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

supplements

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The ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’ (CMIH) has been the subject of several previous blog posts (see for instance here, here and here). Recently, they have come up with something new that, in my view, deserves a further comment.

The new ‘SELF CARE TOOL KIT’ began, according to the CMIH, in 2009 with a national multi-centre project commissioned by the UK Department of Health, to consider the best way to integrate self care into family practice. The project involved two large family health centres and two university departments. One output was the Self Care Library (SCL).

The Self Care Library (SCL) is an online patient resource providing free evidence-based information about self-care.  The funding for the SCL did, however, not survive, and the facility was assigned to the CMIH. Thanks to funding from ‘Pukka Herbs Vitamins, Herbal Remedies & Health Supplements‘, the CMIH was able to transfer the content and to begin updating entries. Simon Mills, the coordinator of the original project who is now employed by Pukka, has led this transformation and helped the College set up the new parent portal, Our Health Directory.

The Self Care Toolkit is thus the new SCL. All concerned with this project are experienced in clinical practice and can separate the theory from real life needs. We all have academic lives as well so can be hard-nosed with the evidence base as well.

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The above text is essentially based on the information provided by the CMIH. A few critical remarks and clarifications might therefore be in order:

  • What does ‘separate the theory from real life needs’ mean? Does it mean that the scientific evidence can be interpreted liberally (see below)?
  • Is it a good idea to have a commercial sponsor for such a project?
  • Is it wise that the main person in charge is on the payroll of a manufacturer of dietary supplements?
  • Is there any oversight to minimise undue bias and prevent the public from being misled?
  • Is it really true that all people involved have academic lives? Simon Mills (who once was a member of my team) has no longer an academic appointment, as far as I know.

But, you are right, these are perhaps mere trivialities. Let’s see what the ‘Self Care Tool Kit’ actually delivers. I have chosen the entry on DEPRESSION to check its validity. Here it is:

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It isn’t likely that taking extra vitamins will make much difference to low mood or depression. It is true that many people don’t get quite enough B, C and D vitamins in their food. And it’s also true that the brain and nervous system need these vitamins. Because they don’t get stored in the body, our daily diet has to supply them. Research has shown that people with low blood levels of the B vitamin folic acid are more likely to be depressed and less likely to do well on anti-depressant medicines. So, if you are eating a very poor diet, taking extra vitamins just might help. It’s also worth remembering that alcohol, refined sugars, nicotine and caffeine all take these vitamins out of the body. Yet most people who feel depressed probably won’t benefit from taking vitamins alone. To ensure that you get a good balance of these vitamins, try to eat more whole-foods, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Some people say that taking high doses of vitamin C (1-2 g and more a day) helps lift their mood. There is a little research to support this and none showing that high doses of vitamin C actually help clinical depression. Vitamin C levels fall after surgery or inflammatory disease. The body needs more vitamin C when coping with stress, pregnancy and breast feeding. Aspirin, tetracycline and contraceptive pills take vitamin C out of the body. Smokers also need extra vitamin C because nicotine removes it. Fresh fruit and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C.

Doctors are increasingly concerned about low vitamin D, especially in the Asian community. A lack of vitamin D can lead to depression. Oily fish and dairy products are good sources of vitamin D, and sunlight helps the body make vitamin D. Do you get enough sunshine and eat a good diet? It is estimated that worldwide over 1 billion people get too little vitamin D.

Evidence
Taking supplements of vitamins B and D might help some people, whose diet is poor, but more research is needed.

Safety
Very high doses of vitamins and minerals can upset the body and cause side-effects. Get medical advice if you intend to take large doses. To ensure that you get a good balance of these vitamins, try to eat more whole-foods, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Cost
If your diet is poor and you don’t get into the sun, ask your doctor about a vitamin D blood test. If it’s normal, there’s no point in taking vitamin D. If it’s low, your GP will prescribe it for you or you can buy a vitamin D supplement.

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In my view, this text begs several questions:

1) Am I right in thinking that phraseology such as the one below will encourage patients suffering from depression to try the supplements mentioned?

  • people with low blood levels of the B vitamin folic acid are more likely to be depressed and less likely to do well on anti-depressant medicines..
  • Some people say that taking high doses of vitamin C (1-2 g and more a day) helps lift their mood…
  • There is a little research to support this and none showing that high doses of vitamin C actually help clinical depression…
  • A lack of vitamin D can lead to depression.
  • Taking supplements of vitamins B and D might help some people…
  • … your GP will prescribe it for you or you can buy a vitamin D supplement.

2) How does that tally with the latest evidence? For instance:

3) The CMIH state: ‘This site gives you information NOT medical advice.’  But, in view of the actual text above, is this true?

4) Depression is a life-threatening condition. Is there a risk that patients trust the CMHI’s (non-) advice and commit suicide because of its ineffectiveness?

5) Do Pukka, the sponsor of all this, happen to supply most of the self care remedies promoted in the ‘Self Care Tool Kit’?

The answer to the last question, I am afraid, is YES!

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.

Results:

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.

Conclusion:

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.

IN-VIVO VERITAS!

Facebook and YouTube have in the past been Eldorados for quacks who used it to promote their nonsensical products, false messages, and bogus treatments. A recent article in the Washington Post explained that this might be about to change.

Hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) persuade each other on Facebook that baking soda, apple cider vinegar, frankincense, apricot kernels, tiger bones, Essiac, bleach, homeopathics, Bach flower remedies etc. are cures that doctors don’t want you to know about. But recently Facebook announced that it is taking steps to limit the reach of false and sometimes dangerous therapeutic claims by treating them similar to clickbait or spam.

Facebook will “down-rank” posts that contain certain types of health misinformation, meaning those posts will appear in the news feeds of fewer users, and less prominently. The down-ranking process will use keywords and phrases that commonly appear in posts containing exaggerated or false health claims, but tend to be absent in posts containing accurate information on the same topics. Facebook’s News Feed algorithms will use those suspicious phrases, which the company has identified with the help of health-care professionals, to predict which posts might contain sensational health claims.

“Misleading health content is particularly bad for our community,” Travis Yeh, a Facebook product manager, wrote in a blog post. “So, last month we made two ranking updates to reduce (1) posts with exaggerated or sensational health claims and (2) posts attempting to sell products or services based on health-related claims.”

In a media statement, YouTube said: “Misinformation is a difficult challenge and any misinformation on medical topics is especially concerning … We’ve taken a number of steps to address this, including surfacing more authoritative content across our site. Our systems are not perfect, but we’ve seen progress within this space.”

Without question, these moves are a steps in the right direction. Whether they amount to more than a lip-service, whether they are able to out-smart the quacks, and whether they will make a real difference to the ubiquitous promotion of quackery, has to be seen.

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.

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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.

 

‘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.

Glucosamine supplements are often advocated for the treatment of osteoarthritis. But there is evidence that they might convey other benefits as well. This prospective observational study assessed the association of habitual glucosamine use with risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) events. The UK Biobank data of 466 039 participants without CVD at baseline was used. They completed a questionnaire on supplement use, which included glucosamine. These participants were enrolled from 2006 to 2010 and were followed up to 2016. The main outcome measures were incident CVD events, including CVD death, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

During a median follow-up of seven years, there were 10 204 incident CVD events, 3060 CVD deaths, 5745 coronary heart disease events, and 3263 stroke events. After adjustment for age, sex, body mass index, race, lifestyle factors, dietary intakes, drug use, and other supplement use, glucosamine use was associated with a significantly lower risk of total CVD events (hazard ratio 0.85, 95% confidence interval 0.80 to 0.90), CVD death (0.78, 0.70 to 0.87), coronary heart disease (0.82, 0.76 to 0.88), and stroke (0.91, 0.83 to 1.00).

The authors concluded that habitual use of glucosamine supplement to relieve osteoarthritis pain might also be related to lower risks of CVD events.

This is an impressive study! It incorporates both a huge sample size and a long observation period. Moreover, the authors analysed the data expertly and interpreted their results with the necessary caution.

The association between glucosamine intake and CVD risk were independent of CVD risk factors, such as gender, age, income, body mass index, physical activity, healthy diet, alcohol intake, smoking status, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, drug use, and other supplement use. Moreover, the findings are in line with several previous studies that show inverse associations of glucosamine use with CVD risk and mortality. And finally, the authors discuss several biologically plausible mechanisms that could explain the observed findings.

Yet, it is conceivable that the association is not of a causal nature. There might be a host of confounders responsible for the finding. Therefore, before we now all rush to the next health-food store to buy glucosamine supplements – they are not all that cheap! – we should perhaps wait for further independent replications and research.

Bleach can be a useful product – but not as a medicine taken by mouth or for injection.

A 39-year-old man with a fracture of the right acetabulum underwent open reduction and internal fixation with a plate under general anaesthesia. At closure, the surgeons injected 0.75% ropivacaine into the subcutaneous tissue of the incision wound for postoperative analgesia. Soon after injection, subcutaneous emphysema at the injection site and a sudden decrease in end-tidal CO2 tension with crude oscillatory ripples during the alveolar plateau phase were observed. Shortly thereafter, it was found that the surgeons had mistakenly injected hydrogen peroxide instead of ropivacaine. Fortunately, the patient recovered to normal status after 10 minutes. After the surgery, the patient was carefully observed for suspected pulmonary embolism and discharged without complications.

A team from Morocco reported the case of a massive embolism after hydrogen peroxide use in the cleaning of infected wound with osteosynthesis material left femoral done under spinal anaesthesia in a young girl of 17 years admitted after to the ICU intubated ventilated. She was placed under mechanical ventilation with vasoactive drugs for ten hours and then extubated without neurological sequelae.

Tunisian doctors reported 2 cases of embolic events with neurological signs. The first, during a pleural cleaning with hydrogen peroxide after cystectomy of a pulmonary hydatic cyst at the right upper lobe. The second case, after a pleural washing during the treatment of hepatitic hydatidosis complicated by a ruptured cyst in the thorax.

Canadian anaesthetists reported a case of suspected oxygen venous embolism during lumbar discectomy in the knee-prone position after use of H2O2. Immediately after irrigation of a discectomy wound with H2O2, a dramatic decrease of the PETCO2, blood pressure and oxygen saturation coincident with ST segment elevation occurred suggesting a coronary gas embolism. Symptomatic treatment was initiated immediately and the patient recovered without any sequelae.

Indian nephrologists reported a case of chlorine dioxide poisoning presenting with acute kidney injury.

A 1-year-old boy presented to the emergency department with vomiting and poor complexion after accidentally ingesting a ClO2-based household product. The patient had profound hypoxia that did not respond to oxygen therapy and required endotracheal intubation to maintain a normal oxygen level. Methemoglobinemia was suspected based on the gap between SpO2 and PaO2, and subsequently increased methemoglobin at 8.0% was detected. The patient was admitted to the paediatric intensive care unit for further management. After supportive treatment, he was discharged without any complications. He had no cognitive or motor dysfunction on follow up 3 months later.

The medical literature is littered with such case-reports. They give us a fairly good idea that the internal use of bleach is not a good idea. In fact, it has caused several deaths. Yet, this is precisely what some SCAM practitioners are advocating.

Now one of them is in court for manslaughter. “If I am such a clear and present danger and a murderer, I should be in jail by now,” said doctor Shortt, who despite a criminal investigation, is still treating patients in his office on the outskirts of Columbia, S.C. Shortt got his medical degree 13 years ago on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Being a “longevity physician” didn’t seem to bother anyone until one of his patients wound up dead. Shortt gave her an infusion of hydrogen peroxide. Katherine Bibeau, a medical technologist and a mother of two, had been battling multiple sclerosis for two years, and was looking for any treatment that might keep her out of a wheelchair. According to her husband, doctor Shortt said hydrogen peroxide was just the thing. “He had said that there was other people who had been in wheelchairs, and had actually gone through treatment and were now walking again.” It didn’t worry the Bibeaus that Shortt wasn’t affiliated with any hospital or university – and that insurance didn’t cover most of his treatments. “He was a licensed medical doctor in Carolina,” says Bibeau. “So I put my faith in those credentials.” According to Shortt’s own records, the patient subsequently complained of “nausea,” “leg pain,” and later “bruises” with no clear cause. “She went Tuesday, she went Thursday. And by 11 o’clock on Sunday, she died,” says Mr Bibeau. Shortt never told him or his wife about any serious risks. “Even if it wasn’t effective, it should not have been harmful.”

Shortt has been putting hydrogen peroxide in several of his patients’ veins, because he believes it can effectively treat illnesses from AIDS to the common cold. “I think it’s an effective treatment for the flu,” says Shortt, who also believes that it’s effective for multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, and “as adjunctive therapy” for heart disease. “Things that involve the immune system, viruses, bacteria, sometimes parasites.”

He’s not the only physician using this treatment. Intravenous hydrogen peroxide is a SCAM touted as a cure the medical establishment doesn’t want you to know about. There even is an association that claims to have trained hundreds of doctors how to administer it. The theory is that hydrogen peroxide releases extra oxygen inside the body, killing viruses and bacteria.

Natural News, for instance, tells us that cancer has a rival that destroys it like an M-60 leveling a field of enemy soldiers. It’s called “hydrogen peroxide,” and the “lame-stream,” mainstream media will tell you how “dangerous” it is at 35%, but they won’t tell you that you can drip a couple drops in a glass of water each day and end cancer. Yes, it’s true.

And hydrogen peroxide is not the only bleach that found its way into the realm of SCAM.

Perhaps even worse (if that is possible), the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing promote MMS as a miracle cure. It consists of chlorine dioxide, a powerful bleach that has been banned in several countries around the world for use as a medical treatment. The ‘Church’ claim that MMS cures 95% of all diseases in the world by making adults and children, including infants, drink industrial bleach. The group is inviting members to attend what they call their “effective alternative healing”.

The organizer of the event, Tom Merry, has publicized it by telling people that learning how to consume the bleach “could save your life, or the life of a loved one sent home to die”. The “church” is asking attendants of the meeting to “donate” $450 each, or $800 per couple, in exchange for receiving membership to the organization as well as packages of the bleach, which they call “sacraments”. The chemical is referred to as MMS, or “miracle mineral solution or supplement”, and participants are promised they will acquire “the knowledge to help heal many people of this world’s terrible diseases”.

Fiona O’Leary, a tireless and courageous campaigner for putting an end to a wide variety of mistreatments of children and adults, whose work helped to get MMS banned in Ireland, said she was horrified that the Genesis II Church, which she called a “bleach cult”, was hosting a public event in Washington.

In Fiona’s words: “ Its experimentation and abuse”. I do agree and might just add this: selling bleach for oral or intravenous application, while pretending it is an effective medicine, seems criminal as well.

Exactly 20 years ago, I published a review concluding that the generally high and possibly growing prevalence of complementary/alternative medicine use by children renders this topic an important candidate for rigorous investigation. Since then, many papers have emerged, and most of them are worrying in one way or another. Here is the latest one.

This Canadian survey assessed chiropractic (DC) and naturopathic doctors’ (ND) natural health product (NHP) recommendations for paediatric care. It was developed in collaboration with DC and ND educators, and delivered as an on-line national survey. NHP dose, form of delivery, and indications across paediatric age ranges (from newborn to 16 years) for each practitioner’s top five NHPs were assessed. Data were analysed using descriptive statistics, t-tests, and non-parametric tests.

Of the 421 respondents seeing one or more paediatric patients per week, 172 (41%, 107 DCs, 65 NDs) provided 440 NHP recommendations, categorized as:

  • vitamins and minerals (89 practitioners, 127 recommendations),
  • probiotics (110 practitioners, 110 recommendations),
  • essential fatty acids (EFAs: 72 practitioners, 72 recommendations),
  • homeopathics (56 practitioners, 66 recommendations),
  • botanicals (29 practitioners, 31 recommendations),
  • other NHPs (33 practitioners, 34 recommendations).

Indications for the NHP recommendations were tabulated for NHPs with 10 or more recommendations in any age category:

  • 596 total indications for probiotics,
  • 318 indications for essential fatty acids,
  • 138 indications for vitamin D,
  • 71 indications for multi-vitamins.

Good evidence regarding the efficacy, safety, and dosing for NHP use in children is scarce or even absent. Therefore, the finding that so many DCs and NDs recommend unproven NHPs for use in children is worrying, to say the least. It seems to indicate that, at least in Canada, DCs and NDs are peddling unproven, mostly useless  and potentially harmful children.

In an earlier, similar survey the same group of researchers had disclosed that the majority of Canadian DCs and NDs seem to see infants, children, and youth for a variety of health conditions and issues, while, according to their own admission, not having adequate paediatric training.

Is this a Canadian phenomenon? If you think so, read this abstract:

AIM:

This systematic review is aimed at estimating the prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)-use by paediatric populations in the United Kingdom (UK).

METHOD:

AMED, CINAHL, COCHRANE, EMBASE and MEDLINE were searched for English language peer-reviewed surveys published between 01 January 2000 and September 2011. Additionally, relevant book chapters and our own departmental files were searched manually.

RESULTS:

Eleven surveys were included with a total of 17,631 paediatric patients. The majority were of poor methodological quality. Due to significant heterogeneity of the data, a formal meta-analysis was deemed inappropriate. Ten surveys related to CAM in general, while one was specifically on homeopathy. Across all surveys on CAM in general, the average one-year prevalence rate was 34% and the average lifetime prevalence was 42%. In surveys with a sample size of more than 500, the prevalence rates were considerably lower than in surveys with the sample size of lower than 500. Herbal medicine was the most popular CAM modality, followed by homeopathy and aromatherapy.

CONCLUSIONS:

Many paediatric patients in the UK seem to use CAM. Paediatricians should therefore have sufficient knowledge about CAM to issue responsible advice.

This means, I fear, that children are regularly treated by SCAM practitioners who are devoid of the medical competence to do so, and  who prescribe or recommend treatments of unknown value, usually without the children needing them.

Why are regulators not more concerned about this obvious abuse?

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