistance exercise of at least moderate intensity on as many days of the week as feasible, in line with current exercise guidelines.

But this is not alternative medicine, I hear you say.

You are right, mostly, it isn’t. There were a few RCTs of tai chi and yoga, but the majority was of conventional exercise. Moreover, most of these ‘alternative’ RCTs were less convincing than the conventional RCTs; here is one of the former category:

Community-dwelling older adults (N = 118; mean age = 62.0) were randomized to one of two groups: a Hatha yoga intervention or a stretching-strengthening control. Both groups participated in hour-long exercise classes 3×/week over the 8-week study period. All participants completed established tests of executive function including the task switching paradigm, n-back and running memory span at baseline and follow-up. Analysis of covariances showed significantly shorter reaction times on the mixed and repeat task switching trials (partial η(2) = .04, p < .05) for the Hatha yoga group. Higher accuracy was recorded on the single trials (partial η(2) = .05, p < .05), the 2-back condition of the n-back (partial η(2) = .08, p < .001), and partial recall scores (partial η(2) = .06, p < .01) of running span task.

I just wanted to be generous and felt the need to report a positive result. I guess, this just shows how devoid of rigorous research generating a positive finding alternative medicine really is.

Of course, there are many readers of this blog who are convinced that their pet therapy is supported by excellent evidence. For them, I have this challenge: if you think you have good evidence for an alternative therapy, show it to me (send it to me via the ‘contact’ option of this blog or post the link as a comment below). Please note that any evidence I would consider analysing in some detail (writing a full blog post about it) would need to be recent, peer-reviewed and rigorous.

This systematic review aimed to identify and explore published studies on the health, wellbeing and economic impact of retreat experiences. Three electronic databases were searched for residential retreat studies published in English. Studies were included, if they involved an intervention program in a residential setting of one or more nights, and included before-and-after data related to the health of participants.

A total of 23 studies including 8 randomised controlled trials, 6 non-randomised controlled trials and 9 longitudinal cohort studies met the inclusion criteria. These studies included a total of 2592 participants from diverse geographical and demographic populations and a great heterogeneity of outcome measures, with 7 studies examining objective outcomes such as blood pressure or biological makers of disease, and 16 studies examining subjective outcomes that mostly involved self-reported questionnaires on psychological and spiritual measures.

All studies reported post-retreat health benefits ranging from immediately after to five-years post-retreat. Study populations varied widely and most studies had small sample sizes, poorly described methodology and little follow-up data, and no studies reported on health economic outcomes or adverse effects, making it difficult to make definite conclusions about specific conditions, safety or return on investment.

The authors concluded that health retreat experiences appear to have health benefits that include benefits for people with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, various cancers, HIV/AIDS, heart conditions and mental health. Future research with larger numbers of subjects and longer follow-up periods are needed to investigate the health impact of different retreat experiences and the clinical populations most likely to benefit. Further studies are also needed to determine the economic benefits of retreat experiences for individuals, as well as for businesses, health insurers and policy makers.

In the article, the authors also state that the findings from the reviewed studies suggest there are many positive health benefits from retreat experiences that includes improvements in both subjective and objective measures… The results from the most rigorous studies that used randomized controlled designs were consistent with less rigorous studies and suggest that retreat experiences can produce benefits that include positive changes in metabolic and neurological pathways, loss of weight, blood pressure and abdominal girth, reduction in health symptoms and improvements in quality of life and subjective wellbeing.

As it happens, we have discussed one of their ‘most rigorous’ RCTs on this blog. Here is what I wrote about it when it was first published:

The ‘study‘ in question allegedly examined the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being. The authors describe it as “a quasi-randomized trial comparing the effects of participation in a 6-day Ayurvedic system of medicine-based comprehensive residential program with a 6-day residential vacation at the same retreat location.” They included 69 healthy women and men who received the Ayurvedic intervention addressing physical and emotional well-being through group meditation and yoga, massage, diet, adaptogenic herbs, lectures, and journaling. Key components of the program include physical cleansing through ingestion of herbs, fiber, and oils that support the body’s natural detoxification pathways and facilitate healthy elimination; two Ayurvedic meals daily (breakfast and lunch) that provide a light plant-based diet; daily Ayurvedic oil massage treatments; and heating treatments through the use of sauna and/or steam. The program includes lectures on Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle as well as lectures on meditation and yoga philosophy. The study group also participated in twice-daily group meditation and daily yoga and practiced breathing exercises (pranayama) as well as emotional expression through a process of journaling and emotional support. During the program, participants received a 1-hour integrative medical consultation with a physician and follow-up with an Ayurvedic health educator.

The control group simply had a vacation without any of the above therapies in the same resort. They were asked to do what they would normally do on a resort vacation with the additional following restrictions: they were asked not to engage in more exercise than they would in their normal lifestyle and to refrain from using La Costa Resort spa services. They were also asked not to drink ginger tea or take Gingko biloba during the 2 days before and during the study week.

Recruitment was via email announcements on the University of California San Diego faculty and staff and Chopra Center for Wellbeing list-servers. Study flyers stated that the week-long Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI) study would be conducted at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, located at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California, in order to learn more about the psychosocial and physiologic effects of the 6-day Perfect Health (PH) Program compared with a 6-day stay at the La Costa Resort. The study participants were not blinded, and site investigators and study personnel knew to which group participants were assigned.

Participants in the Ayurvedic program showed significant and sustained increases in ratings of spirituality and gratitude compared with the vacation group, which showed no change. The Ayurvedic participants also showed increased ratings for self-compassion as well as less anxiety at the 1-month follow-up.

The authors arrived at the following conclusion: Findings suggest that a short-term intensive program providing holistic instruction and experience in mind–body healing practices can lead to significant and sustained increases in perceived well-being and that relaxation alone is not enough to improve certain aspects of well-being.

This ‘study’ had ethical approval from the University of California San Diego and was supported by the Fred Foundation, the MCJ Amelior Foundation, the National Philanthropic Trust, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Chopra Foundation. The paper’s first author is director of research at the Chopra Foundation… Just for the record, let me formulate a short conclusion that actually fits the data from this ‘study’: Lots of TLC, attention and empathy does make some people feel better… 


The subject of health retreats could be relevant and important. Educating people and teaching them the essentials about healthy life-styles is potentially a good thing. It could well turn out that health retreats benefit many individuals, while saving money for society.

Yet, do we need all sorts of quackery for achieving this aim?

No, we don’t!

A rational programme would need to teach and motivate people about diet, weight control, smoking cessation, regular sleep, relaxation, exercise, etc. It could prevent disease and save funds. This approach has existed in Europe long before the US ‘New Agers’ with their flimflam jumped on this bandwagon. Health education is a good idea, but it does not require the use of alternative therapies or luxury retreats.

As it turns out, the new systematic review is a disappointment. It fails to stress that no firm conclusions can be drawn from flimsy data and degenerates into little more than an embarrassing advertisement for Deepak Chopra’s and similar entrepreneurs’ money-making retreats. It totally ignores the sizable body of Non-English literature on the subject, and is focussed on promoting fashionable retreats and wellness centres in the US and Australia.

To be fair to the authors, they almost admit as much when they state: “Competing interests: MC is a board member of the Global Wellness Summit and has previously been a paid presenter at the Gwinganna Health Retreat. RMIT University has received donations from Danubius Hotel Group, Lapinha, Sunswept Resorts, Sheenjoy and The Golden Door for ongoing retreat research.”

I rest my case.

Can conventional therapy (CT) be combined with herbal therapy (CT + H) in the management of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) to the benefit of patients? This was the question investigated by Chinese researchers in a recent retrospective cohort study funded by grants from China Ministry of Education, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission, and Beijing Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning.

In total, 344 outpatients diagnosed as probable dementia due to AD were collected, who had received either CT + H or CT alone. The GRAPE formula was prescribed for AD patients after every visit according to TCM theory. It consisted mainly (what does ‘mainly’ mean as a description of a trial intervention?) of Ren shen (Panax ginseng, 10 g/d), Di huang (Rehmannia glutinosa, 30 g/d), Cang pu (Acorus tatarinowii, 10 g/d), Yuan zhi (Polygala tenuifolia, 10 g/d), Yin yanghuo (Epimedium brevicornu, 10 g/d), Shan zhuyu (Cornus officinalis, 10 g/d), Rou congrong (Cistanche deserticola, 10 g/d), Yu jin (Curcuma aromatica, 10 g/d), Dan shen (Salvia miltiorrhiza, 10 g/d), Dang gui (Angelica sinensis, 10 g/d), Tian ma (Gastrodia elata, 10 g/d), and Huang lian (Coptis chinensis, 10 g/d), supplied by Beijing Tcmages Pharmaceutical Co., LTD. Daily dose was taken twice and dissolved in 150 ml hot water each time. Cognitive function was quantified by the mini-mental state examination (MMSE) every 3 months for 24 months.

The results show that most of the patients were initially diagnosed with mild (MMSE = 21-26, n = 177) and moderate (MMSE = 10-20, n = 137) dementia. At 18 months, CT+ H patients scored on average 1.76 (P = 0.002) better than CT patients, and at 24 months, patients scored on average 2.52 (P < 0.001) better. At 24 months, the patients with improved cognitive function (△MMSE ≥ 0) in CT + H was more than CT alone (33.33% vs 7.69%, P = 0.020). Interestingly, patients with mild AD received the most robust benefit from CT + H therapy. The deterioration of the cognitive function was largely prevented at 24 months (ΔMMSE = -0.06), a significant improvement from CT alone (ΔMMSE = -2.66, P = 0.005).


The authors concluded that, compared to CT alone, CT + H significantly benefited AD patients. A symptomatic effect of CT + H was more pronounced with time. Cognitive decline was substantially decelerated in patients with moderate severity, while the cognitive function was largely stabilized in patients with mild severity over two years. These results imply that Chinese herbal medicines may provide an alternative and additive treatment for AD.

Conclusions like these render me speechless – well, almost speechless. This was nothing more than a retrospective chart analysis. It is not possible to draw causal conclusions from such data.


Because of a whole host of reasons. Most crucially, the CT+H patients were almost certainly a different and therefore non-comparable population to the CT patients. This flaw is so elementary that I need to ask, who are the reviewers letting such utter nonsense pass, and which journal would publish such rubbish? In fact, I can be used for teaching students why randomisation is essential, if we aim to find out about cause and effect.

Ahhh, it’s the ! I think the funders, editors, reviewers, and authors of this paper should all go and hide in shame.

The question whether chiropractic is a truly valuable option for people suffering from back pain has been addressed repeatedly on this blog. My answer was usually negative, but proponents of chiropractic tended to argue that I am biased. Therefore I find it constructive to see what an organisation that hardly can be accused of bias says on this topic. An article by ‘SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE’ has recently provided a comprehensive overview of treatments for back pain. This is what they wrote about chiropractic:


Spinal manipulation, the cranking and tweaking on offer when you visit a traditional chiropractor, is among the most popular approaches to back pain. Practitioners lay their hands on the patient and move their joints to or beyond their range of motion — a technique that’s often accompanied by a pop or crack.

There is some evidence the approach can help people with chronic back pain — but not any more than over-the-counter painkillers or exercise, and you need to take precautions when seeking out a chiropractor.

First, a quick look at the evidence. There are two recent Cochrane reviews on spinal manipulation for low back pain: one focused on people with acute (again, episodic/short duration) pain and the other on chronic pain. The 2011 review on chronic low back pain found that spinal manipulation had small, short-term effects on reducing pain and improving the patient’s functional status — but this effect was about the same as other common therapies for chronic low back pain, such as exercise. That review was published in 2011; UpToDate reviewed the randomized trials that have come out since — and also found that spinal manipulation delivered modest, short-term benefits for chronic back pain sufferers.

The Cochrane review on acute pain found that spinal manipulation worked no better than placebo. So people with a short episode of back pain should probably not bother seeing a chiropractor.

“Based on the evidence,” University of Amsterdam assistant professor Sidney Rubinstein, who is the lead author on the Cochrane reviews, told me, “it would appear [spinal manipulation] works as well as other accepted conservative therapies for chronic low back pain, such as non-prescription medication or exercise, but less well for patients with acute low back pain.”

As a chiropractor himself, he had some advice for patients: They should avoid chiropractors who routinely make X-rays or do advanced diagnostics for low back pain because this adds nothing to the clinical picture, particularly in the case of nonspecific low back pain. Patients should also beware chiropractors who put them on extended programs of care.

“Patients who respond to chiropractic care traditionally respond rather quickly,” he said. “My advice is those patients who have not responded to a short course of chiropractic care or manipulation should consider another type of therapy.”

While the risks of serious side effects from spinal manipulation for back pain are rare — about one in 10 million — the risks associated with chiropractic therapy for neck pain tend to be slightly higher: 1.46 strokes for every million neck adjustments.

The issue is the vertebral artery, which travels from the neck down through the vertebrae. Manipulating the neck can put patients at a higher risk of arterial problems, including stroke or vertebral artery dissection, or the tearing of the vertebral artery (though Rubinstein noted that people in the initial stages of stroke or dissection may also seek out care for their symptoms, such as neck pain, which makes it difficult to untangle how many of health emergencies are brought on by the adjustments).


This all seems fairly reasonable to me – except for the following not entirely unimportant points:

  • I am not sure where the evidence about risks of spinal manipulation comes from. In my view, it is not entirely correct: as there is no effective post-marketing surveillance, we cannot possibly name the incidence figures.
  • Neck manipulations are clearly more risky than manipulations lower down. But this does not necessarily mean that back patients are safer than those with neck pain. Chiropractors view the spine as a whole organ and will regularly manipulate the neck (if they sense ‘subluxations’ in this area), even if the patient comes with low back pain.
  • There are also indirect risks with consulting a chiropractor; for instance, they often give incompetent advice about healthcare. This can include discouraging immunisations or treating serious diseases, such as asthma, colic etc., with chiropractic.
  • I think the article should point out that exercise is not just as effective (or as ineffective) as chiropractic, but it is much safer and less expensive.
  • What Rubinstein says about responders is debatable, in my view. In particular, most chiropractors will convince their patients to continue treatment, even if they do not ‘respond’. And ‘responding’ might be simply the natural history of the condition and therefore totally unrelated to the therapy.

The bottom line: Chiropractic is not the best treatment for back pain!

Placentophagy is the act of eating the placenta after childbirth. It seems to be advocated widely. But why would anyone even think of doing such a weird thing?

According to Wikipedia, the placenta contains high levels of prostaglandin. Prostaglandin stimulates involution (an inward curvature or penetration, or, a shrinking or return to a former size) of the uterus. The placenta also contains small amounts of oxytocin which eases birth stress and causes the smooth muscles around the mammary cells to contract and eject milk.

Wiki also tells us that human placenta has also been an ingredient in some traditional Chinese medicines, including using dried human placenta, known as “Ziheche” (simplified Chinese: 紫河车; traditional Chinese: 紫河車; pinyin: Zǐhéchē), to treat wasting diseases, infertility, impotence and other conditions. Most recently, the Center for Disease Control published a report of a newborn infected with Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria likely after the mother ingested placenta capsules. Consequently, the CDC said that placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided and to educate mothers interested in placenta encapsulation about the potential risks. A recent publication advised that physicians should discourage placentophagy because it is potentially harmful with no documented benefit.

The benefits of placentophagy are, according to many proponents of this therapy, considerable. This website, for instance, claims the following effects:


When  a woman births the placenta, she loses the many useful hormones contained in it that were produced during pregnancy.  It can take months for the body to balance these hormones again. Taking placenta pills helps reintroduce these hormones into the mother’s body  in small doses, until her body resumes its natural hormonal balance.

Iron-deficiency in postpartum women can lead to fatigue, and may be a contributing factor to depressive symptoms. The placenta is extremely rich in natural iron and can be a valuable and natural resource to replenish the mother’s lost iron supply.  It is also rich in naturally-produced B6 which is often used to combat depression.  Many mothers find the combination of these substances in placenta encapsulation to be helpful in improving their post-birth emotional experience.

The placenta contains hormones and nutrients that have been found to increase energy and promote healing.  It is also rich in naturally-produced iron and protein, which can help replenish the mother’s nutrients following childbirth.

Historically, midwives have utilized a small portion of the placenta to control postpartum bleeding during and after childbirth.  Placenta pills contain these same hormones and can lessen bleeding and help promote uterine healing.

The  placenta contains Human Placental Lactogen and Prolactin, which help prepare the mammary glands and stimulate milk production.  These are often beneficial in successful breastfeeding of a new infant.


As we all know, bogus claims abound in alternative medicine; the question, as always is: are they true?

There have been no studies of whether placentophagy provides hormonal effects in humans, Wiki claims. But this last statement is no longer true. The first human trial of placentophagy has just been published. The objective of this study was to investigate whether salivary hormone concentrations of women ingesting their own encapsulated placenta during the early postpartum differed from those of women consuming a placebo.

Randomly assigned participants (N=27) were given a supplement containing either their dehydrated and homogenized placenta (n=12), or placebo (n=15). Saliva samples were collected during late pregnancy and early postpartum. Samples of participants’ processed placenta, and the encapsulated placebo, were also collected. Hormone analyses were conducted on all samples utilizing liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry.

The results show that there were no significant differences in salivary hormone concentrations between the placenta and placebo groups post-supplementation that did not exist pre-supplementation. There were, however, significant dose-response relationships between the concentration of all 15 detected hormones in the placenta capsules and corresponding salivary hormone measures in placenta group participants not seen in the placebo group. The higher salivary concentrations of these hormones in the placenta group reflects the higher concentrations of these hormones in the placenta supplements, compared to the placebo.

In a second paper on the same trial, the authors assessed the maternal mood, bonding, and fatigue via validated scales across 4 time points during late pregnancy and early postpartum.

The results show no significant main effects related to maternal mood, bonding, or fatigue between placenta and placebo group participants. However, examination of individual time points suggested that some measures had specific time-related differences between placenta and placebo groups that may warrant future exploration. Though statistical significance should not be interpreted in these cases, the authors did find some evidence of a decrease in depressive symptoms within the placenta group but not the placebo group, and reduced fatigue in placenta group participants at the end of the study compared to the placebo group.

The authors concluded that no robust differences in postpartum maternal mood, bonding, or fatigue were detected between the placenta and placebo groups. This finding may be especially important for women considering maternal placentophagy as a ‘natural’ (i.e., non-pharmacological) means of preventing or treating blues/depression. Given the study limitations, these findings should be interpreted as preliminary. Small, time-related improvements in maternal mood and lower fatigue post-supplementation among placenta group participants may warrant further research.

Will this largely negative evidence stop enthusiasts of placentophagy making therapeutic claims?

I very much doubt it!


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