herbal medicine

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On Twitter, I recently found this remarkable advertisement:

Naturally, it interested me. The implication seemed to be that we can boost our immune system and thus protect ourselves from colds, the flu and other infections by using this supplement. With the flu season approaching, this might be important. On the other hand, the supplement might be unsafe for many other patients. As I had done a bit of research in this area, I needed to know more.

According to the manufacturer’s information sheet, Viracid

  • Provides Support for Immune Challenges
  • Strengthens Immune Function
  • Maintains Normal Inflammatory Balance

The manufacurer furthermore states the following:

Our body’s immune system is a complex and dynamic defense system that comes to our rescue at the first sign of exposure to an outside invader. The dynamic nature of the immune system means that all factors that affect health need to be addressed in order for it to function at peak performance. The immune system is very sensitive to nutrient deficiencies. While vitamin deficiencies can compromise the immune system, consuming immune enhancing nutrients and botanicals can support and strengthen your body’s immune response. Viracid’s synergistic formula significantly boosts immune cell function including antibody response, natural killer (NK) cell activity, thymus hormone secretions, and T-cell activation. Viracid also helps soothe throat irritations and nasal secretions, and maintains normal inflammatory balance by increasing antioxidant levels throughout the body.

This sounds impressive. Viracid could thus play an important role in keeping us healthy. It could also be contra-indicated to lots of patients who suffer from autoimmune and other conditions. In any case, it is worth having a closer look at this dietary supplement. The ingredients of the product include:

  • Vitamin A,
  • Vitamin C,
  • Vitamin B12,
  • Pantothenic Acid,
  • Zinc,
  • L-Lysine Hydrochloride,
  • Echinacea purpurea Extract,
  • Acerola Fruit,
  • Andrographis paniculata,
  • European Elder,
  • Berry Extract,
  • Astragalus membranaceus Root Extract

Next, I conducted several literature searches. Here is what I did NOT find:

  • any clinical trial of Viracid,
  • any indication that its ingredients work synergistically,
  • any proof of Viracid inducing an antibody response,
  • or enhancing natural killer (NK) cell activity,
  • or thymus hormone secretions,
  • or T-cell activation,
  • or soothing throat irritations,
  • or controlling nasal secretions,
  • or maintaining normal inflammatory balance,
  • any mention of contra-indications,
  • any reliable information about the risks of taking Viracid.

There are, of course, two explanations for this void of information. Either I did not search well enough, or the claims that are being made for Viracid by the manufacturer are unsubstantiated and therefore bogus.

Which of the two explanations apply?

Please, someone – preferably the manufacturer – tell me.

In a paper discussed in a previous blog, Ioannidis et al published a comprehensive database of a large number of scientists across science. They used Scopus data to compile a database of the 100,000 most-cited authors across all scientific fields based on their ranking of a composite indicator that considers six citation metrics (total citations; Hirsch h-index; coauthorship-adjusted Schreiber hm-index; number of citations to papers as single author; number of citations to papers as single or first author; and number of citations to papers as single, first, or last author). The authors also added this caution:

Citation analyses for individuals are used for various single-person or comparative assessments in the complex reward and incentive system of science. Misuse of citation metrics in hiring, promotion or tenure decision, or other situations involving rewards (e.g., funding or awards) takes many forms, including but not limited to the use of metrics that are not very informative for scientists and their work (e.g., journal impact factors); focus on single citation metrics (e.g., h-index); and use of calculations that are not standardized, use different frames, and do not account for field. The availability of the data sets that we provide should help mitigate many of these problems. The database can also be used to perform evaluations of groups of individuals, e.g., at the level of scientific fields, institutions, countries, or memberships in diversely defined groups that may be of interest to users.

It seems thus obvious and relevant to employ the new metrics for defining the most ‘influential’ (most frequently cited) researchers in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Doing this creates not one but two non-overlapping tables (because ‘complementary&alternative medicine’ is listed both as a primary and a secondary field (not sure about the difference)). Below, I have copied a small part of these tables; the first three columns are self-explanatory; the 4th relates to the number of published articles, the 4th to the year of the author’s first publication, the 5th to the last, the 6th column is the rank amongst 100 000 scientists of all fields who have published more than a couple of papers.


Ernst, E. University of Exeter gbr 2253 1975 2018 104
Davidson, Jonathan R. T. Duke University usa 426 1972 2017 1394
Kaptchuk, Ted J. Harvard University usa 245 1993 2018 6545
Eisenberg, David M. Harvard University usa 127 1991 2018 8641
Lundeberg, Thomas 340 1983 2016 17199
Linde, Klaus Technische Universitat Munchen deu 276 1993 2018 19488
Schwartz, Gary E. University of Arizona usa 264 1967 2018 21893
Eloff, J.N. University of Pretoria zaf 204 1997 2018 23830
Birch, Stephen McMaster University can 244 1985 2018 31925
Wilson, Kenneth H. Duke University usa 76 1976 2017 40760
Kemper, Kathi J. Ohio State University usa 181 1988 2017 45193
Oken, Barry S. Oregon Health and Science University usa 121 1974 2018 51325
Pittler, M.H. 155 1997 2016 53183
Postuma, Ronald B. McGill University can 159 1998 2018 61018
Patwardhan, Bhushan University of Pune ind 144 1989 2018 64465
Krucoff, Mitchell W. Duke University usa 261 1986 2016 66028
Chiesa, Alberto 87 1973 2017 82390
Baliga, Manjeshwar Shrinath 142 2002 2018 83030
Mischoulon, David Harvard University usa 194 1992 2018 91705
Büssing, Arndt University of Witten/Herdecke deu 207 1980 2018 95907
Langevin, Helene M. Harvard University usa 67 1999 2018 98290
Creath, Katherine 84 1984 2017 99709
Kuete, Victor University of Dschang cmr 239 2005 2018 128347


White, Adrian University of Plymouth gbr 294 1990 2016 16714
Astin, John A. California Pacific Medical Center usa 50 1994 2014 21379
Kelly, Gregory S. 37 1985 2011 31037
Walach, Harald University of Medical Sciences Poznan pol 246 1996 2018 31716
Berman, Brian M. University of Maryland School of Medicine usa 211 1986 2018 34022
Lewith, George University of Southampton gbr 380 1980 2018 34830
Kidd, Parris M. University of California at Berkeley usa 38 1976 2011 36571
Jonas, Wayne B. 187 1992 2018 42445
MacPherson, Hugh University of York gbr 143 1996 2018 49923
Bell, Iris R. University of Arizona usa 142 1984 2015 51016
Patrick, Lyn 21 1999 2018 57086
Ritenbaugh, Cheryl University of Arizona usa 172 1981 2018 63248
Boon, Heather University of Toronto can 188 1988 2017 69066
Aickin, Mikel University of Arizona usa 149 1996 2014 72040
Lee, Myeong Soo 430 1996 2018 72358
Lao, Lixing University of Hong Kong hkg 247 1990 2018 74896
Witt, Claudia M. Charite – Universitatsmedizin Berlin deu 238 2001 2018 78849
Sherman, Karen J. 136 1984 2017 82542
Verhoef, Marja J. University of Calgary can 190 1989 2016 84314
Smith, Caroline A. University of Western Sydney aus 135 1979 2018 94130
Miller, Alan L. 30 1980 2016 94421
Paterson, Charlotte University of Bristol gbr 71 1995 2017 95130
Milgrom, Lionel R. London Metropolitan University gbr 107 1979 2017 112943
Adams, Jon University of Technology NSW aus 294 1999 2018 128486
Litscher, Gerhard Medical University of Graz aut 245 1986 2018 133122
Chen, Calvin Yu-Chian China Medical University Taichung chn 130 2007 2016 164522

No other researchers are listed in the ‘Complementary&Alternative Medicine’ categories and made it into the list of the 100 000 most-cited scientists.

To make this easier to read, I have ordered all SCAM researchers according to their rank in one single list and, where known to me, added the respective focus in SCAM research (ma = most areas of SCAM):

  1. ERNST EDZARD (ma)
  3. KAPTCHUK TED (acupuncture)
  5. WHITE ADRIAN (acupuncture)
  6. LUNDEBERG THOMAS (acupuncture)
  7. LINDE KLAUS (homeopathy)
  8. ASTIN JOHN (mind/body)
  9. SCHWARTZ GARRY (healing)
  10. ELOFF JN
  12. WALLACH HARALD (homeopathy)
  13. BIRCH STEVEN (acupuncture)
  14. BERMAN BRIAN (acupuncture)
  15. LEWITH GEORGE (acupuncture)
  18. JONAS WAYNE (homeopathy)
  19. KEMPER KATHIE (ma)
  20. MACPHERSON HUGH (acupuncture)
  21. BELL IRIS (homeopathy)
  22. OKEN BARRY (dietary supplements)
  23. PITTLER MAX (ma)
  30. AICKIN MIKEL (ma)
  32. LAO LIXING (acupuncture)
  33. WITT CLAUDIA (ma)
  35. SHERMAN KAREN (acupuncture)
  37. VERHOEF MARIA (ma)
  39. SMITH CAROLINE (acupuncture)
  42. BUESSING ARNDT (anthroposophical medicine)
  45. MILGROM LIONEL (homeopathy)
  47. ADAMS JON (ma)

The list is interesting in several regards. Principally, it offers individual SCAM researchers for the first time the opportunity to check their international standing relative to their colleagues. But, as the original analysis in Ioannidis’s paper contains much more data than depicted above, there is much further information to be gleaned from it.

For instance, I looked at the rate of self-citation (not least because I have sometimes been accused of overdoing this myself). It turns out that, with 7%, I am relative modest and well below average in that regard. Most of my colleagues are well above that figure. Researchers who have exceptionally high self-citation rates include Buessing (30%), Kuete (43%), Adams (36%), Litscher (45%), and Chen (53%).

The list also opens the possibility to see which countries dominate SCAM research. The dominance of the US seems fairly obvious and would have been expected due to the size of this country and the funds the US put into SCAM research. Considering the lack of funds in the UK, my country ranks surprisingly high, I find. No other country is well-represented in this list. In particular Germany does not appear often (even if we would classify Wallach as German); considering the large amounts of money Germany has invested in SCAM research, this is remarkable and perhaps even a bit shameful, in my view.

Looking at the areas of research, acupuncture and homeopathy seem to stand out. Remarkably, many of the major SCAMs are not or not well represented at all. This is in particular true for herbal medicine, chiropractic and osteopathy.

The list also confirms my former team as the leaders in SCAM research. (Yes, I know: in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.) Pittler, White and Lee were, of course, all former co-workers of mine.

Perhaps the most intriguing finding, I think, relates to the many SCAM researchers who did not make it into the list. Here are a few notable absentees:

  1. Behnke J – GERMANY (homeopathy)
  2. Bensoussan A – AUSTRALIA (acupuncture)
  3. Brinkhaus B – GERMANY  (acupuncture)
  4. Bronfort G  – US  (chiropractic)
  5. Chopra D – US (mind/body)
  6. Cummings M – UK (acupuncture)
  7. Dixon M – UK (ma)
  8. Dobos G – GERMANY (ma)
  9. Fisher P – UK (homeopathy)
  10. Fonnebo V – NORWAY (ma)
  11. Frass M – AUSTRIA (homeopathy)
  12. Goertz C – US (chiropractic)
  13. Hawk C -US (chiropractic)
  14. Horneber M – GERMANY (ma)
  15. Jacobs J – US (homeopathy)
  16. Jobst K – UK (homeopathy)
  17. Kraft K – GERMANY (naturopathy)
  18. Lawrence D – US (chiropractic)
  19. Long CR – US (chiropractic)
  20. Meeker WC – US (chiropractic)
  21. Mathie R – UK (homeopathy)
  22. Melchart – GERMANY (ma)
  23. Michalsen A – GERMANY (ma)
  24. Mills S – UK (herbal medicine)
  25. Peters D – UK (ma)
  26. Reilly D -US (homeopathy)
  27. Reily D – UK (homeopathy)
  28. Robinson N – UK (ma)
  29. Streitberger K – GERMANY (acupuncture)
  30. Tuchin PJ – US (chiropractic)
  31. Uehleke – GERMANY (naturopathy)
  32. Ullman D – US (homeopathy)
  33.  Weil A – US (ma)

I leave it to you to interpret this list and invite you to add more SCAM researchers to it.


(thanks to Paul Posadski for helping with the tables)

We have looked at curcumin several (tumeric) times before (see here, here and here). It seems to have a fascinating spectrum of pharmacological activities. But do they translate into clinical usefulness? To answer this question, we obviously need clinical trials. Unfortunately, not many have become available. Here are two recent studies:

Due to the potential benefits of curcumin in the ischemic heart disease, this study was performed to evaluate whether pretreatment with curcumin may reduce myocardial injury following elective percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). A randomized clinical trial was performed on 110 patients undergoing elective PCI. The intervention group (n = 55) received a single dose of 480 mg nanomicelle curcumin orally and the standard treatment before PCI, while the control group (n = 55) received only the standard treatment., Serum concentrations of CK-MB and troponin I was measured before, 8 and 24 h after the procedure to assess myocardial damage during PCI. The results showed that the raise of CK-MB in curcumin group was half of the control group (4 vs. 8 cases) but was not significant. There were no significant differences in CK-MB levels at 8 (P = .24) and 24 h (P = .37) after PCI between the curcumin and the control group. No significant difference was also found in troponin I levels at 8 (P = 1.0) and 24 h (P = .35) after PCI between the groups. This study did not support the potential cardioprotective benefit of curcumin against pre-procedural myocardial injury in patients undergoing elective PCI.

Ground and mashed turmeric

Inflammation along with oxidative stress has an important role in the pathophysiology of unstable angina which leads to acute myocardial infarction, arrhythmias and eventually heart failure. Curcumin has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects and thereby, it may reduce cardiovascular complications. This randomized controlled trial aimed to investigate the effects of curcumin on the prevention of atrial and ventricular arrhythmias and heart failure in patients with unstable angina.

Materials and Methods:

Forty patients with unstable angina who met the trial inclusion and exclusion criteria, participated in this double-blind randomized clinical trial. The patients were randomized into two groups: curcumin (80 mg/day for 5days) and placebo (80 mg/day for 5days). Cardiac function was evaluated by two-dimensional echocardiography devices at baseline (immediately after hospitalization) and 5 days after the onset of the trial. Atrial and ventricular arrhythmias were recorded by Holter monitors in cardiology ward, Ghaem academic hospital, Mashhad, Iran. Progression to heart failure, myocardial infarction, and pulmonary and cardiopulmonary resuscitation events as well as mortality were recorded daily throughout the study.


There were no significant differences between the two groups in atrial and ventricular arrhythmias (p=0.2), and other echocardiographic parameters (Ejection fraction, E, A, E/A ratio, Em, and pulmonary artery pressure) at baseline and five days after the start of the trial.


Nanocurcumin administered at the dose of 80 mg/day for five days had no effect in the incidence of cardiovascular complications in patients with unstable angina.

Clinical trials are not a good tool for proving a negative; they rarely can prove that a therapy is totally useless. Therefore, we cannot be sure that the many fascinating pharmacological activities of curcumin do not, after all, translate into some clinical benefit. However, what we can say with a high degree of certainty is this: currently there is no good evidence to show that curcumin is effective in treating any human condition.

Perhaps there is a more general lesson here about herbal medicine. Many plants have exiting pharmacological activities such as anti-biotic or anti-cancer activity which can be shown in-vitro. These are then hyped by entrepreneurs and enthusiasts of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Such hype fools many consumers and is thus good for business. But in-vitro activity does not necessarily mean that the therapy is clinically useful. There are many reasons for this, e.g. toxicity, lack of absorption. The essential test is always the clinical trial.


An article in the Sydney Morning Herald might be interesting to some readers. It informs us that, after more than 25 years of running, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) intends to stop offering its degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). A review of the Chinese Medicine Department found it should be wound up at the end of 2021 because

  • it was no longer financially viable,
  • did not produce enough research,
  • and did not fit with the “strategic direction” of the science faculty.

The UTS’s Chinese medicine clinic, which offers acupuncture and herbal treatments, would also close. Students who don’t finish by the end of 2021 will either move to another health course, or transfer to another university (Chinese medicine is also offered by the University of Western Sydney, RMIT in Melbourne, and several private colleges).

TCM “is a historical tradition that pre-dated the scientific era,” said the president of Friends of Science, Associate Professor Ken Harvey. “There’s nothing wrong with looking at that using modern scientific techniques. The problem is people don’t, they tend to teach it like it’s an established fact. If I was a scientifically-orientated vice chancellor I would worry about having a course in my university that didn’t have much of a research profile in traditional Chinese medicine.”

But a spokesman for the University of Technology Sydney said the debate over the scientific validity of Chinese medicine had nothing to do with the decision, and was “in no way a reflection of an institutional bias against complementary health care”. Personally, I find this statement surprising. Should the scientific validity of a subject not be a prime concern of any university?

In this context, may I suggest that the UTS might also have a critical look at their ‘AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH CENTRE IN COMPLEMENTARY AND INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE‘. They call themselves ‘the first centre worldwide dedicated to public health and health services research on complementary and integrative medicine’. Judging from the centre director’s publications, this means publishing one useless survey after another.

As most of us know, the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) can be problematic; its use in children is often most problematic:

In this context, the statement from the ‘Spanish Association Of Paediatrics Medicines Committee’ is of particular value and importance:

Currently, there are some therapies that are being practiced without adjusting to the available scientific evidence. The terminology is confusing, encompassing terms such as “alternative medicine”, “natural medicine”, “complementary medicine”, “pseudoscience” or “pseudo-therapies”. The Medicines Committee of the Spanish Association of Paediatrics considers that no health professional should recommend treatments not supported by scientific evidence. Also, diagnostic and therapeutic actions should be always based on protocols and clinical practice guidelines. Health authorities and judicial system should regulate and regularize the use of alternative medicines in children, warning parents and prescribers of possible sanctions in those cases in which the clinical evolution is not satisfactory, as well responsibilities are required for the practice of traditional medicine, for health professionals who act without complying with the “lex artis ad hoc”, and for the parents who do not fulfill their duties of custody and protection. In addition, it considers that, as already has happened, Professional Associations should also sanction, or at least reprobate or correct, those health professionals who, under a scientific recognition obtained by a university degree, promote the use of therapies far from the scientific method and current evidence, especially in those cases in which it is recommended to replace conventional treatment with pseudo-therapy, and in any case if said substitution leads to a clinical worsening that could have been avoided.

Of course, not all SCAM professions focus on children. The following, however, treat children regularly:

  • acupuncturists
  • anthroposophical doctors
  • chiropractors
  • craniosacral therapists
  • energy healers
  • herbalists
  • homeopaths
  • naturopaths
  • osteopaths

I believe that all SCAM providers who treat children should consider the above statement very carefully. They must ask themselves whether there is good evidence that their treatments generate more good than harm for their patients. If the answer is not positive, they should stop. If they don’t, they should realise that they behave unethically and quite possibly even illegally.

This image caught my eye on facebook. It links to an article that makes a multitude of claims for a dietary supplement by the name of ‘smarter curcumin’:

Promotes Comfort & Flexibility

Studies have shown that curcumin may work by reducing certain key inflammation-promoting enzymes in the body. In some studies curcumin performed well in promoting comfort and flexibility without the side-effects; providing a natural supplement alternative. Athletes and weekend warriors alike are also using it for muscle and joint health recovery, too.

Supports Healthy Joints

Antioxidants play a role in keeping our joints healthy. Your body uses antioxidants to combat free radicals. Free radicals are unstable particles that are created as a result of millions of chemical reactions in the body. They can cause oxidative stress and damage on a cellular level. When scientists examine the blood and joint fluid of patients that are suffering with joint discomfort, often times there is an increased activity of free radicals and lower levels of antioxidants. Curcumin being rich in antioxidants, can give you a healthy supply.

Age-Reducing Beauty – Skin, Hair, and Body

Curcumin, being a very powerful natural antioxidant, helps reduce and neutralize free radicals, which damage and destroy your cells and DNA causing accelerated aging. Since most ageing disorders are driven by oxidative stress, this makes curcumin a very important daily supplement for aging adults.

Healthy Immune Balance

Your immune system is a network of various organs, tissues, and cells that work together to protect your body. Curcumin not only helps to enhance the responses of certain antibodies and cells within the immune system but may also help downregulate the expression of certain proinflammatory substances.

Promotes Cardio Health

A healthy heart consists of many factors, especially eating healthy and routine exercise. Adding curcumin as part of your healthy diet may have many benefits to protect your heart. Oxidized LDL (Low-density lipoprotein) particles (that have been disrupted by free radicals) may produce inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Studies suggest that the antioxidant effects of curcumin can help fight those free radicals.

Improves Digestion

Curcumin has been shown to calm the digestive system, helping to relieve gas, bloating, and other stomach and bowel issues. It works differently than probiotics or enzymes – naturally soothing the gut, and reducing the overproduction of acid.

Support Liver Health

Your liver plays an important role in stabilizing and balancing the maintenance of your body. The health of your liver can be directly related to oxidative stress and proinflammatory substances. Curcumin may help boost antioxidant defenses to help the liver detoxify and restore balance.

Supports Brain Health

The connection between inflammation and cognitive health cannot be overstated. Neurons are especially susceptible to inflammation and the release of inflammatory compounds in the body can be neurotoxic. Curcumin may help protect those precious brain cells.


What fascinates me here is not so much the plethora of therapeutic claims. As far as I can see, most of them are not supported by what I would call good evidence. But I have grown so used to bogus claims in SCAM, that they rarely make me bat an eyelash.

What fascinates me most is the extraordinary picture evidently designed to attract our attention. Many people might have no idea what it depicts, other than a running leopard in a strange environment. Others will realise that the environment is an artery, and the chasing animal therefore seems to imply that the supplement enhances arterial blood flow.

But why? There is no evidence that curcumin has this effect, and the above therapeutic claims are largely unrelated to improvements of the blood circulation.

The artery is filled with red cells in their typical disc shape. It is, however, a shape red cells never have while submitted to flow in arteries. While circulating, they tend to attain a parachute-like shape:

Red cells form a disc shape only when they are motionless. Perhaps the picture really implies that curcumin generates a stagnation of blood flow? No, this is also not in line with reality; in stagnant blood, red cells aggregate and look like this:

So, you see why this image is puzzling. It seems to be aimed at people who are aware that it depicts something medical, yet too ignorant to realise that almost everything is wrong with it.

And why would anyone design an image like this? Could it be that only people naïve enough to think this picture makes any sense are likely to believe the tall tales offered in the text?

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.


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.

‘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.


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?


  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.
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