MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

misleading consumers

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While the previous post was about seeing a traditional herbalist (who prescribe their own herbal mixtures, tailor-made for each individual patient), this post provides essential information for those consumers who are tempted to take a commercially available herbal remedy available in pharmacies, health food shops, over the Internet etc. These remedies are usually bought by consumers and then be self-administered, or (less frequently) they might be prescribed/recommended/sold by a clinician such as a doctor, naturopath, chiropractor etc. Typically, they contain just one (or relatively few) herbal extracts and are used under similar assumptions as conventional medicines: one (hopefully well-tested) remedy is employed for treating a defined condition, diagnosed according to validated and generally accepted criteria (for instance, St John’s Wort for depression or Devil’s claw for back pain). This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘rational phytotherapy’ – it is certainly more rational than the traditional herbalism referred to in my previous post. The manufacture, promotion and sale of commercial herbal remedies (in many countries marketed as ‘dietary supplements’) has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Here are a few essentials you ought to know before you decide to take such an herbal remedy:

  1. Many people claim that herbal medicine is effective because many of our modern drugs are based on plants. The latter part of this claim is true, of course, but this does not necessarily mean that herbal remedies are effective. The drugs derived from plants contain one single, well-defined, extensively researched molecule (by definition, this makes them conventional drugs and not herbal remedies), while herbal remedies are based on entire (parts of) plants; thus they contain many pharmacologically active molecules. This often means that it is difficult or impossible to tell what dose of which ingredient is being administered and what pharmacological actions can be expected.
  2. Even though national regulations differ greatly, herbal remedies generally do not have to be supported by evidence for efficacy in order to be legally available. This means that a given remedy might or might not have been tested in clinical trials to determine whether it works for the condition advertised. In fact, only very few (less than 30, I estimate) herbal remedies are supported by sound evidence for efficacy; thousands do not meet this criterion.
  3. The extremely wide-spread notion that herbal remedies are by definition natural and therefore safe is nothing but a promotional myth. Plants contain many chemicals which can have pharmacological activity. This means they might be therapeutic, but it also means that they might be toxic (traditionally the most powerful poisons originated from the plant kingdom). If anyone uses the ‘natural = safe fallacy’ remind him/her of hemlock, poison ivy etc.
  4. In addition to potential toxicity of an herbal ingredient, there are other important safety issues to be considered. Most importantly, herbal remedies can interact with prescribed medicines. For instance, St John’s Wort (one of the best-studied herbal remedies in this respect) powerfully interacts with about 50% of all prescription drugs – in fact, it lowers their level in the blood which means that a patient on anti-coagulants would lose her anti-coagulant protection and might suffer from a (potentially fatal) blood clot.
  5. In many countries, including the US, the regulation of herbal remedies is so lax, that there is no guarantee that an herbal remedy which is being legally sold is safe. The regulators are only allowed to intervene once there are reports of adverse effects. This means that the burden of proof of safety is effectively reversed which obviously exposes consumers to incalculable risks.
  6. The quality of the herbal product is equally poorly regulated in most countries. A plethora of investigations in the US, for instance, has shown that the dose of the herbal ingredient printed on the label of a commercial product can range virtually from 0 – 100%. Similarly there is little safe-guard that the ingredients listed on the label correspond to the ones in the preparation. This means that it is worth purchasing not just well-researched herbal remedies but also those marketed by high quality manufacturers via respectable outlets.
  7. Any regulation of herbal remedies, even the European one that is often praised as protecting consumers adequately, is null and void once consumers go on the Internet and purchase their herbal remedies from one of the many dubious sources found there in truly alarming profusion. Bogus claims, inferior quality and even outright dangerous products abound, and it is often impossible to tell the acceptable from the fraudulent product.

Here I am not writing about herbal medicine in general – parts of which are supported by some encouraging evidence (I will therefore post more than one ‘seven things to remember…’ article on this subject) – here I am writing about the risks and benefits of consulting a traditional herbal practitioner. Herbalists come in numerous guises depending what tradition they belong to: Chinese herbalist, traditional European herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Kampo practitioner etc. If you consult such a therapist, you should be aware of the following issues.

  1. Worldwide, the treatment by traditional herbal practitioners is by far the most common form of herbal medicine; it is more common than to use specific, well-tested herbs to treat specific conventionally diagnosed conditions (an approach that might best be called ‘rational phytotherapy’).
  2. Herbalists often use their very own diagnostic methods (think, for instance, of ‘tongue and pulse diagnoses’ used by Chinese herbalists) and reject (or are untrained to use) conventional diagnostic methods. The traditional diagnostic techniques of herbalists have either not been validated at all or they have been tested and found to be not valid.
  3. Herbalists usually do not recognise conventional disease categories. Instead they arrive at a diagnosis according to their specific philosophy which has no grounding in reality (for instance, energy imbalance in traditional Chinese herbalism).
  4. Herbalists individualise their treatments, meaning that 10 patients suffering from depression, for instance, might receive 10 different, tailor-made prescriptions according to their individual characteristics (and none of the 10 patients might receive St John’s Wort, the only herbal remedy that actually is proven to work for depression).
  5. Typically, such prescriptions contain not one herbal ingredient, but are mixtures of many – up to 10 or 20 – herbs or herbal extracts.
  6. Even though the efficacy of the individualised herbal approach can, of course, be tested in rigorous trials, and even though about a dozen such studies are available today, there is currently no good evidence to show that it is effective.
  7. The risk of harm through these individualised herbal mixtures can be considerable: the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood that one of them has toxic effects or that one interacts with a prescription medicine. Essentially, this means that there is no good evidence that individualised herbal treatments as used by so many herbal practitioners across the globe generates more good than harm.

Some of the recent comments on this blog have been rather emotional, a few even irrational, and several were, I am afraid, outright insulting (I usually omit to post the worst excesses). Moreover, I could not avoid the impression that some commentators have little understanding of what the aim of this blog really is. I tried to point this out in the very first paragraph of my very first post:

Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.

My foremost aim with his blog is to inform consumers through critical analysis and, in this way, I hope to prevent harm from patients in the realm of alternative medicine. What follows, are a few simple yet important points about this blog which I try to spell out here as clearly as I can:

  • I am not normally commenting on issues related to conventional medicine – not because I feel there is nothing to criticise in mainstream medicine, but because my expertise has long been in alternative medicine. So commentators might as well forget about arguments like “more people die because of drugs than alternative treatments”; they are firstly fallacious and secondly not relevant to this blog.
  • I have researched alternative medicine for many years (~ 40 clinical studies, > 300 systematic reviews etc.) and my readers can be confident that I know what I am talking about. Thus comments like ‘he does not know anything about the subject’ are usually not well placed and just show the ignorance of those who post them.
  • I am not in the pocket of anyone. I do not receive payments for doing this blog, nor did I, as an academic, receive any financial or other inducements for researching alternative medicine (on the contrary, I have often been given to understand that my life could be made much easier, if I adopted a more promotional stance towards my alternative medicine). I also do not belong to any organisation that is financed by BIG PHARMA or similar power houses. So my critics might as well abandon their conspiracy theories and  focus on a more promising avenue of criticism.
  • My allegiance is not with any interest group in (or outside) the field of alternative medicine. For instance, I do not see it as my job to help chiropractors, homeopaths etc. getting their act together. My task here is to point out the deficits in chiropractic (or any other area of alternative medicine) so that consumers are better protected. (I should think, however, that this also creates pressure on professions to become more evidence-based – but I see this as a mere welcome side-effect.)
  • If some commentators seem to find my arguments alarmist or see it as venomous scare-mongering, I suggest they re-examine their own position and learn to think a little more (self-) critically. I furthermore suggest that, instead of claiming such nonsense, they point out where they think I have gone wrong and provide evidence for their views.
  • Some people seem convinced that I have an axe to grind, that I have been personally injured by some alternative practitioner, or had some other unpleasant or traumatic experience. To those who think so, I have to say very clearly that none of this has ever happened. I recommend they inform themselves of the nature of critical analysis and its benefits.
  • This is a blog, not a scientific journal. I try to reach as many lay people as I can and therefore I tend to use simple language and sometimes aim to be entertaining. Those who feel that this renders my blog more journalistic than scientific are probably correct. If they want science, I recommend they look for my scientific articles in the medical literature; I can assure them that they will find plenty.
  • I very much invite an open and out-spoken debate. But ad hominem attacks are usually highly counterproductive – they only demonstrate that the author has no rational arguments left, or had none in the first place. Authors of insults also risks being banned from this blog.
  • Finally, I fear that some readers of my blog might sometimes get confused in the arguments and counter-arguments, and end up uncertain which side is right and which is wrong. To those who have this problem, I recommend a simple method for deciding where the truth is usually more likely to be found: ask yourself who might be merely defending his/her self-interest and who might be free of such conflicts of interest and thus more objective. For example, in my endless disputes with chiropractors, one could well ask: do the chiropractors have an interest in defending their livelihood, and what interest do I have in questioning whether chiropractors do generate more good than harm?

THIS POST IS DEDICATED TO HRH, THE PRINCE OF WALES WHO CELEBRATES HIS 66TH BIRTHDAY TODAY AND HAS SUPPORTED HOMEOPATHY ALL HIS LIFE

Like Charles, many people are fond of homeopathy; it is particularly popular in India, Germany, France and parts of South America. With all types of health care, it is important to make therapeutic decisions in the knowledge of the crucial facts. In order to aid evidence-based decision-making, I will summarise a few things you might want to consider before you try homeopathy – either by buying homeopathic remedies over the counter, or by consulting a homeopath.

  1. Homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann, a charismatic German doctor, about 200 years ago. At the time, our understanding of the laws of nature was woefully incomplete, and therefore Hahnemann’s ideas seemed far less implausible than they actually are. Moreover, the conventional treatments of this period were often more dangerous than the disease they were supposed to cure; consequently homeopathy was repeatedly shown to be better than ‘allopathy’ (a term coined by Hahnemann to insult conventional medicine). Thus Hahnemann’s treatments were an almost instant worldwide success. When, about 100 years later, more and more effective conventional therapies were discovered, homeopathy all but disappeared, only to be re-discovered in developed countries as the baby-boomers started their recent love-affair with alternative medicine.
  2. Many consumers confuse homeopathy with herbal medicine; yet the two are fundamentally different. Herbal medicines are plant extracts with potentially active ingredients. Homeopathic remedies may be based on plants (or any other material as well) but are typically so dilute that they contain absolutely nothing. The most frequently used dilution (homeopaths call them ‘potencies’) is a ‘C30′; a C30-potency has been diluted 30 times at a ratio of 1:100. This means that one drop of the staring material is dissolved in 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 drops of diluent – and that equates to one molecule of the original substance per all the molecules of many thousand universes.
  3. Homeopaths know all of this, of course, and they thus claim that their remedies do not work via pharmacological effects but via some ‘energy’ or ‘vital force’. They are convinced that the process of preparing the homeopathic dilutions (they shake the mixtures at each dilution step) transfers some ‘vital energy’ from one to the next dilution. They cite all sorts of fancy theories to explain how this ‘energy transfer’ might come about, however, none of them has ever been accepted by mainstream scientists.
  4. Homeopathic remedies are usually prescribed according to the ‘like cures like’ principle. For instance, if you suffer from runny eyes, a homeopath might prescribe a remedy made of onion, because onion make our eyes water. This and all other basic assumptions of homeopathy contradict the known laws of nature. In other words, we do not just fail to understand how homeopathy works, but we understand that it cannot work unless the known laws of nature are wrong.
  5. The clinical trials of homeopathy are broadly in agreement with these insights from basic science. Today, more than 200 such studies have been published; if we look at the totality of this evidence, we have to conclude that it fails to show that homeopathic remedies are anything other than placebos.
  6. This is, of course, in stark contrast to what many enthusiasts of homeopathy insist upon; they swear by homeopathy and claim that it has helped them (or their pet, aunt, child etc.) repeatedly. Nobody doubts their accounts; in fact, it is indisputable that many patients do get better after taking homeopathic remedies. The best evidence available today clearly shows, however, that this improvement is unrelated to the homeopathic remedy per se. It is the result of an empathetic, compassionate encounter with a homeopath, a placebo-response or other factors which experts often call ‘context effects’.
  7. The wide-spread notion that homeopathy is completely free of risks is not correct. The remedy itself might be harmless (except, of course, for the damage it creates to your finances, and the fact that irrational nonsense about ‘vital energy’ etc. undermines rationality in general) but this does not necessarily apply to the homeopath. Whenever homeopaths advise their patients, as they often do, to forgo effective conventional treatments for a serious condition, they endanger lives. This phenomenon is documented, for instance, in relation to the advice of many homeopaths against immunisations. Any treatment that has no proven benefit, while carrying a finite risk, cannot generate more good than harm.

The chiropractic profession have been reminded time and times again that their claim to be able to effectively treat paediatric conditions is bogus. Many experts have asked them to produce some compelling evidence or stop this dangerous nonsense. Yet most of them seem to remain in denial, famously documented by the British Chiropractic Association suing Simon Singh for libel after he disclosed that they happily promote bogus treatments.

Some chiropractors now say that things have changed and that chiropractors are finally getting their act together. If that is true, progress must be painfully slow – so slow, in fact, that it is hard to see it at all. There are still far too many chiropractors who carry on just as before. There are hundreds, if not thousands of articles promoting chiropractic for childhood conditions; a very basic Google search for ‘chiropractic for children’ returns more than 7 million hits many of which advertise this sort of approach. Take this website, for instance; it makes its bogus claims entirely unabashed:

Even as an infant your child may have spinal nerve stress, known as subluxations. Although subluxations may not be painful, they can pose serious threats to your child’s development. If your baby was in a difficult position in the womb, or experienced a traumatic birth they may have developed subluxations. A common condition attributed to subluxations in children is known as Blocked Atlantal Nerve Syndrome. This condition may be the primary cause of ear and upper respiratory infections, and chronic tonsillitis.

Even regular childhood activities such as tumbles taken while learning to walk and run, bike riding, and participation in sports can also cause stress on your child’s body. Emotional stress and trauma may also be a cause of subluxations. Unless they are corrected they can affect future nerve function and the development of your child’s nervous system. They can also cause problems as your child grows and develops into adulthood.

With regular chiropractic care your child may be at less risk for common childhood disease such as colds and fevers. Some children show a marked improvement in asthma symptoms with regular chiropractic care and nutritional counselling. While chiropractors do no treat disease or sickness, they can identify and remove subluxations which interfere with your child’s natural ability to heal. By removing this stress from your child’s spinal system their immune system may function more efficiently and your child may have a better defense to disease. Their overall health may improve as their natural healing power is released. Children who receive regular chiropractic care may also be able to handle emotional and physical stress better and this care may contribute to their natural development.

Your child is never too young to start chiropractic care. Well-child care starts are early as the first month of life. Doctors use a very gentle pressure to treat children (no more pressure than picking up a tomato in the grocery store) and their treatments are very soothing to your child. After their first visit it is recommended that they receive treatments every three months up to age three, and then every six to 12 month after that. You may also want to visit your chiropractor after major milestones in your child’s life such as learning to sit up, crawl, and walk. They should also be seen if they experience any falls or trauma, and if you notice any balance issues they may be experiencing. These may include head tilting and limping.

Pediatric chiropractic care has many benefits. Children as young as infants may see an improvement in their development and overall health with regular care. Doctors of chiropractic take a proactive approach to health by striving to return and maintain your body’s natural balance. If you are looking for an alternative or supplement to traditional medical care, look into chiropractic care for your entire family.

Just a few rotten apples!… the apologists would probably say. But this is clearly not true. I find it even hard to locate the non-rotten apples in this decomposing and disgusting mess. More importantly, if it were true that things were now changing, one would expect that the progressive sections of the chiropractic profession protest regularly, sharply and effectively to shame the many charlatans amongst their midst. Crucially, one would expect the chiropractic professional organisations  to oust their bogus members systematically and swiftly.

The sad truth, however, is that none of this is really happening – certainly not in the US or the UK. On the contrary, organisations like THE INTERNATIONAL PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATION, books entitled CHIROPRACTIC PEDIATRICS, and periodicals like the JOURNAL OF PEDIATRIC, MATERNAL AND FAMILY CHIROPRACTIC remain popular and respected within the chiropractic profession. A few lip-services here and there, yes. But truly effective action? No!

The tolerance of quackery, I would argue, must be one of the most important hallmarks of a quack profession.

In many countries, consumers seem to be fond of consulting chiropractors – mostly for back pain, but also for other conditions. I therefore think it is might be a good and productive idea to give anyone who is tempted to see a chiropractor some simple, easy to follow advice. Here we go:

  1. Ask your chiropractor what he/she thinks about the chiropractic concept of subluxation. This is the chiropractors’ term (real doctors use the word too but understand something entirely different by it) for an imagined problem with your spine. Once they have diagnosed you to suffer from subluxation, they will persuade you that it needs correcting which is done by spinal manipulation which they tend to call ‘adjustments’. There are several important issues here: firstly subluxations do not exist outside the fantasy world of chiropractic; secondly chiropractors who believe in subluxation would diagnose subluxation in about 100% of the population – also in individuals who are completely healthy. My advice is to return straight back home as soon as the chiropractor admits he believes in the mystical concept of subluxation.
  2. Ask your chiropractor what he/she thinks of ‘maintenance care’. This is the term many chiropractors use for indefinite treatments which do little more than transfer lots of cash from your account to that of your chiropractor. There is no good evidence to show that maintenance care does, as chiropractors claim, prevent healthy individuals from falling ill. So, unless you have the irresistible urge to burn money, don’t fall for this nonsense. You should ask your chiropractor how long and frequent your treatment will be, what it will cost, and then ask yourself whether it is worth it.
  3. Run a mile, if the chiropractor wants to manipulate your neck (which most will do regardless of whether you have neck-pain, some even without informed consent). Neck manipulation is associated with very serious complications; they are usually caused by an injury to an artery that supplies parts of your brain. This can cause a stroke and even death. Several hundred such cases have been documented in the medical literature – but the true figure is almost certainly much larger (there is still no system in place to monitor such events).
  4. Run even faster, if the chiropractor wants to treat your children for common paediatric conditions. Many chiropractors believe that their manipulations are effective for a wide range of health problems that kids frequently suffer from. However, there is not a jot of evidence that these claims are true.
  5. Be aware that about 50% of all patients having chiropractic treatments will suffer from side effects like pain and stiffness. These symptoms usually last for 2-3 days and can be severe enough to impede your quality of life. Ask yourself whether the risk is outweighed by the benefit of chiropractic.
  6. Remember that there is no good evidence that chiropractors can treat any condition effectively other than lower back pain (and even for that condition the evidence is far from strong). Many chiropractors claim to be able to treat a plethora of non-spinal conditions like asthma, ear infection, gastrointestinal complaints, autism etc. etc. There is no good evidence that these claims are correct.
  7. Distrust the advice given by many chiropractors regarding prescribed medications, vaccinations or surgery. Chiropractic has a long history of warning their patients against all sorts of conventional treatments. Depending on the clinical situation, following such advice can cause very serious harm.

I am minded to write similar posts for all major alternative therapies (this will not make me more popular with alternative therapists, but I don’t mind all that much) – provided, of course, that my readers find this sort of article useful. So, please do give me some feedback.

After yesterday’s post mentioning ‘biopuncture’, I am sure you are all dying to know what this mysterious treatment might be. A website promoting biopuncture tells us (almost) all we need to know:

Biopuncture is a therapy whereby specific locations are injected with biological products. The majority of the products are derived from plants. Most of these injections are given into the skin or into muscles. Products commonly used in Biopuncture are, for example, arnica, echinacea, nux vomica and chamomile. Arnica is used for muscle pain, nux vomica is injected for digestive problems, echinacea is used to increase the natural defense system of the body. Biopuncturists always inject cocktails of natural products. Lymphomyosot is used for lymphatic drainage, Traumeel for inflammations and sports injuries, Spascupreel for muscular cramps. Injections with antiflogistics, hyaluronic acid, blood platelets, blood, procaine, ozon, cortisone or vitamin B are not considered as Biopuncture…

How can such a small dose influence your body and stimulate healing? Scientists don’t have the final proof yet, but they postulate that these injections are working through the stimulation of the immune system (which is in fact your defense system). Let’s compare it with a vaccination. When you receive a tetanus vaccination, only small amounts of a particular product are necessary to stimulate the immune system against lockjaw. In other words, just a few injections can protect your body for years…

An important issue in Biopuncture is the detoxification of the body. It literally means “cleaning the body” from all the toxins that have accumulated: for example from the environment (air pollution, smoking), from bad nutrition, or from medication (e.g., antibiotics and steroids you’ve taken). These toxins can block your defense system. Some injections work specifically on the liver and others on the kidneys. Cleaning up the lymphatic system with Lymphomyosot is considered very important in Biopuncture. It is like taking the leaves out of the gutter. The down side of such an approach is that old symptoms (which have been suppressed earlier on) may come to the surface again. But that is sometimes part of the healing strategy of the body…

That sounds strange, to say the least. But remember: strange treatments might still work! The question is therefore: IS BIOPUNCTURE AN EFFECTIVE THERAPY? If you ask it to Dr Oz, the answer would be a resounding YES – but let’s not ask Oz, let’s try to find some reliable evidence instead. In my quest to locate such evidence, I came across claims like these.

Examples of some acute conditions we treat with biopuncture: 

  • Knee and ankle sprains
  • Muscle sprains- quadriceps, hamstring, adductors, rotator cuff
  • Whiplash 

Examples of some chronic conditions we treat with biopuncture: 

  • Headaches
  • Achilles tendinitis
  • Tennis elbow
  • Chronic arthritis of the knee, hip, shoulder
  • Back pain
  • Myofascial pains
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • TMJ syndrome

Somehow I had the feeling that this was more than a little too optimistic, and I decided to conduct a rudimentary Medline search. The results were sobering indeed: not a single clinical trial seems to be available that supports any of the claims that are being made for biopuncture.

So, what should we conclude? I don’t know about you, but to me it seems that biopuncture is quackery at its purest.

The question that I hear with unfailing regularity when talking about alternative medicine is WHY IS IT SO POPULAR? I always struggle to find a simple answer – mainly because there is no simple answer. The reasons for patients and consumers to use alternative medicine are complex and multiple. They range from dissatisfaction with conventional medicine to clinging to the last straw. However, one factor is very clearly always involved: the often bafflingly uncritical promotion of quackery by the daily papers – and that even includes those with a reputation for being respectable.

Yesterday’s article in THE TELEGRAPH is as good an example as any. In the following section, I quote excerpts from it and add my own comments in bold. 

It is perhaps easier to list what the naturopath Katrin Hempel doesn’t offer her clients than what she does. Bioresonance and live blood analysis, acupuncture, biopuncture, infusion therapy, oxyvenation…”

Katrin Hempel, B.H.Sc.,ND, Dipl.Ac. describes herself on her website as an energetic, enthusiastic and experienced natural therapist with a great passion and commitment to the health and well-being of her patients. She calls herself a ‘naturopathic doctor’. I am not sure what this actually is but I am fairly sure she has not studied medicine. I do not doubt her enthusiasm, but I do doubt that most of the methods listed above are anything else but pure quackery.

“Germany has a long tradition of natural medicine, so it’s more common to find conventional doctors who have also studied natural medicine and use these modalities. Here we are at least 20 years behind.” That is true only, if one regards the integration of quackery as progress.

“Every cell in the body puts out a certain electromagnetic frequency, that can be measured – a healthy stomach cell sounds different to a healthy brain cell – and the machine can put the right resonance back in, to trigger deep healing.”) This is pure pseudoscience; neither live blood analysis nor bioresonance are supported by good evidence (and don’t even ask about ‘biopuncture’).

The article goes on misleading the reader in the most scandalous way by promoting pure nonsense. To provide a flavour, I will merely cite a few quotes from the ‘naturopathic doctor':

  • “If your digestion isn’t working properly there is a malabsorption of nutrients”
  • “Bioresonance can pick up a condition before it manifests as a disease.”
  • “Bioresonance measures the electromagnetic output of every cell in the body. If there’s any discrepancy with the healthy frequency for that kind of cell that gives a diagnosis.”
  • “Whatever the problem, at root it will be an imbalance in the cells.”

At no point in this article is there an attempt to challenge or critically analyse this bonanza in quackery; THE TELEGRAPH promotion of dangerous nonsense ends with the cheerful footnote informing the reader that one hour with the ‘naturopathic doctor’ will cost from £100. THE TELEGRAPH does not even shy away to print an address for booking a consultation with the ‘naturopathic doctor’.

But is it really all quackery? Yes it is! The article promotes so many unproven methods that I find it hard to choose one for demonstrating how irresponsible it really is. Let’s take life blood analysis (LBA), for instance; here is what I published about LBA some time ago:

The principle of LBA is fairly simple: a drop of blood is taken from your fingertip, put on a glass plate and viewed via a microscope on a video screen. Despite the claims made for it, LBA is by no means new; using his lately developed microscope, Antony van Leeuwenhoek observed in 1686 that living blood cells changed shape during circulation. Ever since, doctors, scientists and others have studied blood samples in this and other ways.

What is new, however, is what today’s “holistic practitioners” claim to be able to do with LBA. Proponents believe that the method provides information “about the state of the immune system, possible vitamin deficiencies, amount of toxicity, pH and mineral imbalance, areas of concern and weaknesses, fungus and yeast”, as another website puts it.

Others dare to be much more concrete and claim that they can “spot cancer and other degenerative immune system diseases up to two years before they would otherwise be detectable”; or say they can diagnose “lack of oxygen in the blood, low trace minerals, lack of exercise, too much alcohol or yeast, weak kidneys, bladder or spleen”. All this would amount to a remarkable discovery if it were true. But it’s not.

No credible scientific studies have demonstrated the reliability of LBA for detecting any of the above conditions. In what was, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to assess the value of this method, a practitioner with several years of experience in LBA tested the samples of 110 patients. Twelve had cancer and the task was to identify their samples without knowing further details. The results could hardly have been more disconcerting – just three of the 12 with confirmed cancer were detected, and the authors concluded that the method “does not seem to reliably detect cancer. Clinical use of the method can therefore not be recommended.”

And, in case you do not trust me, here is a recent Advertising Standards Authority ruling on LBA:

London Natural Therapies is in breach of the UK Advertising Standards Code for making unproven claims on its website about Live Blood Analysis. The CAP Compliance team has contacted London Natural Therapies several times about removing claims implying that Live Blood Analysis could be beneficial for Gastro Intestinal Tract Disorders, Allergies and Hormonal Imbalances after the ASA previously ruled that Live Blood Analysis was not effective in detecting/diagnosing those conditions. Despite repeated requests to remove the problem claims, London Natural Therapies continues to feature them on its website, www.londonnaturaltherapies.co.uk. Because of London Natural Therapies continued non-compliance we took the decision to place its details on this section of the ASA website on 26 June 2012. These details shall remain in place until such time as London Natural Therapies has removed or appropriately amended the claims on its website to ensure compliance with the CAP Code.

This is but one of many examples of truly shoddy journalism published in a daily paper that most people would call ‘respectable’. If anyone cares to look at the less respectable end to the journalistic spectrum, the picture gets even more horrific. The points I am trying to make are simple and, I think, important:

  1. Journalists and editors have a responsibility which, in the realm of alternative medicine, they often disregard most scandalously.
  2. Such poorly researched, unbalanced and uncritical articles can cause very serious harm.
  3. The promotion of quackery may be good for selling copy, but it can also quickly ruin the reputation of a paper.

If you have diabetes, chances are that you need life-long treatment. Before effective anti-diabetic medications became available, diabetes amounted to a death sentence. Fortunately, these times are long gone.

…unless, of course, you decide to listen to the promises of alternative practitioners many of whom offer a cure for diabetes. Here is just one website of hundreds that does just that. The following is an abbreviated quote where I have changed nothing, not even the numerous spelling mistakes:

Modern medicine has no  permanent cure for diabetes but alternative medicines like yoga ,mudra,ayurveda is very useful to control and even cure diabetes.Ayurveda is an alternative medicine to cure diabetes.

Alternative medicine like ayurveda is a best to cure diabetes naturally.
A serious disorder of the glands,of pancreas to be exact,is diabetes,or madhumeha as described in ayurveda.It is one of the most insidious disorders of the metabolism and,if left undiagnosed or untreated,it may lead to rapid emaciation and ultimately death…
Ayurveda medicines to cure diabetes
In ayurveda the following medicines have been recommended for this disease
Shiljita ————————–240 mg
Nyagrodadhi churna ———3 gm
These should be given twice after meals with decoction of arni.
Vasantakusumakara rasa —120 mg
Shudha Shilajit ————–240 mg
Nag Bhasma —————–120 mg
Haldi ————————–500 mg
Amlaki Churna ————-500 mg
Twice daily with powder of rose-apple stones.Twice daily with honey.
Chadraprabha  Vati ——– 500 mg
Mudra the alternative treatment to cure diabetes naturally
Mudra is a non medical and no cost treatment to cure diabetes.You can perform mudras at any time or any position.It is an effective way of treatment you can get better result if you practice it regularly .

It goes without saying that none of these treatments would cure diabetes. A Cochrane review concluded that there is insufficient evidence at present to recommend the use of these interventions in routine clinical practice. It also goes without saying that not many patients would fall for the nonsense proclaimed on this or so many other websites. But even just one single patient dying because of some charlatan promising a cure for life-threatening diseases is one patient too many.

Rigorous research into the effectiveness of a therapy should tell us the truth about the ability of this therapy to treat patients suffering from a given condition — perhaps not one single study, but the totality of the evidence (as evaluated in systematic reviews) should achieve this aim. Yet, in the realm of alternative medicine (and probably not just in this field), such reviews are often highly contradictory.

A concrete example might explain what I mean.

There are numerous systematic reviews assessing the effectiveness of acupuncture for fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). It is safe to assume that the authors of these reviews have all conducted comprehensive searches of the literature in order to locate all the published studies on this subject. Subsequently, they have evaluated the scientific rigor of these trials and summarised their findings. Finally they have condensed all of this into an article which arrives at a certain conclusion about the value of the therapy in question. Understanding this process (outlined here only very briefly), one would expect that all the numerous reviews draw conclusions which are, if not identical, at least very similar.

However, the disturbing fact is that they are not remotely similar. Here are two which, in fact, are so different that one could assume they have evaluated a set of totally different primary studies (which, of course, they have not).

One recent (2014) review concluded that acupuncture for FMS has a positive effect, and acupuncture combined with western medicine can strengthen the curative effect.

Another recent review concluded that a small analgesic effect of acupuncture was present, which, however, was not clearly distinguishable from bias. Thus, acupuncture cannot be recommended for the management of FMS.

How can this be?

By contrast to most systematic reviews of conventional medicine, systematic reviews of alternative therapies are almost invariably based on a small number of primary studies (in the above case, the total number was only 7 !). The quality of these trials is often low (all reviews therefore end with the somewhat meaningless conclusion that more and better studies are needed).

So, the situation with primary studies of alternative therapies for inclusion into systematic reviews usually is as follows:

  • the number of trials is low
  • the quality of trials is even lower
  • the results are not uniform
  • the majority of the poor quality trials show a positive result (bias tends to generate false positive findings)
  • the few rigorous trials yield a negative result

Unfortunately this means that the authors of systematic reviews summarising such confusing evidence often seem to feel at liberty to project their own pre-conceived ideas into their overall conclusion about the effectiveness of the treatment. Often the researchers are in favour of the therapy in question – in fact, this usually is precisely the attitude that motivated them to conduct a review in the first place. In other words, the frequently murky state of the evidence (as outlined above) can serve as a welcome invitation for personal bias to do its effect in skewing the overall conclusion. The final result is that the readers of such systematic reviews are being misled.

Authors who are biased in favour of the treatment will tend to stress that the majority of the trials are positive. Therefore the overall verdict has to be positive as well, in their view. The fact that most trials are flawed does not usually bother them all that much (I suspect that many fail to comprehend the effects of bias on the study results); they merely add to their conclusions that “more and better trials are needed” and believe that this meek little remark is sufficient evidence for their ability to critically analyse the data.

Authors who are not biased and have the necessary skills for critical assessment, on the other hand, will insist that most trials are flawed and therefore their results must be categorised as unreliable. They will also emphasise the fact that there are a few reliable studies and clearly point out that these are negative. Thus their overall conclusion must be negative as well.

In the end, enthusiasts will conclude that the treatment in question is at least promising, if not recommendable, while real scientists will rightly state that the available data are too flimsy to demonstrate the effectiveness of the therapy; as it is wrong to recommend unproven treatments, they will not recommend the treatment for routine use.

The difference between the two might just seem marginal – but, in fact, it is huge: IT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MISLEADING PEOPLE AND GIVING RESPONSIBLE ADVICE; THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VIOLATING AND ADHERING TO ETHICAL STANDARDS.

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