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

test of time

Advocates of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) often sound like a broken record to me. They bring up the same ‘arguments’ over and over again, no matter whether they happen to be defending acupuncture, energy healing, homeopathy, or any other form of SCAM. Here are some of the most popular of these generic ‘arguments’:

1. It helped me
The supporters of SCAM regularly cite their own good experiences with their particular form of treatment and think that this is proof enough. However, they forget that any symptomatic improvement they may have felt can be the result of several factors that are unrelated to the SCAM in question. To mention just a few:

  • Placebo
  • Regression towards the mean
  • Natural history of the disease

2. My SCAM is without risk
Since homeopathic remedies, for instance, are highly diluted, it makes sense to assume that they cannot cause side effects. Several other forms of SCAM are equally unlikely to cause adverse effects. So, the notion is seemingly correct. However, this ‘argument’ ignores the fact that it is not the therapy itself that can pose a risk, but the SCAM practitioner. For example, it is well documented – and, on this blog, we have discussed it often – that many of them advise against vaccination, which can undoubtedly cause serious harm.

3. SCAM has stood the test of time
It is true that many SCAMs have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is also true that millions still use it even today. This, according to enthusiasts, is sufficient proof of SCAM’s efficacy. But they forget that many therapies have survived for centuries, only to be proved useless in the end. Just think of bloodletting or mercury preparations from past times.

4 The evidence is not nearly as negative as skeptics pretend
Yes, there are plenty of positive studies on some SCAMs This is not surprising. Firstly, from a purely statistical point of view, if we have, for instance, 1 000 studies of a particular SCAM, it is to be expected that, at the 5% level of statistical significance, about 50 of them will produce a significantly positive result. Secondly, this number becomes considerably larger if we factor in the fact that most of the studies are methodologically poor and were conducted by SCAM enthusiasts with a corresponding bias (see my ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME on this blog). However, if we base our judgment on the totality of the most robust studies, the bottom line is almost invariably that there is no overall convincingly positive result.

5. The pharmaceutical industry is suppressing SCAM
SCAM is said to be so amazingly effective that the pharmaceutical industry would simply go bust if this fact became common knowledge. Therefore Big Pharma is using its considerable resources to destroy SCAM. This argument is fallacious because:

  1. there is no evidence to support it,
  2. far from opposing SCAM, the pharmaceutical industry is heavily involved in SCAM (for example, by manufacturing homeopathic remedies, dietary supplements, etc.)

6 SCAM could save a lot of money
It is true that SCAMs are on average much cheaper than conventional medicines. However, one must also bear in mind that price alone can never be the decisive factor. We also need to consider other issues such as the risk/benefit balance. And a reduction in healthcare costs can never be achieved by ineffective therapies. Without effectiveness, there can be no cost-effectiveness.

7 Many conventional medicines are also not evidence-based
Sure, there are some treatments in conventional medicine that are not solidly supported by evidence. So why do we insist on solid evidence for SCAM? The answer is simple: in all areas of healthcare, intensive work is going on aimed at filling the gaps and improving the situation. As soon as a significant deficit is identified, studies are initiated to establish a reliable basis. Depending on the results, appropriate measures are eventually taken. In the case of negative findings, the appropriate measure is to exclude treatments from routine healthcare, regardless of whether the treatment in question is conventional or alternative. In other words, this is work in progress. SCAM enthusiasts should ask themselves how many treatments they have discarded so far. The answer, I think, is zero.

8 SCAM cannot be forced into the straitjacket of a clinical trial
This ‘argument’ surprisingly popular. It supposes that SCAM is so individualized, holistic, subtle, etc., that it defies science. The ‘argument’ is false, and SCAM advocates know it, not least because they regularly and enthusiastically cite those scientific papers that seemingly support their pet therapy.

9 SCAM is holistic
This may or may not be true, but the claim of holism is not a monopoly of SCAM. All good medicine is holistic, and in order to care for our patients holistically, we certainly do not need SCAM.

1o SCAM complements conventional medicine
This argument might be true: SCAM is often used as an adjunct to conventional treatments. Yet, there is no good reason why a complementary treatment should not be shown to be worth the effort and expense to add it to another therapy. If, for instance, you pay for an upgrade on a flight, you also want to make sure that it is worth the extra expenditure.

11 In Switzerland it works, too
That’s right, in Switzerland, a small range of SCAMs was included in basic health care by referendum. However, it has been reported that the consequences of this decision are far from positive. It brought no discernible benefit and only caused very considerable costs.

I am sure there are many more such ‘arguments’. Feel free to post your favorites!

My point here is this:

the ‘arguments’ used in defense of SCAM are not truly arguments; they are fallacies, misunderstandings, and sometimes even outright lies. 

 

One of my recent posts prompted the following comment from a chiropractor: “… please don’t let me stop you…while we actually treat patients“. It was given in the context of a debate about the evidence for or against chiropractic spinal manipulations as a treatment of whiplash injuries. My position was that there is no convincing evidence, while the chiropractor argued that he has been using manipulations for this indication with good results. Here I do not want to re-visit the pros and cons of that particular debate. Since similar objections have been put to me so many times, I want rather to raise several more principal points.

Before I do this, I need to quickly get the personal stuff out of the way: the comment implies that I  don’t really know what I am talking about because I don’t see patients and thus don’t understand their needs. The truth is that I started my professional life as a clinician, then I went into basic science, then I went back into clinical medicine (while also doing research), and eventually, I became a full-time clinical researcher. I have thus seen plenty of patients, certainly enough to empathize with both the needs of patients and the reasoning of clinicians. In fact, these provided the motives for my clinical research during the last decades of my professional career (more details here).

Now about the real issue that is at stake here. When offered by a clinician to a scientist, the comment “… please don’t let me stop you…while we actually treat patients” is an expression of an arrogant feeling of superiority that clinicians often harbor vis a vis professionals who are not at the ‘coal face’ of healthcare. Stripped down to its core, the argument implies that science is fairly useless because the only knowledge worth having stems from dealing with patients. In other words, it is about the tension that so often exists between clinical experience and scientific evidence.

Many clinicians feel that experience is the best guide to correct decision-making.

Many scientists feel that experience is fraught with errors, and only science can lead us towards optimal decisions.

Such arguments emerge regularly on this blog and are constant company to almost any type of healthcare. The question is, who is right and who is wrong?

As I indicated, I can empathize with both positions. I can see that, in the context of making therapeutic decisions in a busy clinic, for instance, the clinician’s argument weighs heavily and can make sense, particularly in areas where the evidence is mixed, weak, or uncertain.

However, in the context of this blog and other discussions focused on critical evaluation of the science, I am strongly on the side of the scientist. In fact, in this context, the argument “… please don’t let me stop you…while we actually treat patients” seems ridiculous and resembles an embarrassing admission of having no rational argument left for defending one’s own position.

To put my view of this in a nutshell: it is not a question of either or; for optimal healthcare, we obviously need both clinical experience AND scientific evidence (an insight that is not in the slightest original, since it is even part of Sackett’s definition of EBM).

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that advocates of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are either in complete denial about the risks of SCAM or they do anything to trivialize them. Here is a dialogue between a SCAM proponent (P) and a scientist (S) that is aimed at depicting this situation. The conversation is fictitious, of course, but it is nevertheless based on years of experience in discussing these issues with practitioners of various types of SCAM. As we shall see, the arguments turn out to be perfectly circular.

P: My therapy is virtually free of risks.

S: How can you be so sure?

P: I am practicing it for decades and have never seen a single problem.

S: That could have several reasons; perhaps the patients who experience problems did simply not come back.

P: I find this unlikely.

S: I don’t, and I know of reports where patients had serious complications after the type of SCAM you practice.

P: These are isolated case reports. They do not amount to evidence.

S: How do you know they are isolated?

P: They must be isolated because, in the many clinical trials of my therapy available to date, you will not find any evidence of serious adverse effects.

S: That is true, but it has been repeatedly shown that these trials regularly fail to mention side effects altogether.

P: That’s because there aren’t any.

S: Not quite, clinical trials should always mention adverse effects, and if there were none, they should mention this too.

P: So, you admit that you have no evidence that my therapy causes adverse effects.

S: The thing is, I don’t need such evidence. It is you, the practitioners of this therapy, who should provide evidence that your treatments are safe.

P: We did! The complete absence of reports of side effects constitutes that evidence.

S: Except, there is some evidence. I already told you that there are several case reports of serious problems.

P: But case reports are anecdotes; they are no evidence.

S: Look, here is a systematic review of all the case reports. You cannot possibly deny that this is a concern.

P: It’s still merely a bunch of anecdotes, nothing more.

S: Only because your profession does nothing about it.

P: What do you think we need to do about it?

S: Like other professions, you need to systematically record adverse effects.

P: How would that help?

S: It would give us a rough indication of the size and severity of the problem.

P: This sounds expensive and complicated to organize.

S: Perhaps, but it is necessary if you want to be sure that your therapy is safe.

P: But we are sure already!

S: No, you believe it, but you don’t know it.

P: You are getting on my nerves with your obsession. Don’t you know that the true danger in healthcare is the adverse effects of pharmaceutical drugs?

S: But these drugs are also effective.

P: Are you saying my therapy isn’t?

S: What I am saying is that the drugs you claim to be dangerous do more good than harm, while this is not at all clear with your SCAM.

P: To me, that is very clear. My therapy helps many and harms nobody!

S: How do you know that it harms nobody?

 

 

… At this point, we have gone full circle and we can re-start this conversation from its beginning.

 

 

Acupuncture for animals has a long history in China. In the West, it was introduced in the 1970s when acupuncture became popular for humans. A recent article sums up our current knowledge on the subject. Here is an excerpt:

Acupuncture is used mainly for functional problems such as those involving noninfectious inflammation, paralysis, or pain. For small animals, acupuncture has been used for treating arthritis, hip dysplasia, lick granuloma, feline asthma, diarrhea, and certain reproductive problems. For larger animals, acupuncture has been used for treating downer cow syndrome, facial nerve paralysis, allergic dermatitis, respiratory problems, nonsurgical colic, and certain reproductive disorders.Acupuncture has also been used on competitive animals. There are veterinarians who use acupuncture along with herbs to treat muscle injuries in dogs and cats. Veterinarians charge around $85 for each acupuncture session.[8]Veterinary acupuncture has also recently been used on more exotic animals, such as chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)[9] and an alligator with scoliosis,[10] though this is still quite rare.

In 2001, a review found insufficient evidence to support equine acupuncture. The review found uniformly negative results in the highest quality studies.[11] In 2006, a systematic review of veterinary acupuncture found “no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals”, citing trials with, on average, low methodological quality or trials that are in need of independent replication.[1] In 2009, a review on canine arthritis found “weak or no evidence in support of” various treatments, including acupuncture.[12]

To put it in a nutshell: acupuncture for animals is not evidence-based.

How can I be so sure?

Because ref 1 in the text above refers to our paper. Here is its abstract:

Acupuncture is a popular complementary treatment option in human medicine. Increasingly, owners also seek acupuncture for their animals. The aim of the systematic review reported here was to summarize and assess the clinical evidence for or against the effectiveness of acupuncture in veterinary medicine. Systematic searches were conducted on Medline, Embase, Amed, Cinahl, Japana Centra Revuo Medicina and Chikusan Bunken Kensaku. Hand-searches included conference proceedings, bibliographies, and contact with experts and veterinary acupuncture associations. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication. All controlled clinical trials testing acupuncture in any condition of domestic animals were included. Studies using laboratory animals were excluded. Titles and abstracts of identified articles were read, and hard copies were obtained. Inclusion and exclusion of studies, data extraction, and validation were performed independently by two reviewers. Methodologic quality was evaluated by means of the Jadad score. Fourteen randomized controlled trials and 17 nonrandomized controlled trials met our criteria and were, therefore, included. The methodologic quality of these trials was variable but, on average, was low. For cutaneous pain and diarrhea, encouraging evidence exists that warrants further investigation in rigorous trials. Single studies reported some positive intergroup differences for spinal cord injury, Cushing’s syndrome, lung function, hepatitis, and rumen acidosis. These trials require independent replication. On the basis of the findings of this systematic review, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.

This evidence is in sharp contrast to the misinformation published by the ‘IVAS’ (International Veterinary Acupuncture Society). Under the heading “For Which Conditions is Acupuncture Indicated?“, they propagate the following myth:

Acupuncture is indicated for functional problems such as those that involve paralysis, noninfectious inflammation (such as allergies), and pain. For small animals, the following are some of the general conditions which may be treated with acupuncture:

  • Musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis, intervertebral disk disease, or traumatic nerve injury
  • Respiratory problems, such as feline asthma
  • Skin problems such as lick granulomas and allergic dermatitis
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea
  • Selected reproductive problems

For large animals, acupuncture is again commonly used for functional problems. Some of the general conditions where it might be applied are the following:

  • Musculoskeletal problems such as sore backs or downer cow syndrome
  • Neurological problems such as facial paralysis
  • Skin problems such as allergic dermatitis
  • Respiratory problems such as heaves and “bleeders”
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as nonsurgical colic
  • Selected reproductive problems

In addition, regular acupuncture treatment can treat minor sports injuries as they occur and help to keep muscles and tendons resistant to injury. World-class professional and amateur athletes often use acupuncture as a routine part of their training. If your animals are involved in any athletic endeavor, such as racing, jumping, or showing, acupuncture can help them keep in top physical condition.

And what is the conclusion?

Perhaps this?

Never trust the promotional rubbish produced by SCAM organizations.

On Amazon, someone commented as follows on my biography of Prince Charles:

… Dr. Ernst goes on digressions that mostly seem intended to make Prince Charles look bad. There’s a long chapter on Laurens van der Post, who influenced Prince Charles as a youth, and a lot about somewhat unsavory things he did. So what? …

This made me think. I read the chapter again and find it hard to agree with the comment. To me, this chapter is a short (~2000 words) and essential part of the book. Judge for yourself; here are a few excerpts from it:

“It seemed to have been a union of mutual needs, between a Prince longing to find meaning in his existence and a storyteller who could weave apparent answers out of thin air.” Laurence van der Post was oozing charm and charisma and sensed that “for the Prince, there was a missing dimension”, as Jonathan Dimbleby put it. By 1975, the two men had formed such a close rapport that van der Post felt able to counsel him about spiritual matters, urging him to explore the ‘old world of the spirit’ and ‘the inward way’ towards truth and understanding. Van der Post suggested the two make a seven week journey into the Kalahari desert. This, he believed, would introduce Charles to the spirit world. Preparations were made in 1977 but, in the end, the plan had to be abandoned. Instead, the two later went to Kenya where they spent 5 days of long walks and “intense conversation”.

Van der Post urged Charles to play “a dynamic and as yet unimagined role to suit the future shape of a fundamentally reappraised and renewed modern society”, a reappraisal that would be “so widespread and go so deep that it will involve a prolonged fight for all that is good and creative in the human imagination.” An aspect of this fight, he claimed, would be “to restore the human being to a lost natural aspect of his own spirit; to restore his relevance for life and his love of nature, and to draw closer to the original blueprint and plan of life…”

Laurence left an interview for posthumous publication; in it, he expressed his hope that Charles would never become king, as this would imprison him, it would be more important that Charles continues to be a great prince. “He’s been brought up in a terrible way … He’s a natural Renaissance man, a man who believes in the wholeness and totality of life … Why should it be that if you try to contemplate your natural self that you should be thought to be peculiar?”

“For 20 years they had most intimate conversations and correspondence … with a steady flow of reassurance and encouragement, political and diplomatic advice, memoranda, draft speeches and guidance for reading”.  Van der Post introduced Charles to the teachings of Carl Jung and his concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ that binds all humans together regardless whether they are Kalahari bushmen or princes. On the behest of van der Post, Charles began to record his dreams which van der Post then interpreted according to Jung’s theories. In the late 1970s van der Post tried to convince Charles to give up all his duties and withdraw from the world completely in search for an ‘inner world truth’. This plan too was aborted.

All biographers agree that van der Post was the strongest intellectual influence of Charles’ life.

  • Charles sought van der Post’s advice and spiritual guidance on numerous occasions.
  • When William was born, he made van der Post his godfather.
  • When Charles’ marriage to Diana ran into difficulties, the couple was counselled by van der Post.
  • Charles invited Laurence regularly to Highgrove, Sandringham and Balmoral.
  • Charles visited van der Post on his deathbed.
  • After Laurence’s death, Charles created a series of annual lectures hosted in van der Post’s memory which he hosted in St James’ Palace.

Charles’ notions about medicine were unquestionably inspired by van der Post. Laurence. He, for instance, bemoaned the inadequacy of conventional medicine and wrote: “Even if doctors did … use dreams and their decoding as an essential part of their diagnostic equipment and perhaps could confront cancer at the point of entry, how are they to turn it aside, unless they are humble enough to keep their instruments in their cases and look for some new form of navigation over an uncharted sea of the human spirit?” As we will see in the next chapters, van der Post’s influence shines through in many of Charles’ speeches. Moreover, it contributed to the attitude of many critical observers towards Charles. Christopher Hitchens is but one example for many:

“We have known for a long time that Prince Charles’ empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant. He fell for the fake anthropologist Laurens van der Post. He was bowled over by the charms of homeopathic medicine. He has been believably reported as saying that plants do better if you talk to them in a soothing and encouraging way… The heir to the throne seems to possess the ability to surround himself—perhaps by some mysterious ultramagnetic force?—with every moon-faced spoon-bender, shrub-flatterer, and water-diviner within range.”

The following chapters will show that Hitchens might not have been far off the mark.

___________________________

Yes, I do feel that the chapter is essential for the book. It explains how Charles’ love affair with alternative medicine got started and why it would become so intense and durable. Without it, the reader would not be able to understand the rest of the book. Moreover, it is important to demonstrate that van der Post was a charlatan and an accomplished liar. This is relevant because, in later life, Charles’ skill to choose adequate advisors was often wanting.

Bloodletting therapy (BLT) has been widely used for centuries until it was discovered that it is not merely useless for almost all diseases but also potentially harmful. Yet in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) BLT is still sometimes employed, for instance, to relieve acute gouty arthritis (AGA). This systematic review aimed to evaluate the feasibility and safety of BLT in treating AGA.

Seven databases were searched from the date of establishment to July 31, 2020, irrespective of the publication source and language. BLT included fire needle, syringe, three-edged needle, and bloodletting followed by cupping. The included articles were evaluated for bias risk by using the Cochrane risk of bias assessment tool.

Twelve studies involving 894 participants were included in the final analysis. A meta-analysis suggested that BLT was highly effective in relieving pain (MD = -1.13, 95% CI [-1.60, -0.66], P < 0.00001), with marked alterations in the total effective (RR = 1.09, 95% [1.05, 1.14], P < 0.0001) and curative rates (RR = 1.37, 95%CI [1.17, 1.59], P < 0.0001). In addition, BLT could dramatically reduce serum C-reactive protein (CRP) level (MD = -3.64, 95%CI [-6.72, -0.55], P = 0.02). Both BLT and Western medicine (WM) produced comparable decreases in uric acid (MD = -18.72, 95%CI [-38.24, 0.81], P = 0.06) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) levels (MD = -3.01, 95%CI [-6.89, 0.86], P = 0.13). Lastly, we demonstrated that BLT was safer than WM in treating AGA (RR = 0.36, 95%CI [0.13, 0.97], P = 0.04).

The authors concluded that BLT is effective in alleviating pain and decreasing CRP level in AGA patients with a lower risk of evoking adverse reactions.

This conclusion is optimistic, to say the least. There are several reasons for this statement:

  • All the primary studies came from China (and we have often discussed that such trials need to be taken with a pinch of salt).
  • All the studies had major methodological flaws.
  • There was considerable heterogeneity between the studies.
  • The treatments employed were very different from study to study.
  • Half of all studies failed to mention adverse effects and thus violate medical ethics.

The British Royal Family have been proponents of homeopathy for generations. Homeopathy was originally introduced into the UK by Frederic Hervey Foster Quin who, as a young physician, had visited Hahnemann in Koethen, Germany. Quin was soon fully converted to homeopathy and returned to England. Being well-connected to the European aristocracy, he managed to attract many influential personalities to homeopathy. In 1844, he founded the British Homeopathic Society and, in 1850, he opened the predecessor of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital which is today called the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine.

Our Queen has many times been reported to swear by her homeopathic remedies. Some went as far as claiming her good health in old age must be due to her using homeopathy to keep well. Here is just one example from ‘THE OFFICIAL HOMEOPATHY RESOURCE’ of 2016:

On her 90th birthday, the London Weekly News reports that in spite of criticism the Queen has used homeopathy all her life and has remarkable good health. In fact, many generations of the Royal family have used homeopathy

For as The Queen marks her 90th birthday on April 21, that she has reached such an excellent age is largely due to her lifelong trust in homeopathy. Everywhere that Her Majesty goes she is accompanied by a small case of special cures and tinctures and, although doctors no not care to admit it, it is because of her herbal little helpers that she rarely gets a cold or any other sort of complaint.

Empiricists would argue that as both The Queen and the late Queen Mother have been avid fans of homeopathy and as The Queen Mum died at the age of 101, the glaring probability that it works seems to be rather evident.

Sadly, her good health cannot last forever, and we have all seen recent reports of her being unwell, spending one night in hospital, and announcing the cancellation of all her engagements during the next two weeks resting on doctors’ orders.

Which doctors?

Peter Fisher was her homeopath, but he tragically died three years ago. Did the Queen appoint another homeopath to look after her? Did she go into the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine when she was ill? Was she reported to be taking homeopathic remedies during her recovery? The answer to all those questions seems to be NO.

What does that tell us?

I have often observed that our Royals use homeopathy while they are well and conventional medicine when they are ill. The Queen might have followed this strategy too. But not appointing a successor to Peter Fisher suggests something quite different. Does it indicate, I ask myself, that the Queen has recently had the occasion to look at the evidence and concluded – as most intelligent people did some time ago – that homeopathy does not work beyond placebo?

I certainly hope so, not least because refusing to rely on homeopathy would significantly increase her chances of remaining our Queen for some time to come.

Tinospora cordifolia, a plant used in Ayurvedic medicine, is a widely grown glabrous, deciduous climbing shrub which has been described in traditional medicine texts to have a long list of health benefits. It contains diverse phytochemicals, including alkaloids, phytosterols, glycosides. Preparations utilize the stem and root of the plant which is consumed in the form of capsules, powder, or juice or in an unprocessed form. Its benefits are said to include anti-inflammatory, anti-pyretic properties, anti-viral and anti-cancer, and immune-boosting properties. The latter alleged activity made it popular during the pandemic. Indian researchers recently reported 6 patients who presented with liver injuries after taking Tinospora cordifolia.

Case 1

A previously healthy 40- year-old male without comorbidities, presented with jaundice of 15 days duration. On persistent probing, he gave a history of consumption of TC plant twigs (10 to 12 pieces) boiled with cinnamon and cloves in half a glass of water, once in two days for 3 months prior to presentation. USG of the abdomen was unremarkable. He underwent a percutaneous liver biopsy which showed features of the hepatocellular pattern of liver injury – with lymphoplasmacytic cell infiltrate, interface hepatitis, and foci of necrosis – suggesting the diagnosis of DILI with autoimmune features. He was managed with standard medical treatment (SMT) which included multivitamins and ondansetron for associated nausea. He was followed up for 5 months till the complete resolution of symptoms and normalization of liver function.

Case 2

A 54- year -old female, with type 2 diabetes mellitus, presented with jaundice for 1 week. A 7-month history of unsupervised consumption of TC plant (1 twig per day), which was boiled and extract consumed – was obtained. Evaluation for cause revealed a positive ANA (1:100), negative ASMA, negative viral markers, and normal IgG. USG features showing a liver with coarse echotexture, spleen of 13.4 cm, and minimal free fluid in the abdomen. A percutaneous liver biopsy showed a mixed pattern of liver injury (hepatocellular and cholestatic) with features of lymphocytic, neutrophilic and eosinophilic infiltrate, prominent interface hepatitis, intracytoplasmic and canalicular cholestasis, and altered architecture. She was managed with SMT. In view of chronicity, she was started on oral prednisolone in a dose of 40 mg which was tapered over a period of 10 weeks following which there was the resolution of her symptoms, improvement in LFTs and she was advised regular follow up.

Case 3

A 38- year-male with Beta-thalassemia minor presented with jaundice of 1-week duration. He gave a history of consumption of 3-4 TC plant twigs – boiled and extract consumed 15 ml/day for 6 months prior to presentation. Work up for the etiology showed a positive ANA (1:100). USG showed hepatomegaly (16 cm) with diffuse fatty infiltration and splenomegaly (17.3 cm). A percutaneous liver biopsy suggested the diagnosis of drug-induced hepatitis with a hepatocellular pattern of liver injury along with moderate lymphocytic infiltrate admixed with plenty of eosinophils and few plasma cells, mild interface hepatitis. He was managed with SMT and followed up until complete resolution of symptoms and LFTs.

Case 4

A 62- year-old female with type 2 diabetes mellitus, presented with complaints of malaise, reduced appetite and yellowish discoloration of urine, eyes, and skin with abdominal distension for 15 days. She confirmed consumption of commercially available syrup containing TC plant – 15 ml/day, every alternate day for a month, prior to the onset of her symptoms. Investigations revealed a positive ANA (1:320) and ASMA. Imaging showed hepatomegaly and ascites. A trans-jugular liver biopsy suggested a diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis suggested by lymphoplasmacytic infiltrate with eosinophils and neutrophils, as well as interface hepatitis. There was also cirrhosis suggested by marked lobular disarray, pseudo-glandular transformation, and bridging hepatic fibrosis. She was treated with standard medical therapy including a low salt diet and diuretics for ascites and started on oral prednisolone 40 mg per day. She initially showed clinical improvement and improving trends of LFTs. However, on tapering of steroids, she came back with increasing ascites and oliguria and succumbed to hepato-renal syndrome around 120 days from the first presentation.

Case 5

A 56- year-old female with hypothyroidism presented with yellowish discoloration of urine and eyes. A short, 3-week history of consumption of TC plant boiled extract of 1 twig, 2 to 3 days/week was obtained. Standard investigations for etiology were negative except for a high serum IgG of 2570 mg/dl. The auto-immune markers were negative. USG showed mild ascites, nodular liver, and spleen of 12.3 cm. A trans-jugular liver biopsy showed lymphoplasmacytic infiltrate admixed with plasma cells and eosinophils, moderate interface hepatitis, fibrosis, and altered architecture suggestive of auto-immune cirrhosis. SMT and tapering doses of prednisolone starting with 40 mg orally over 6 weeks led to the resolution of symptoms with the improvement of LFT. She was continued on a maintenance dose of steroids and advised to close follow-up.

Case 6

A 56- year-old female, with hypothyroidism presented with jaundice of 20 days duration. History of TC plant formulation in the form of commercially available tablets – 1 pill a day, for 3 months prior to presentation was obtained. Routine evaluation for the cause of liver injury showed a weakly positive ASMA and a high serum IgG (2045 mg/dl). ANA was negative. USG showed diffuse heterogeneous echotexture of liver and normal-sized spleen. A percutaneous liver biopsy showed chronic hepatitis with lymphoplasmacytic infiltrate, interface hepatitis with significant bridging fibrosis suggesting the possibility of autoimmune hepatitis. She was managed with SMT, leading to complete symptomatic and biochemical resolution. There was no relapse of hepatitis after stopping TC and a follow-up of 2 months.

 

The authors believe that the liver injury seen in these patients was caused by autoimmune-like hepatitis due to consumption of TC, or the unmasking of latent chronic auto-immune liver disease. Most drug-induced autoimmune liver injuries are an acute idiosyncratic reaction which was also supported by the fact that one patient taking the drug for only 3 weeks on alternate days.

Withania somnifera, commonly known as Ashwagandha, is a plant belonging to the family of Solanaceae. It is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. The plant is promoted as an immunomodulator, anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, anti-Parkinson, anti-Alzheimer, cardioprotective, neural and physical health enhancer, neuro-defensive, anti-diabetic, aphrodisiac, memory-boosting, and ant-cancer remedy. It contains diverse phytoconstituents including alkaloids, steroids, flavonoids, phenolics, nitrogen-containing compounds, and trace elements.

But how much of the hype is supported by evidence? Unsurprisingly, there is a shortage of good clinical trials. Yet, during the last few years, a surprising number of reviews of the accumulating evidence have emerged:

  • One review suggested that pre-clinical, as well as clinical studies, suggest the effectiveness of Withania somnifera (L.) against neurodegenerative disease.
  • A further review suggested a potential role of W. somnifera in managing diabetes.
  • A systematic review of 5 clinical trials found that W. somnifera extract improved performance on cognitive tasks, executive function, attention, and reaction time. It also appears to be well tolerated, with good adherence and minimal side effects.
  • Another systematic review included 4 clinical trials and reported significant improvements in serum hormonal profile, oxidative biomarkers, and antioxidant vitamins in seminal plasma. No adverse effects were reported in infertile men taking W. somnifera treatment.
  • Another review concluded that the root of the Ayurvedic drug W. somnifera (Aswagandha) appears to be a promising safe and effective traditional medicine for management of schizophrenia, chronic stress, insomnia, anxiety, memory/cognitive enhancement, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, type-2 diabetes and male infertility, and bears fertility promotion activity in females adaptogenic, growth promoter activity in children and as adjuvant for reduction of fatigue and improvement in quality of life among cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
  • A systematic review of 13 RCTs found that Ashwagandha supplementation was more efficacious than placebo for improving variables related to physical performance in healthy men and women.
  • Another systematic review concluded that Ashwagandha supplementation might improve the VO2max in athletes and non-athletes.

Impressed?

This certainly looks as though that this plant is worthy of further study. But I can never help feeling a bit skeptical when I hear of such a multitude of benefits without evidence for adverse effects (other than minor upset stomach, nausea, and drowsiness).

For some time now, I have been using the umbrella term ‘so-called alternative medicine’ (SCAM). As I explain below, I think it is relatively well-suited. But this is not to say that it is the only name for it. Many other umbrella terms have been used in the past.

Is there perhaps one that you prefer?

  • Fringe medicine is rarely used today. It denotes the fact that the treatments under this umbrella are not in the mainstream of healthcare. Some advocates seem to find the word derogatory, and therefore it is now all but abandoned.
  • Unorthodox medicine is a fairly neutral term describing the fact that medical orthodoxy tends to shun most of the treatments in question. Strictly speaking, the word is also incorrect; the correct term would be ‘heterodox medicine’.
  • Unconventional is also a neutral term but it is open to misunderstandings: any new innovation in medicine might initially be called unconventional. It is therefore less than ideal.
  • Traditional medicine describes the fact that most of the modalities in question have been around for centuries and thus have a long tradition of usage. However, as the term is sometimes also used for conventional medicine, it is confusing and far from ideal.
  • Alternative medicine is the term everyone seems to know and which is most commonly employed in non-scientific contexts. In the late 1980s, some experts pointed out that the word could give the wrong impression: most of the treatments in question are not used as a replacement but as an adjunct to conventional medicine.
  • Complementary medicine became subsequently popular based on the above consideration. It accounts for the fact that the treatments tend to be used by patients in parallel with conventional medicine.
  • Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) describes the phenomenon that many of the treatments can be employed either as a replacement of or as an adjunct to conventional medicine.
  • Holistic medicine denotes the fact that practitioners often pride themselves to look after the whole patient – body, mind, and spirit. This could lead to the erroneous impression that conventional clinicians do not aim to practice holistically. As I have tried to explain repeatedly, any good healthcare always has been holistic. Therefore, the term is misleading, in my view.
  • Natural medicine describes the notion that many of the methods in question are natural. The term seems attractive and is therefore good for business. However, any critical analysis will show that many of the treatments in question are not truly natural. Therefore this term too is misleading.
  • Integrated medicine is currently popular and much used by Prince Charles and other enthusiasts. As we have discussed repeatedly on this blog, the term is nevertheless highly problematic.
  • Integrative medicine is the word used in the US for integrated medicine.
  • CAIM (complementary/alternative/integrative medicine) is a term that some US authors recently invented. I find this attempt to catch all the various terms in one just silly.
  • So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is the term I tend to use. It accounts for two important facts: 1) if a treatment does not work, it cannot possibly serve as an adequate alternative; 2) if a therapy does work, it should be part of conventional medicine. Thus, there cannot be an ‘alternative medicine’, as much as there cannot be an alternative chemistry or an alternative physics.

Yet,some advocates find ‘SCAM’ derogatory. Intriguingly, my decision to use this term was inspired by Prince Charles, arguably the world’s greatest champion of this sector of healthcare. In his book ‘HARMONY’, he repeatedly speaks of ‘so-called alternative treatments’.

You don’t believe me?

Fair enough!

In this case – and in order to save you the expense of buying Charles’ book for checking – let me provide you with a direct quote: “Some so-called alternative treatments seek to work with these functions to aid recovery…” (page 225).

And who would argue that Charles is dismissive about alternative medicine?

 

 

 

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