MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

alternative medicine

Green tea is said to have numerous health benefits. Recently, a special green tea, matcha tea, is gaining popularity and is claimed to be more powerful than simple green tea. Matcha tea consumption is said to lead to higher intake of green tea phytochemicals compared to regular green tea.

But what is matcha tea? This article explains:

The word matcha literally means “powdered tea”. Drinking a cup or two of the tea made from this powder could help you tackle your day feeling clear, motivated and energized, rather than foggy, stressed out, and succumbing to chaos.

Matcha tea leaves are thrown a lot of shade (literally). They’re grown in the dark. The shade growing process increases matcha’s nutrients, especially chlorophyll, a green plant pigment that allows plants to absorb energy from sunlight. Chlorophyll is rich in antioxidants, and gives matcha it’s electrifying green colour. Shade growing also increases the amount of L-theanine, which is the amino acid known for promoting mental clarity, focus, and a sense of calm. It’s called nature’s “Xanax” for a reason.

The high amino acid content is also what gives matcha it’s signature umami taste. Umami is the “fifth” taste that describes the savory flavor of foods like miso, parmesan cheese, chicken broth, spinach, and soy sauce. You know you’ve got a premium matcha when you taste balanced umami flavors, hints of creaminess, and the slightest taste of fresh cut grass. You shouldn’t need to add any sweetener to enjoy sipping it. When choosing a high quality matcha powder, it’s important to remember: a strong umami flavour = higher in amino acids = the more L-theanine you’ll receive.

Once matcha leaves are harvested, they get steamed, dried, and ground up into a fine powder that you can mix with hot or cold water. The key difference here is that you’re actually consuming the nutrients from the entire leaf— which is most concentrated in antioxidants, amino acids, and umami flavour. This is unlike traditional brewed tea, where you’re only drinking the dissolvable portions of the leaf that have been steeped in water.

The article also names 5 effects of matcha tea:

1. Promotes Relaxation, Mood, and Mental Focus

2. Supports Healthy Cognitive Function

3. Supports Detoxification

4. Fights Physical Signs of Aging

5. Promotes a Healthy Heart

None of the sources provided do actually confirm that matcha tea conveys any of these benefits in humans. My favourite reference provided by the author is the one that is supposed to show that matcha tea is a detox remedy for humans. The article provided is entitled Low-dose dietary chlorophyll inhibits multi-organ carcinogenesis in the rainbow trout. Who said that SCAM-peddlers have no sense of humour?

Joking aside, is there any evidence at all to show that matcha tea has any health effects in humans? I found two clinical trials that tested this hypothesis.

Trial No1:

Intake of the catechin epigallocatechin gallate and caffeine has been shown to enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation. Matcha green tea powder contains catechins and caffeine and is consumed as a drink. We examined the effect of Matcha green tea drinks on metabolic, physiological, and perceived intensity responses during brisk walking. A total of 13 females (age: 27 ± 8 years, body mass: 65 ± 7 kg, height: 166 ± 6 cm) volunteered to participate in the study. Resting metabolic equivalent (1-MET) was measured using Douglas bags (1-MET: 3.4 ± 0.3 ml·kg-1·min-1). Participants completed an incremental walking protocol to establish the relationship between walking speed and oxygen uptake and individualize the walking speed at 5- or 6-MET. A randomized, crossover design was used with participants tested between Days 9 and 11 of the menstrual cycle (follicular phase). Participants consumed three drinks (each drink made with 1 g of Matcha premium grade; OMGTea Ltd., Brighton, UK) the day before and one drink 2 hr before the 30-min walk at 5- (n = 10) or 6-MET (walking speed: 5.8 ± 0.4 km/hr) with responses measured at 8-10, 18-20, and 28-30 min. Matcha had no effect on physiological and perceived intensity responses. Matcha resulted in lower respiratory exchange ratio (control: 0.84 ± 0.04; Matcha: 0.82 ± 0.04; p < .01) and enhanced fat oxidation during a 30-min brisk walk (control: 0.31 ± 0.10; Matcha: 0.35 ± 0.11 g/min; p < .01). Matcha green tea drinking can enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation in females. However, when regular brisk walking with 30-min bouts is being undertaken as part of a weight loss program, the metabolic effects of Matcha should not be overstated.

Trial No 2:

Matcha tea is gaining popularity throughout the world in recent years and is frequently referred to as a mood-and-brain food. Previous research has demonstrated that three constituents present in matcha tea, l-theanine, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), and caffeine, affect mood and cognitive performance. However, to date there are no studies assessing the effect of matcha tea itself. The present study investigates these effects by means of a human intervention study administering matcha tea and a matcha containing product. Using a randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind study, 23 consumers participated in four test sessions. In each session, participants consumed one of the four test products: matcha tea, matcha tea bar (each containing 4g matcha tea powder), placebo tea, or placebo bar. The assessment was performed at baseline and 60min post-treatment. The participants performed a set of cognitive tests assessing attention, information processing, working memory, and episodic memory. The mood state was measured by means of a Profile of Mood States (POMS). After consuming the matcha products compared to placebo versions, there were mainly significant improvements in tasks measuring basic attention abilities and psychomotor speed in response to stimuli over a defined period of time. In contrast to expectations, the effect was barely present in the other cognitive tasks. The POMS results revealed no significant changes in mood. The influence of the food matrix was demonstrated by the fact that on most cognitive performance measures the drink format outperformed the bar format, particularly in tasks measuring speed of spatial working memory and delayed picture recognition. This study suggests that matcha tea consumed in a realistic dose can induce slight effects on speed of attention and episodic secondary memory to a low degree. Further studies are required to elucidate the influences of the food matrix.

Not impressed?

Me neither!

However, I was impressed when I looked up the costs of matcha tea: £17.95 for 30 g of powder does not exactly seem to be a bargain. So, matcha tea does after all help some people, namely all those engaged in flogging it to the gullible SCAM fraternity.

 

So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is a seriously dangerous option for cancer patients who aim at curing their cancer with it. One cannot warn patients often and strongly enough, I believe. But when it comes to supportive cancer treatment (care that does not aim at changing the natural history of the disease), SCAM might have a place. I said ‘might’ because its exact role is far from clear.

The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of a complex, nurse-led, supportive care intervention using SCAM on patients’ quality of life (QoL) and associated patient-reported outcomes. In this prospective, pragmatic, bicentric, randomized controlled trial, women with breast or gynaecologic cancers undergoing a new regimen of chemotherapy (CHT) were randomly assigned to routine supportive care plus intervention (intervention group, IG) or routine care alone (control group, CG). The intervention consisted of SCAM applications and counseling for symptom management, as well as SCAM information material. The primary endpoint was global QoL measured with the EORTC-QLQ-C30 before and after SCAM.

In total, 126 patients were randomly assigned into the IG and 125 patients into the CG. The patients’ medical and socio-demographic characteristics were homogenous at baseline and at follow-up. No group effects on QoL were found upon completion of CHT, but there was a significant group difference in favour of the IG, 6 months later. IG patients did also experience significant better emotional functioning and less fatigue.

The authors concluded that the tested supportive intervention did not improve patients’ QoL outcomes directly after CHT (T3), but was associated with significant QoL improvements when considering the change from baseline to the time point T4, which could be assessed 6 months after patients’ completion of CHT. This delayed effect may have resulted due to a strengthening of patients’ self-management competencies.

A prospective, pragmatic, bicentric, randomized controlled trial! Doesn’t this sound rigorous? In fact, this term merely hides a trial that was destined to generate a positive result. As it followed the infamous A+B versus B design, it hardly had a chance to not come out positive.

The only thing I find amazing is that the short-term results failed to be statistically significant. Far too many SCAM researchers, it seems to me, view science as a tool for promoting their dubious ideas.

The use of SCAM with the aim of improving QoL might be helpful. But this assumption cannot be accepted on the basis of opinion; we need good science to find out which forms of SCAM are worth employing. Sadly, studies like the above are not in this category.

If you ask me, it is high time that this misleading nonsensical and unethical pseudo-research stops!

Spinal manipulation is an umbrella term for numerous manoeuvres chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and other clinicians apply to their patients’ vertebral columns.  Spinal manipulations are said to be effective for a wide range of conditions. But how do they work? What is their mode of action? A new article tries to address these questions. here is its abstract:

Spinal manipulation has been an effective intervention for the management of various musculoskeletal disorders. However, the mechanisms underlying the pain modulatory effects of spinal manipulation remain elusive. Although both biomechanical and neurophysiological phenomena have been thought to play a role in the observed clinical effects of spinal manipulation, a growing number of recent studies have indicated peripheral, spinal and supraspinal mechanisms of manipulation and suggested that the improved clinical outcomes are largely of neurophysiological origin. In this article, we reviewed the relevance of various neurophysiological theories with respect to the findings of mechanistic studies that demonstrated neural responses following spinal manipulation. This article also discussed whether these neural responses are associated with the possible neurophysiological mechanisms of spinal manipulation. The body of literature reviewed herein suggested some clear neurophysiological changes following spinal manipulation, which include neural plastic changes, alteration in motor neuron excitability, increase in cortical drive and many more. However, the clinical relevance of these changes in relation to the mechanisms that underlie the effectiveness of spinal manipulation is still unclear. In addition, there were some major methodological flaws in many of the reviewed studies. Future mechanistic studies should have an appropriate study design and methodology and should plan for a long-term follow-up in order to determine the clinical significance of the neural responses evoked following spinal manipulation.

I have to admit, this made me laugh. Any article that starts with the claim spinal manipulation is an effective intervention and speaks about its observed clinical effects without critically assessing the evidence for it must be ridiculous. The truth is that, so far, it is unclear whether spinal manipulations cause any therapeutic effects at all. To take them as a given, therefore discloses a bias that can only be a hindrance to any objective evaluation.

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the paper raises an important question: do we need to search for a mode of action of treatments that are unproven? It is a question, of course, that is relevant to all or at least much of SCAM.

Do we need to research the mode of action of acupuncture?

Do we need to research the mode of action of energy healing?

Do we need to research the mode of action of reflexology?

Do we need to research the mode of action of homeopathy?

Do we need to research the mode of action of Bach flower remedies?

Do we need to research the mode of action of cupping?

Do we need to research the mode of action of qigong?

In the absence of compelling evidence that a mode of action (other than the placebo response) exists, I would say: no, we don’t. Such research might turn out to be wasteful and carries the risk of attributing credibility to treatments that do not deserve it.

What do you think?

 

Many cancer patients use so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed whether this does more good than harm. This study sheds new light on the question. Specifically, it aims to explore the benefits of TCM therapy in the long-term survival of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma in China.

In total, 3483 patients with HCC admitted to the Beijing Ditan Hospital of Capital Medical University were enrolled. The researchers used 1:1 frequency matching by sex, age, diagnosis time, Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging, and type of treatments to compare the TCM users (n = 526) and non-TCM users (n = 526). A Cox multivariate regression model was employed to evaluate the effects of TCM therapy on the HR value and Kaplan-Meier survival curve for mortality risk in HCC patients. A log-rank test was performed to analyse the effect of TCM therapy on the survival time of HCC patients.

The Cox multivariate analysis indicated that TCM therapy was an independent protective factor for 5-year survival in patients with HCC. The Kaplan-Meier curve also showed that after PS matching, TCM users had a higher overall survival rate and a higher progression-free survival rate than non-TCM users. TCM users, regardless of the classification of etiology, tumor stage, liver function level, or type of treatment, all benefited significantly from TCM therapy. The most commonly used Chinese patent medications used were Fufang Banmao Capsule, Huaier Granule, and Jinlong Capsule.

The authors concluded that using traditional Chinese medications as adjuvant therapy can probably prolong median survival time and improve the overall survival among patients with HCC. Further scientific studies and clinical trials are needed to examine the efficiency and safety.

I was unable to access the full article and therefore am unable to provide a detailed critique of it. From reading the abstract, I should point out, however, that this was not an RCT. To minimise bias, the researchers used a matching technique to generate two comparable groups. Such methods can be successful in matching for the named parameters, but they cannot match for the plethora of variables that might be relevant but were not measured. Therefore, the survival difference between the two groups might be due not to the therapies they received, but to the fact that the groups were not comparable in terms of factors that impact on survival.

Another important point about this paper is the obvious fact that it originates from China. We know from several independent investigations that such studies almost never report negative findings. We also know that TCM is a hugely important export item for China. Adding two and two together should therefore make us sceptical. I for one take the present findings with more than a pinch of salt.

Indian doctors have just published the case of a 38-year old man with cirrhosis of the liver due to compensated non-alcoholic fatty-liver-disease. He presented with acute worsening of his chronic liver disease. The acute event was not discernible even after extensive work up. Eventually, a transjugular liver biopsy revealed features suggestive of severe alcoholic hepatitis.

The patient and the family denied occult alcohol use when questioned over multiple times. According to the authors, the culprit ‘alcohol’ was found to be the homoeopathy medicines: the patient had been consuming a homeopathic remedy over a month for treatment of Gilbert’s syndrome. The researchers retrieved and tested the homoeopathy drug for alcohol content and found it contained 18% of ethanol. This, they felt, confirmed their diagnosis of alcoholic liver disease caused by the regular consumption of a homeopathic remedy.

Why did the patient help from a homeopath? Gilbert’s syndrome doesn’t usually require any treatment at all. Two weeks into his new treatment, the patient claimed he was feeling drowsy and slurring his speech, as if intoxicated. The liquid homeopathic formulation was therefore reduced at this stage. A further two weeks passed when his eyes yellowed, his urine darkened, and his legs began to swell. A liver tests confirmed a spike in his bilirubin 10 times above normal, with liver enzymes also elevated. All signs were thus pointing to an acute form of hepatitis commonly associated with alcohol binges. With the patient adamant he hadn’t touched alcohol, the doctors looked for other causes of hepatitis. None were found. When the patient admitted using homeopathy, his doctors thought to have found an explanation for the problem.

Despite starting the patient on a range of treatments and referring him to a liver transplant centre for further management, the damage to the patient’s liver proved to be irreversible. One month and 12 days later, the patient developed multiple organ failure and passed away. The authors of this case report point out “at risk patients and the general population need to be educated regarding the fact that complementary and alternative medications are not without side-effects.”

I do agree with their comment, but I very much doubt that their diagnosis of homeopathy-induced liver disease was correct. If the alcohol in the homeopathic remedy truly had been the cause, the patient would have needed to consume well in excess of one litre of it per day. The authors do not tell us about the volume of consumption, but I doubt that a patient would be able to afford such an orgy in homeopathy.

Highly diluted homeopathic remedies contain nothing, it is often said. This is not entirely true. In the case of solid preparations (globuli), they do contain sugar, and in the case of liquid remedies, they contain alcohol. Yet, as a source of either ingredient, they are neither practical nor economical. I fear therefore that the medical team of the diseased man are mistaken when accusing homeopathy of being the cause of their patient’s death.

Kampo, the traditional Japanese herbal medicine, developed out of traditional Chinese herbal medicine after it was introduced into Japan in the 7th century. In the early 20th century, Kampo was further influenced by modern Western medicine and science. The Kampo system is a pragmatic and simplified version of Chinese herbal medicine. Kampo medicines are standardised and not normally individualised as in Chinese herbal medicine. They are based on the symptoms of the patient, interpreted in the tradition of Kampo. Kampo diagnostic criteria consider hypofunction and hyperfunction, heat and cold, superficies and interior, and yin and yang.

Today, Kampō is fully integrated into the Japanese national health care system, and numerous Kampo preparations are registered in Japan and reimbursable from public funds. In Japan, Kampo is thus not a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), but outside this country it clearly is.

Standardised Kampo formulas contain mixtures of herbal ingredients. They are manufactured under proper quality control. The most commonly used plants include liquorice, ginger and Chinese peony root. Most Japanese doctors routinely prescribe Kampo medicines, and most patients combine Kampo with Western medicine. Since 2002, the teaching of Kampo has been included in Japanese curricula of medical and pharmacy education. The efficacy of Kampo medicines is often less solidly documented than one would hope or expect. There is a remarkable shortage of high-quality clinical trials.

As Kampo medicines contain pharmacologically active ingredients, they can also cause adverse effects and might interact with synthetic drugs. Yet, the risks of Kampo are currently woefully under-investigated. And this is why an analysis of adverse events associated with Kampo formulations that was just published is particularly important.

The researchers obtained reports of adverse events associated with ethical Kampo formulations from the domestic adverse-event data from July 30, 2003, to March 31, 2018. Adverse events were then categorized, and the relationships between categories of adverse events and crude drugs were analysed.

There were 4,232 reported adverse events associated with Kampo. They related to liver injury, 1,193; lung injury, 1,177; pseudoaldosteronism, 889; mesenteric phlebosclerosis, 223; drug eruption, 185; and others, 565. Among events related to both liver injury and lung injury, approximately 70% were suspected to be induced by Kampo formulations containing Scutellariae Radix.

The pseudoaldosteronism-related events, which are induced by Glycyrrhizae Radix, included several events related to muscle injury, heart failure, and arrhythmia. Events related to mesenteric phlebosclerosis, believed to be induced by long-term use of Kampo formulas containing Gardeniae Fructus, increased remarkably during the study period. Among the events related to drug eruption, approximately 35% were suspected to be induced by Kampo formulations containing Ephedrae Herba.

The authors concluded that Kampo medicines may cause various adverse events. The present results provide valuable information regarding adverse events associated with Kampo medicines from the viewpoint of patient safety.

While this paper presents invaluable data, its authors offer little by way of critical discussion. There is hardly any good evidence to show that any of the Kampo formulas are effective. Thus a discussion needs to be had about the question whether they generate more good than harm. The authors are completely silent on this important issue, and I suspect the reason might be that Kampo is a bit of a ‘holy cow’ in Japan that must not be questioned.

The numbers of adverse events are impressively high, but we do not know how they compare to adverse events in other areas of healthcare. For instance, it would be valuable to have comparative data indicating how many adverse events occurred with Kampo compared to synthetic drugs per 1 000 patients using them.

Thus we are left with the conclusion that, once proper post-marketing methods are employed to monitor SCAM, we are likely to realise that adverse events do occur more frequently than SCAM enthusiasts might have predicted. In my view, it is high time that we have effective adverse event monitoring in all areas of SCAM.

A new paper reminds us that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has been increasing in the United States and around the world, particularly at medical institutions known for providing rigorous evidence-based care. The use of SCAM may cause harm to patients through interactions with prescribed medications or by patients choosing to forego evidence-based care. SCAM may also put financial strain on patients as most SCAM expenditures are paid out-of-pocket.

Despite these drawbacks, patients continue to use SCAM due to a range of reasons, e.g. media promotion of SCAM therapies, dissatisfaction with conventional healthcare, a desire for more holistic care. Given the increasing demand for SCAM, many medical institutions now offer SCAM services. Several leaders of SCAM centres based at a highly respected academic medical institution have publicly expressed anti-vaccination views, and non-evidence-based philosophies run deep within SCAM.

Although there are financial incentives for institutions to provide SCAM, it is important to recognize that this legitimizes SCAM and may cause harm to patients. The poor regulation of SCAM allows for the continued distribution of products and services that have not been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy.

As I have tried to point out many times, the potential for harm caused by the increasing integration of SCAM can thus be summarised as follows:

  1. direct harm due to adverse effects such as toxicity of an herbal remedy, stroke after chiropractic manipulation, pneumothorax after acupuncture;
  2. direct harm through the use of bogus diagnostic techniques;
  3. direct harm by using materials from endangered species;
  4. indirect harm through incompetent advice such as recommendation not to immunize or discontinue prescribed medications;
  5. neglect due to using SCAM instead of an effective therapy for a serious condition;
  6. harm due to medicalising trivial states of reduced well-being;
  7. financial harm due to the costs of SCAM;
  8. harm through making a mockery of evidence-based medicine;
  9. harm caused by undermining rational thinking in the society at large;
  10. harm caused by inhibiting medical progress and research.

In case you see other ways in which SCAM can cause harm, please let me know by posting a comment.

‘Acute-on-chronic liver failure’ (ACLF) is an acute deterioration of liver function in patients with pre-existing liver disease. It is usually associated with a precipitating event and results in the failure of one or more organs and high short term mortality.

An international team of researchers published a analysis examining data regarding drugs producing ACLF. They evaluated clinical features, laboratory characteristics, outcome, and predictors of mortality in patients with drug-induced ACLF. They identified drugs as precipitants of ACLF among prospective cohort of patients with ACLF from the Asian Pacific Association of Study of Liver (APASL) ACLF Research Consortium (AARC) database. Drugs were considered precipitants after exclusion of known causes together with a temporal association between exposure and decompensation. Outcome was defined as death from decompensation.

Of the 3,132 patients with ACLF, drugs were implicated as a cause in 10.5% of all cases and other non-drug causes in 89.5%. Within the first group, so-called alternative medications (SCAMs) were the commonest cause (71.7%), followed by combination anti-tuberculosis therapy drugs (27.3%). Alcoholic liver disease (28.6%), cryptogenic liver disease (25.5%), and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) (16.7%) were common causes of underlying liver diseases. Patients with drug-induced ACLF had jaundice (100%), ascites (88%), encephalopathy (46.5%), high Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) (30.2), and Child-Turcotte-Pugh score (12.1). The overall 90-day mortality was higher in drug-induced (46.5%) than in non-drug-induced ACLF (38.8%).

The authors concluded that drugs are important identifiable causes of ACLF in Asia-Pacific countries, predominantly from complementary and alternative medications, followed by anti-tuberculosis drugs. Encephalopathy, bilirubin, blood urea, lactate, and international normalized ratio (INR) predict mortality in drug-induced ACLF.

The fact that some SCAMs can damage the liver has long been known. Here, for example, is 2003 our review of herbal medicine and liver problems:

Systematic literature searches were performed on Medline, Embase, The Cochrane Library, Amed and Ciscom. To identify additional data, searches were conducted by hand in relevant medical journals and in our own files. The screening and selection of articles and the extraction of data were performed independently by the two authors. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication. In order to be included articles were required to report data on hepatotoxic events associated with the therapeutic use of herbal medicinal products.

Single medicinal herbs and combination preparations are associated with hepatotoxic events. Clinically, the spectrum ranges from transient elevations of liver enzyme levels to fulminant liver failure and death. In most instances hepatotoxic herbal constituents are believed to be the cause, while others may be due to herb-drug interactions, contamination and/or adulteration.

A number of herbal medicinal products are associated with serious hepatotoxic events. Incidence figures are largely unknown, and in most cases a causal attribution is not established. The challenge for the future is to systematically research this area, educate all parties involved, and minimize patient risk.

Despite these warnings, progress is almost non-existent. If anything the problem seems to increase in proportion with the rise in the use of SCAM. Hence, one cannot but agree with the conclusion of a more recent overview: The actual incidence and prevalence of herb-induced liver injury in developing nations remain largely unknown due to both poor pharmacovigilance programs and non-application of emerging technologies. Improving education and public awareness of the potential risks of herbals and herbal products is desirable to ensure that suspected adverse effects are formally reported. There is need for stricter regulations and pre-clinical studies necessary for efficacy and safety.

“Eating elderberries can help minimise influenza symptoms.” This statement comes from a press release by the University of Sydney. As it turned out, the announcement was not just erroneous but it also had concealed that the in-vitro study that formed the basis for the press-release was part-funded by the very company, Pharmacare, which sells elderberry-based flu remedies.

“This is an appalling misrepresentation of this Pharmacare-funded in-vitro study,” said associate professor Ken Harvey, president of Friends of Science in Medicine. “It was inappropriate and misleading to imply from this study that an extract was ‘proven to fight flu’.” A University of Sydney spokeswoman confirmed Pharmacare was shown a copy of the press release before it was published.

This is an embarrassing turn of events, no doubt. But what about elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and the flu? Is there any evidence?

A systematic review quantified the effects of elderberry supplementation. Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms. The quantitative synthesis of the effects yielded a large mean effect size. The authors concluded that these findings present an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.

WHAT?!?!

The alternative to antibiotic misuse can only be the correct use of antibiotics. And, in the case of viral infections such as the flu, this can only be the non-use of antibiotics. My trust in this review, published in a SCAM journal of dubious repute, has instantly dropped to zero.

Perhaps a recent overview recently published in THE MEDICAL LETTER provides a more trustworthy picture:

No large randomized, controlled trials evaluating the effectiveness of elderberry for prevention or treatment of influenza have been conducted to date. Elderberry appears to have some activity against influenza virus strains in vitro. In two small studies (conducted outside the US), adults with influenza A or B virus infection taking elderberry extract reported a shorter duration of symptoms compared to those taking placebo. Consuming uncooked blue or black elderberries can cause nausea and vomiting. The rest of the plant (bark, stems, leaves, and root) contains sambunigrin, which can release cyanide. No data are available on the safety of elderberry use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. CONCLUSION — Prompt treatment with an antiviral drug such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu, and generics) has been shown to be effective in large randomized, controlled trials in reducing the duration of influenza symptoms, and it may reduce the risk of influenza-related complications. There is no acceptable evidence to date that elderberry is effective for prevention or treatment of influenza and its safety is unclear.

Any take-home messages?

Yes:

  1. Elderberry supplements are not of proven effectiveness against the flu.
  2. The press officers at universities should be more cautious when writing press-releases.
  3. They should involve the scientists and avoid the sponsors of the research.
  4. In-vitro studies can never tell us anything about clinical effectiveness.
  5. SCAM-journals’ articles must be taken with a pinch of salt.
  6. Consumers are being misled left, right and centre.

My former institution, the medical school of Vienna, had invited me to give the key-note for a conference entitled ‘Esoterik in der Medizin‘ (22/5/2019). The event was to celebrate the success of a new course for medical students which was initiated after Prof Frass’ lectures on homeopathy had been discontinued. Remarkably, this move had been prompted by complaints from students arguing that Frass was promoting non-evidence-based, bogus concepts.

Whenever I go back to Vienna, I have mixed feelings; pleasant and not so pleasant memories (see below) come to the fore. This time, however, all turned out well, and I was more than delighted.

The new course signifies the realisation that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) must be covered in any sound medical curriculum. Once graduated, students will be asked by patients about SCAM and have an ethical duty to inform them responsibly. Thus they need to know the essential facts and not the biased perspective that Frass and other enthusiasts tend to convey.

I have always considered this to be important but, as far as I can see, very few medical school manage to deal with this issue adequately. More often than not, the task of running such courses is given to proponents of SCAM who then try to brain-wash the unsuspecting students. The result can be seriously harmful to generations of patients. I am delighted to report that my former medical school has successfully avoided this pitfall. Quackademia has come to an end in Vienna!

In my view, the highlight of the recent event was the students’ presentation of their course-work. They had been supervised in small groups to research selected topics related to SCAM and were given 5 minute slots to present their findings. I truly felt this was impressive. The dedication, the quality of the research and the clarity of the presentations were extraordinary. In my 40 odd years of teaching medical students, I have never seen anything remotely similar (here I should mention perhaps that, 25 years ago when I was teaching in Vienna, medical students seemed to be as unmotivated as they get).

The students’ presentation were followed by 90 minutes of moderated discussion of the audience (the event was open to the public) and 4 experts. Here too, I was positively surprised by the quality of the contributions and the general openness of the debate.

So, overall the both the meeting and, more importantly, the new course for students can be considered a great success, and the organisers must be congratulated on it. For me personally, the most significant aspect was a matter entirely unrelated to SCAM. It was the introductory speech of the dean of the medical school. He announced me as the key-note speaker by praising my research on the Nazi history of the faculty. It was this research that, to some considerable degree, made me leave Vienna in 1993. To see it now appreciated by my former colleagues is deeply moving.

 

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