herbal medicine

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The claims that are being made for the health benefits of Chinese herbal medicine are impressive. I am not sure that there is even a single human disease that is not alleged to be curable with the use of some Chinese herbal mixture. I find this worrying because some patients might actually believe such outrageous nonsense, particularly since Chinese researchers seem to bend over backwards to support them with science… or should I say pseudoscience?

This study was aimed at evaluating the association between mortality rate and early use of Chinese herbal products (CHPs) among patients with lung cancer. The researchers conducted a retrospective cohort study based on the National Health Insurance Research Database, Taiwan Cancer Registry, and Cause of Death Data. Patients with newly diagnosed lung cancer between 2002 and 2010 were classified as either the CHP (n = 422) or the non-CHP group (n = 2828) based on whether they used CHP within 3 months after first diagnosis of lung cancer. A Cox regression model was used to examine the hazard ratio (HR) of death for propensity score (PS) matching samples.

After PS matching, average survival time of the CHP group was significantly longer than that of the non-CHP group. The adjusted HR (0.82; 95% CI: 0.73-0.92) in the CHP group was lower than the non-CHP group. Stratified by clinical cancer stages, CHP group had longer survival time in the stage 3 subgroup. When the exposure period of CHP use was changed from 3 to 6 months, results remained similar.

The authors concluded that results indicated that patients with lung cancer who used CHP within 3 months after first diagnosis had a lower hazard of death than non-CHP users, especially for stage 3 lung cancer. Further experimental studies are needed to examine the causal relationship.

I would argue the direct opposite: further studies along these lines would be a waste of time!

I can name numerous reasons for this, for example:

  • Investigating CHP as though it is one entity is nonsense. There are thousands of different CHPs; some are placebos; some are toxic; and a few might even have some health effects.
  • The observed effect is almost certainly an artefact; the matching of the groups might have been sub-optimal; the CHP group differed systematically from the control group, for instance, by adhering to a healthier life-style; etc, etc.

All of this should be so obvious that it hardly deserves a mention. Why then do the authors not point it out prominently and clearly? Why did they ever embark on such a fatally flawed project? I cannot be sure, of course, … but perhaps one possible answer might be that the lead author is affiliated to a Department of Chinese Medicine?


I have often remarked on the fact that, in alternative medicine, more surveys get published than in any other medical field. Typically these surveys are not just useless but overtly counter-productive:

  • they tend to be of very poor quality;
  • their results are not generalizable and thus meaningless;
  • they show that a sizable proportion of the population uses alternative therapies, pay out of their own pocket for them, and are satisfied with them;
  • the authors then state that it must be unfair that only the affluent can benefit from alternative medicine;
  • eventually, the conclusion is reached that alternative medicine should be paid for by the healthcare system and be free for all at the point of usage.

Therefore, I find that it is a waste of time to even read surveys of alternative medicine usage. But every now and then, one does come along that is worth discussing – like this one, for instance.

The survey evaluated dietary supplements (DS) usage by US adults aged ≥60 y to characterize the use of DSs, determine the motivations for use, and examine the associations between the use of DSs and selected demographic, lifestyle, and health characteristics. Data from 3469 older adults aged ≥60 y from the 2011-2014 NHANES were analyzed. DSs used in the past 30 d were ascertained via an interviewer-administered questionnaire in participants’ homes. The prevalence of overall DS use and specific types of DSs were estimated. The number of DSs reported and the frequency, duration, and motivation(s) for use were assessed. Logistic regression models were constructed to examine the association between DS use and selected characteristics.

Seventy percent of older adults reported using ≥1 DS in the past 30 d; 54% of users took 1 or 2 products, and 29% reported taking ≥4 products. The most frequently reported products were multivitamin or mineral (MVM) (39%), vitamin D only (26%), and omega-3 fatty acids (22%). Women used DSs almost twice as often as men. Those not reporting prescription medications were less likely to take a DS than those reporting ≥3 prescription medications. The most frequently reported motivation for DS use was to improve overall health (41%).

The authors concluded that the use of DSs among older adults continues to be high in the United States, with 29% of users regularly taking ≥4 DSs, and there is a high concurrent usage of them with prescription medications.

I find these data impressive – but not in a positive sense, I hasten to add.

The level of DS use in the US is staggering. Considering that 90% (my estimate) of the supplements are completely useless, the amount of money that is being wasted is huge. Even more concerning is the frequency of drug interactions that are being provoked by DS-intake.

And what’s the solution?

Obviously, it is better information for consumers (which is easier said than done – but I am trying my best!).

Insomnia is a ‘gold standard’ indication for alternative therapies of all types. In fact, it is difficult to find a single of these treatments that are not being touted for this indication. Consequently, it has become a nice little earner for alternative therapists (hence ‘gold standard’).

But how good is the evidence suggesting that any alternative therapy is effective for insomnia?

Whenever I have discussed this issue on my blog, the conclusion was that the evidence is less than convincing or even negative. Similarly, whenever I conducted proper systematic reviews in this area, the evidence turned out to be weak or negative. Here are four of the conclusions we drew at the time:

“But this ERNST fellow cannot be trusted, he is not objective!”, I hear some of my detractors shout.

But is he really?

Would an independent, high-level panel of experts arrive at more positive conclusions?

Let’s find out!

This European guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of insomnia recently provided recommendations for the management of adult patients with insomnia. The guideline is based on a systematic review of relevant meta-analyses published till June 2016. The GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) system was used to grade the evidence and guide recommendations.

The findings and recommendations are as follows:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia is recommended as the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia in adults of any age (strong recommendation, high-quality evidence).
  • A pharmacological intervention can be offered if cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia is not sufficiently effective or not available. Benzodiazepines, benzodiazepine receptor agonists and some antidepressants are effective in the short-term treatment of insomnia (≤4 weeks; weak recommendation, moderate-quality evidence). Antihistamines, antipsychotics, melatonin and phytotherapeutics are not recommended for insomnia treatment (strong to weak recommendations, low- to very-low-quality evidence).
  • Light therapy and exercise need to be further evaluated to judge their usefulness in the treatment of insomnia (weak recommendation, low-quality evidence).
  • Complementary and alternative treatments (e.g. homeopathy, acupuncture) are not recommended for insomnia treatment (weak recommendation, very-low-quality evidence).

I think, I can rest my case.

In my previous post, I reported that the NHS has included homeopathy and herbal medicine on the list of medications that might no longer get reimbursed. The news was reported by most newspapers in the UK. All of the papers correctly quote NHS England giving their reasons for black-listing homeopathy and herbal remedies. Some papers also quote critics of homeopathy providing short ‘sound bites’ and opinions. None of the articles bother to explain in any detail why homeopathy is so ridiculously implausible or how strong the evidence against it has become. In this post, I intend to analyse some of this press coverage by copying those excerpts from the newspaper articles which I find odd or misleading and by adding short comments by myself.

THE DAILY MAIL claimed that homeopathic remedies are treatments using heavily diluted forms of plants, herbs and minerals. This is factually incorrect; think of remedies like X-ray! The Mail also quoted Don Redding, director of policy at National Voices, stating: ‘Whilst some treatments are available to purchase over the counter, that does not mean that everyone can afford them. There will be distinct categories of people who rely on NHS funding for prescriptions of remedies that are otherwise available over the counter. Stopping such prescriptions would break with the principle of an NHS “free at the point of use” and would create a system where access to treatments is based on a person’s ability to pay.’  This argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE INDEPENDENT cited Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, who said: “If patients are in a position that they can afford to buy over the counter medicines and products, then we would encourage them to do so rather than request a prescription – but imposing blanket policies on GPs, that don’t take into account demographic differences across the country, or that don’t allow for flexibility for a patient’s individual circumstances, risks alienating the most vulnerable in society.” Again, this argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH also reported the quote from Don Redding, Director of Policy at National Voices which I cited above.

THE DAILY MIRROR quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society claiming that such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. RPS England Board Chair Sandra Gidley said: “A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. “Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected.” THE MIRROR also reported what had to say and added that the NHS constitution states that: “Access to NHS services is based on clinical need, not an individual’s ability to pay; NHS services are free of charge, except in limited circumstances sanctioned by parliament.”

THE NEWS & STAR repeated the above quote from The Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

THE GUERNSEY PRESS repeated what RPS England board chair Sandra Gidley said: “We would encourage people with minor health problems to self-care with the support of a pharmacist and to buy medicines where appropriate and affordable to the individual. However, expecting everyone to pay for medicines for common conditions will further increase health inequalities and worsen the health of patients who cannot afford them. A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected. They should not be denied treatment because of an inability to pay.”

THE TIMES also quoted the RPS and Don Redding misleadingly (see above and below) and concluded their article by citing Cristal Summer, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association saying: Patients will be prescribed more expensive conventional drugs in place of homeopathy, which defeats the object of the exercise. The NHS also claims it wants to reduce the amount of prescription drugs patients take, then stops offering complementary therapies which can help achieve this. This clearly ignores the fact that ‘the object of the exercise’ for any health service must be to provide effective treatments and avoid placebo therapies like homeopathy. 

THE SUN quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society saying such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. But it said banning NHS-funded homeopathy was long overdue. THE SUN continued by citing John O’Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance: “The NHS are absolutely right to look at removing homeopathy from their approved prescription list and it’s astonishing that it hasn’t happened sooner.”

METRO pointed out that actress Gwyneth Paltrow, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and world record sprinter Usain Bolt are all known to swear by homeopathic remedies.

Generally speaking, the newspaper coverage was not bad, in my view. The exception evidently is THE TIMES (see above). Several other articles also have a slight whiff of false balance, introducing seemingly rational counter-arguments where none exist. Even though the headlines invariably focus on homeopathy, some of the quotes used by the papers are clearly about other medicines black-listed. This seems particularly obvious with the quotes by the RPS. Many readers might thus be misled into thinking that there is opposition by reputable organisations to the ban on homeopathy. None of the articles that I read quoted a homeopath at the end saying something like  WE KNOW OF MANY PATIENTS WHOSE LIVES WERE SAVED BY HOMEOPATHY. JUST BECAUSE WE DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS DOES NOT MEAN IT DOES NOT WORK. A BAN WOULD PUT PUBLIC HEALTH AT RISK.

Only a few years ago, this type of conclusion to an article on homeopathy would have been inevitable! Could it be that UK journalists (with the exception of those at THE TIMES?) are slowly learning?


NHS England have published a list of medicines that they propose to stop funding. Items were considered for inclusion if they were:

  • Items of low clinical effectiveness, where there is a lack of robust evidence of clinical effectiveness or there are significant safety concerns;
  • Items which are clinically effective but where more cost-effective products are available, including products that have been subject to excessive price inflation; or
  • Items which are clinically effective but, due to the nature of the product, are deemed a low priority for NHS funding.

The list includes both herbal and homeopathic remedies!!!

The document states that the annual Spend on homeopathy amounts to £92,412. It refers to the report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee which found that the use of homeopathy was not evidence based and any benefits to patients was down to placebo effect. The group agreed with the findings of the committee for the lack of evidence and considered homeopathy suitable for inclusion in the proposed list.  They advise CCGs that prescribers in primary care should not initiate homeopathic items for any new patient. They also advise CCGs to support prescribers in deprescribing homeopathic items in all patients and, where appropriate, ensure the availability of relevant services to facilitate this change.

A comment published by PULSETODAY stated: NHS England is planning to stop the prescribing of homeopathy as part of new guidance for CCGs on medicines that can be considered to be of low priority for funding. Homeopathy is a new item on the list of possible low-value medicines that GPs will be banned from prescribing. Originally NHS England said that it would review just 10 items, but it has added eight new treatments, including homeopathy and herbal treatments… The original consultation document failed to include homeopathy in its treatments that should be banned. However, following a consultation, a paper presented at today’s NHS England board meeting said: ‘NHS England’s view is that, at best, homeopathy is a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds which could better be devoted to treatments that work. ‘Data on the residual use and cost of homeopathy on the NHS are hard to come by. A recent Freedom of Information request by a third party suggested that at least £578,000 has been spent on prescribed homeopathy over the past five years, with the total cost being higher than that when the cost of consultations was factored in.’ Talking at the NHS England Board meeting today NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh said: ’I think this (homeopathy) has been an issue which has concerned scientific professionals for a long period of time. We can no longer shy away from addressing this particular issue. If we want our NHS to be evidence based and outcomes focused, then we must expect to have difficult conversations over difficult issues.’

This almost sounds as though Sir Bruce has been following the discussions on this blog. I have felt for a long time that the reimbursement of homeopathy by the NHS made a mockery of evidence-based medicine. It is time to end the mockery and use the money for something useful!

But before we start celebrating a victory of rationality, we should consider what happens next. There will be a consultation, and I would not be surprised to hear that the author of multiple ‘spider memos’ is already at it again. So, maybe we should hold our breath and wait.

Isn’t it wonderful when your long-held views are confirmed by someone with influence?

This, of course, is a rhetorical question – I can tell you: it is wonderful!

Matthew Stanbrook, MD PhD recently published an editorial in CMAJ which I find delightful; let me present you a few quotes from it:

The multibillion-dollar market for “natural” health products has flourished under lax government regulations. These regulations have enabled manufacturers to exploit the public’s difficulty in distinguishing nonprescription drugs, with scientifically proven therapeutic benefits, from herbal or homeopathic preparations and supplements that often make similar health claims with little or no evidence and are frequently grounded in unscientific belief systems about health and disease…

In pharmacies, supermarkets and convenience stores, natural health products are displayed side by side with nonprescription drugs. Both tout their approval by Health Canada as an implicit endorsement of efficacy and safety on package labels that make similar health claims. However, although nonprescription drugs and their therapeutic claims require scientific evidence that is carefully scrutinized by Health Canada, natural health products have a separate regulatory system that typically imposes such minimal requirements that it is effectively a rubber stamp. Unlike nonprescription drugs, if a problem arises with a natural health product, Health Canada has little or no authority to compel any changes to its manufacture, labelling or sale.

…Risk is often difficult to perceive accurately without direct evidence. For example, under the proposed framework, Health Canada would continue to classify most homeopathic preparations as low-risk products and, thus, exempt from scientific review. Recently, a homeopathic product sold in the United States that claimed to relieve teething pain in infants and supposedly contained a very dilute extract from the belladonna plant was associated with several deaths of infants who manifested classic signs of anticholinergic poisoning…

…If consumers are unable to separate products with no scientific proof behind them from products supported by evidence, then we need to separate them in stores. Natural health products should be pulled from the shelves where they are mixed with nonprescription drug products and confined to their own separate section, away from any signage implying a therapeutic use.

The double standard perpetuated by both regulators and retailers that enables the deception of unsuspecting Canadians must end. Alternative medicines with claims based on alternative facts do not deserve an alternative, easy regulatory road to market — at the very least, they need to be moved to an alternative shelf.


This, of course, is Canada. But elsewhere progress is also being made.The Australian reported about plans in Australia whereby pharmacies would be banned from selling useless and possibly dangerous homoeopathic remedies. The Australian last year ­revealed a review of pharmacy regulation, headed by Stephen King from the Productivity ­Commission, identified a potential conflict of interest in pharmacists selling vitamins, for example, that may not have a significant ­evidence base, alongside more stringently regulated and government-subsidised medicines. In its interim report, the review panel was “concerned that the sale of complementary medicines alongside other medicines may mislead consumers”. It therefore concludes that “complementary medicines should be held in a separate area within community pharmacies, where customers can easily access a pharmacist for appropriate advice.”

“To avoid potential harm, or the confusion between the efficacies of different types of medicines, pharmacists need to be easily ­accessible to give needed advice when consumers choose a complementary or pharmacy-only medicine,” the review panel said. It was scathing of homo­eopathy and the perception of legitimacy given to those so-called remedies sold in pharmacies. “The only defence put to the panel regarding homoeopathy was that it was harmless and able to be used as a placebo in certain circumstances,” the review panel noted. “The panel does not believe that this argument is sufficient to justify the continued sale of these products in pharmacies …”

AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACY (AJP) noted that the interim report of the Review of Pharmacy Remuneration and Regulation states that “there are unacceptable risks where community pharmacies are allowed to sell homeopathic products”.

In 2015 Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) said it did not support the sale of homeopathy in pharmacy. “Our position is that pharmacists must use their professional judgement to prevent the supply of products with evidence of no effect,” PSA president Joe Demarte said at the time. Ian Carr, of Saxby’s Pharmacy in Taree, NSW, and Friends of Science in Medicine member, told the AJP that “in terms of homeopathic products being recommended not to be sold by PBS-approved pharmacies, I one hundred per cent heartily agree with that finding. “I love saying that I believe homeopathy works. But it has never been shown to work better than placebo. There are many things that will work as well as placebo, but it’s not ethical to be selling them as a cure or treatment for something. I would have a bit more time for it if there was a plausible theory behind it, but its basis is entirely implausible – it pushes all the buttons for being a pseudoscience, so I agree it has no place in Australian pharmacy. However, I am at a bit of a loss to understand why they haven’t carried some of that logic over into the comments on complementary medicines generally.”

Mr Carr also told the AJP that “If one conceives of complementary medicines as being vitamins and minerals, that’s one thing. But the marketing of those items has become so diffuse and so wide that on most of these CM shelves we have traditional medicines, we’ve got herbal medicines, we’ve got items that are basically just marketing formulas for certain conditions. The evidence behind most of these things is very very slim, and we still have the possibility of health fraudsters just marching in and taking advantage of the lack of regulation in the industry.”

So, Canada and Australia are making progress in protecting consumers from bogus healthcare products and from pharmacists selling them.


When, I ask myself, are the UK, the US and other countries following suit?


Many garlic supplements are heavily marketed as a treatment of infections.

But are they really effective?

To answer this question, we clearly need clinical trials.

The aim of this RCT was to examine the impact of garlic tablets on nosocomial infections in hospitalized patients in intensive care units. It was carried out on 94 patients, admitted to the intensive care units in Kashani and Al-Zahra hospitals. Patients were randomised into case and control groups. The case group administered one 400 mg garlic tablet (Garlic tablets 400 mg, Gol Darou Company) daily for 6 days and the control group received placebo. During the study, inflammatory blood factors and infection occurrence in the two groups were compared. During the study period, 78 intravenous catheter tips were sent to laboratory for culture of which 37 cases were in the intervention group and 41 in the control group. Culture results of Catheter tips was positive in 5 cases all of which were in the control group. Frequency distribution of catheter tip culture was significantly higher in the control group than that of the intervention group. The authors concluded that garlic supplementation has shown to be effective in patients admitted to ICU, who are highly susceptible to nosocomial infection, and it can be used for the prevention of septicemia and urinary tract infections. However, further research with larger sample size is needed.

The trouble is not just that this trial was less than rigorous, but that there are so very few similar investigations to confirm or refute the anti-infectious activities of garlic.

In this study, healthy human participants (n = 120), between 21 and 50 y of age, were recruited for a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled parallel-intervention study to consume 2.56 g aged garlic extract (AGE)/d or placebo supplements for 90 d during the cold and flu season. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were isolated before and after consumption, and γδ-T and NK cell function was assessed by flow cytometry. The effect on cold and flu symptoms was determined by using daily diary records of self-reported illnesses. After 45 d of AGE consumption, γδ-T and NK cells proliferated better and were more activated than cells from the placebo group. After 90 d, although the number of illnesses was not significantly different, the AGE group showed reduced cold and flu severity, with a reduction in the number of symptoms, the number of days participants functioned suboptimally, and the number of work/school days missed. The authors concluded that AGE supplementation may enhance immune cell function and may be partly responsible for the reduced severity of colds and flu reported. The results also suggest that the immune system functions well with AGE supplementation, perhaps with less accompanying inflammation.

There is plenty of in vitro evidence to suggest that garlic and its compounds have anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal effects. Yet, for a range of reasons, this may not translate into clinical effects. To find out, we need clinical trials. So far, such investigations were almost entirely missing.

The two recent studies above are, I think, a good start. They are far from perfect but their findings are nevertheless mildly encouraging. For once, I do agree with the standard conclusion in alternative medicine:

More and better clinical trials are justified.

The ‘Daily Mail’ is not a paper famed for its objective reporting. In politics, this can influence elections; in medicine, it can endanger public health.

A recent article is a case in point, I think.


Traditional Chinese medicines could help prevent heart disease and the progression of pre-diabetes, according to research. Some herbal treatments proved as effective in lowering blood pressure as Western drugs and improved heart health by lowering cholesterol, scientists found. Certain alternative medicines could lower blood sugar and insulin levels, too.

Chinese medicines could be used alongside conventional treatments, say researchers from Shandong University Qilu Hospital in China. Or they can be beneficial as an alternative for patients intolerant of Western drugs, they said in their review of medical studies over a ten-year period. Senior review author from the university’s department of traditional Chinese medicine said: ‘The pharmacological effects and the underlying mechanisms of some active ingredients of traditional Chinese medications have been elucidated. Thus, some medications might be used as a complementary and alternative approach for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

It’s potentially good news for people living with diabetes, which is now a global epidemic and has proved a tricky condition to manage for many people. High blood pressure is very common too, affecting more than one in four adults in the UK,  although many won’t show symptoms and realise it. If untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems including heart disease, the number one killer globally.

The Chinese have used herbs for treating diseases for thousands of years and have become increasingly popular in Europe and North America, mainly as complement to Western medicine. But the researchers also warn that much of the research conducted have limitations and so their long-term effects are not proven.

Key findings  

Herbs for high blood pressure

The blood pressure-lowering effect of herb zhongfujiangya was found to be similar to that of oral anti-hypertension medication benazeprilm, which goes by the brand name Lotensin. Similarly, patients treated for eight weeks with herbal tiankuijiangya had a lower reading than those given a placebo. Herbal Jiangya tablets were found to ‘significantly lower’ systolic blood pressure, that is the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle compared to a fake treatment. The herb Jiangyabao also had a significant effect compared to a placebo, but just at night. But overall, compared to the drug Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, it worked just as well. Qiqilian capsules also proved more effective compared to a placebo.

Herbs for diabetes

The team report some Chinese medicines medications – such as xiaoke, tangminling, jinlida, and jianyutangkang – have a ‘potent’ effect on lowering blood sugar levels and b-cell function, which controls the release of insulin. Some remedies – such as tangzhiping and tianqi – might prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes, they note.

Herbs for cholesterol 

The researchers looked at research on dyslipidemia, the term for unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels. They found that jiangzhitongluo, salviamiltiorrhiza and pueraria lobata, and zhibitai capsule all have a ‘potent lipid-lowing effect’.

Herbs for heart disease

Some traditional Chinese medicines such as qiliqiangxin, nuanxin, shencaotongmai, and yangxinkang, might be effective in improving function in patients with chronic heart failure, they wrote.

Limitations with trials

But Western scientists often reject Chinese medicine for specific reasons, warned Dr Zhao’s team. Chinese medicines are frowned upon because they do not go through the same exhaustive approval process as trials conducted domestically, they pointed out. Plus, one treatment can be made of many different ingredients with various chemical compounds, making it hard to pinpoint how their benefits work. ‘One should bear in mind that traditional Chinese medicine medications are usually prescribed as complex formulae, which are often further manipulated by the practitioner on a personalized basis,’ said Dr Zhao.


Apart from the fact that this article is badly written, it is also misleading to the point of being outright dangerous. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that Chinese research is everything but reliable; there are practically no Chinese TCM-trials that report negative results. Furthermore, the safety of Chinese herbal preparations is as good as unknown and they are often contaminated with toxic substances as well as adulterated with synthetic drugs. Most of these preparations are also unavailable outside China. Moreover, Chinese herbal treatments are usually individualised (mixtures are tailor-made for each individual patient), and there is no good evidence that this approach is effective. Crucially, the trial evidence is often of such poor quality that it would be a dangerous mistake to trust these findings.

None of these important caveats, it seems, are important enough to get a mention in the Daily Mail.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a sensational story!

Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if people took the Mail article seriously (is there anyone out there who does take the Mail seriously?). In a best case scenario, they would take Chinese herbs in addition to their prescribed medication. This might case plenty of unwanted side-effects and herb-drug interactions. In addition, people would lose a lot of their hard-earned cash. In a worst case scenario, they would abandon their prescribed medication for dubious Chinese herbal mixtures. This could cause thousands of premature deaths.

With just a little research, I managed to find the original article on which the Mail’s report was based. Here is its abstract:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has more than 2,000 years of history and has gained widespread clinical applications. However, the explicit role of TCM in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease remains unclear due to a lack of sound scientific evidence. Currently available randomized controlled trials on TCM are flawed, with small sample sizes and diverse outcomes, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions about the actual benefits and harms of TCM. Here, we systematically assessed the efficacy and safety of TCM for cardiovascular disease, as well as the pharmacological effects of active TCM ingredients on the cardiovascular system and potential mechanisms. Results indicate that TCM might be used as a complementary and alternative approach to the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, further rigorously designed randomized controlled trials are warranted to assess the effect of TCM on long-term hard endpoints in patients with cardiovascular disease.

In my view, the authors of this review are grossly over-optimistic in their conclusions (but nowhere near as bad as the Mail journalist). If the trials are of poor quality, as the review-authors admit, no firm conclusions should be permissible about the usefulness of the therapies in question.

As the Mail article is obviously based on a press release (several other papers worldwide reported about the review as well), it seems interesting to note what the editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (the journal that published the review) recently had to say about the responsibility of journalists and researchers:


…I would like to suggest that journalists and researchers must share equally in shouldering the burden of responsibility to improve appropriate communication about basic and clinical research.

First, there is an obligation on the part of the researchers not to inflate the importance of their findings. This has been widely recognized as damaging, especially if bias is introduced in the paper…

Second, researchers should take some responsibility for the creation of the press release about their research, which is written by the media or press relations department at their hospital or society. Press releases are often how members of the media get introduced to a particular study, and these releases can often introduce errors or exaggerations. In fact, British researchers evaluated 462 press releases on biomedical and health-related science issued by 20 leading U.K. universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer-reviewed research papers and the news stories that followed (n = 668). They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained further exaggeration, compared with rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in the news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Researchers should not be excused from being part of the press release process, as the author(s) should at least review the release before it gets disseminated to the media. I would even encourage researchers to engage in the process at the writing stage and to not allow their hospital’s or society’s public relations department to extrapolate their study’s results. Ultimately, the authors and the journals in which the studies are published will be held accountable for the information that trickles into the headlines, not the public relations departments, so we must make sure that the information is accurate and representative of the study’s actual findings.


Sound advice indeed.

Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!

The title of the article actually was ‘SIX REASONS TO TRY A WEATGRASS COLONIC’. I will only repeat parts of the introduction, but please do take the time to read the full text, particularly if you feel sad or depressed – it is hilarious!


If you’ve ever had a colonoscopy, then you may be familiar with colonics. Colon cleansing is normally used to prepare for medical procedures. However, some alternative medicine practitioners might offer colon cleansing for other reasons, such as detoxification. During a colon cleanse, large amounts of water are flushed through the colon, along with other ingredients, such as herbs, teas, juice or coffee. This takes place with a tube that’s inserted into the rectum. In some cases, and depending on the colonic, smaller amounts of water along with other substances are left in the colon for about 30 minutes before being removed.

Wheatgrass is a humble weed that has a wide variety of health benefits for the body due to high concentrations of chlorophyll, active enzymes, vitamins and other nutrients. According to Israeli research on wheatgrass, lab studies suggest that it may have anticancer potential. In animal experiments, wheatgrass demonstrated possible benefits in cancer prevention and as an aid to cancer treatment — particularly chemotherapy. In clinical trials wheatgrass was found to improve chemotherapy and decrease chemotherapy-related side effects.

Wheatgrass has also been found to support the immune system and help repair damaged cells. It’s also shown promise for conditions such as:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Hematological diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Oxidative stress (the body’s ability to repair damage)

Wheatgrass colonics cleanse and nourish the colon, according to digestive wellness center Vitallife. And effects are felt almost immediately. This is attributed to wheatgrass’s dense nutrient profile, which contains over 90 minerals, and the high absorption rate of the colon. Both factors allow for easy and fast entry into the bloodstream.


The article motivated me to come up with my SIX REASONS TO AVOID A WHEATGRASS COLONIC. Here they are:

  1. The treatment is not effective.
  2. It is uncomfortable.
  3. It is not safe.
  4. It costs money.
  5. It has no plausibility.
  6. There are better therapeutic options for whatever condition you want to treat.

I know, some of my reasons are not entirely scientific or fully evidence-based. But, if you read the article which inspired me to write this post, you will discover, I am sure, that my version is a whole dimension better than the original.

The BMJ has always been my favourite Medical journal. (Need any proof for this statement? A quick Medline search tells me that I have over 60 publications in the BMJ.) But occasionally, the BMJ also disappoints me a great deal.

One of the most significant disappointments was recently published under the heading of STATE OF THE ART REVIEW. A review that is ‘state of the art’ must fulfil certain criteria; foremost it should be informative, unbiased and correct. The paper I am discussing here has, I think, neither of these qualities. It is entitled ‘Management of chronic pain using complementary and integrative medicine’, and here is its abstract:

Complementary and integrative medicine (CIM) encompasses both Western-style medicine and complementary health approaches as a new combined approach to treat a variety of clinical conditions. Chronic pain is the leading indication for use of CIM, and about 33% of adults and 12% of children in the US have used it in this context. Although advances have been made in treatments for chronic pain, it remains inadequately controlled for many people. Adverse effects and complications of analgesic drugs, such as addiction, kidney failure, and gastrointestinal bleeding, also limit their use. CIM offers a multimodality treatment approach that can tackle the multidimensional nature of pain with fewer or no serious adverse effects. This review focuses on the use of CIM in three conditions with a high incidence of chronic pain: back pain, neck pain, and rheumatoid arthritis. It summarizes research on the mechanisms of action and clinical studies on the efficacy of commonly used CIM modalities such as acupuncture, mind-body system, dietary interventions and fasting, and herbal medicine and nutrients.

The full text of this article is such that I could take issue with almost every second statement in it. Obviously, this would be too long and too boring for this blog. So, to keep it crisp and entertaining, let me copy the (tongue in cheek) ‘letter to the editor’ some of us published in the BMJ as a response to the review:

“Alternative facts are fashionable in politics these days, so why not also in healthcare? The article by Chen and Michalsen on provides a handy set of five instructions for smuggling alternative facts into medicine.

1. Create your own terminology: the term ‘complementary and integrated medicine’ (CIM) is nonsensical. Integrated medicine (a hotly disputed field) already covers complementary and conventional medicine.

2. Pretend to be objective: Chen and Michalsen elaborate on the systematic searches they conducted. But they omit hundreds of sources which do not support their message, which cherry-picks only evidence for the efficacy of the treatments they promote.

3. Avoid negativity: they bypass any material that might challenge what they include. For instance, when discussing therapeutic risks, they omit the disturbing lack of post-marketing surveillance: the reason we lack information on adverse events. They even omit to mention the many fatalities caused by their ‘CIM’.

4. Create an impression of thoroughness: Chen and Michalsen cite a total of 225 references. This apparent scholarly attention to detail masks their misuse of many of they list. Reference 82, for example, is employed to back up the claim that “satisfaction was lowest among complementary medicine users with rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, or connective tissue diseases”. In fact, it shows nothing of the sort.

5. Back up your message with broad generalisations: Chen and Michalsen conclude that “Taken together, CIM has an increasing role in the management of chronic pain, but high quality research is needed”. The implication is that all the CIMs mentioned in their figure 1 are candidates for pain control – even discredited treatments such as homeopathy.

In our view, these authors render us a service: they demonstrate to the novice how alternative facts may be used in medicine.”

James May, Edzard Ernst, Nick Ross, on behalf of HealthWatch UK


I am sure you have your own comments and opinions, and I encourage you to post them here or (better) submit them to the BMJ or (best) both.

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