A recent blog-post pointed out that the usefulness of yoga in primary care is doubtful. Now we have new data to shed some light on this issue.
The new paper reports a ‘prospective, longitudinal, quasi-experimental study‘. Yoga group (n= 49) underwent 24-weeks program of one-hour yoga sessions. The control group had no yoga.
Participation was voluntary and the enrolment strategy was based on invitations by health professionals and advertising in the community (e.g., local newspaper, health unit website and posters). Users willing to participate were invited to complete a registration form to verify eligibility criteria.
The endpoints of the study were:
- quality of life,
- psychological distress,
- satisfaction level,
- adherence rate.
The yoga routine consisted of breathing exercises, progressive articular and myofascial warming-up, followed by surya namascar (sun salutation sequence; adapted to the physical condition of each participant), alignment exercises, and postural awareness. Practice also included soft twists of the spine, reversed and balance postures, as well as concentration exercises. During the sessions, the instructor discussed some ethical guidelines of yoga, as for example, non-violence (ahimsa) and truthfulness (satya), to allow the participant to have a safer and integrated practice. In addition, the participants were encouraged to develop their awareness of the present moment and their body sensations, through a continuous process of self-consciousness, keeping a distance between body sensations and the emotional experience. The instructor emphasized the connection between breathing and movement. Each session ended with a guided deep relaxation (yoga nidra; 5–10 min), followed by a meditation practice (5–10 min).
The results of the study showed that the patients in the yoga group experienced a significant improvement in all domains of quality of life and a reduction of psychological distress. Linear regression analysis showed that yoga significantly improved psychological quality of life.
The authors concluded that yoga in primary care is feasible, safe and has a satisfactory adherence, as well as a positive effect on psychological quality of life of participants.
Are the authors’ conclusions correct?
I think not!
Here are some reasons for my judgement:
- The study was far to small to justify far-reaching conclusions about the safety and effectiveness of yoga.
- There were relatively high numbers of drop-outs, as seen in the graph above. Despite this fact, no intention to treat analysis was used.
- There was no randomisation, and therefore the two groups were probably not comparable.
- Participants of the experimental group chose to have yoga; their expectations thus influenced the outcomes.
- There was no attempt to control for placebo effects.
- The conclusion that yoga is safe would require a sample size that is several dimensions larger than 49.
In conclusion, this study fails to show that yoga has any value in primary care.
Oh, I almost forgot: and yoga is also satanic, of course (just like reading Harry Potter!).
You probably know what yoga is. But what is FODMAP? It stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, more commonly known as carbohydrates. In essence, FODMAPs are carbohydrates found in a wide range of foods including onions, garlic, mushrooms, apples, lentils, rye and milk. These sugars are poorly absorbed, pass through the small intestine and enter the colon . There they are fermented by bacteria a process that produces gas which stretches the sensitive bowel causing bloating, wind and sometimes even pain. This can also cause water to move into and out of the colon, causing diarrhoea, constipation or a combination of both. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) makes people more susceptible to such problems.
During a low FODMAP diet these carbohydrates are eliminated usually for six to eight weeks. Subsequently, small amounts of FODMAP foods are gradually re-introduced to find a level of symptom-free tolerance. The question is, does the low FODMAP diet work?
This study examined the effect of a yoga-based intervention vs a low FODMAP diet on patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Fifty-nine patients with IBS undertook a randomised controlled trial involving yoga or a low FODMAP diet for 12 weeks. Patients in the yoga group received two sessions weekly, while patients in the low FODMAP group received a total of three sessions of nutritional counselling. The primary outcome was a change in gastrointestinal symptoms (IBS-SSS). Secondary outcomes explored changes in quality of life (IBS-QOL), health (SF-36), perceived stress (CPSS, PSQ), body awareness (BAQ), body responsiveness (BRS) and safety of the interventions. Outcomes were examined in weeks 12 and 24 by assessors “blinded” to patients’ group allocation.
No statistically significant difference was found between the intervention groups, with regard to IBS-SSS score, at either 12 or 24 weeks. Within-group comparisons showed statistically significant effects for yoga and low FODMAP diet at both 12 and 24 weeks. Comparable within-group effects occurred for the other outcomes. One patient in each intervention group experienced serious adverse events and another, also in each group, experienced nonserious adverse events.
The authors concluded that patients with irritable bowel syndrome might benefit from yoga and a low-FODMAP diet, as both groups showed a reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms. More research on the underlying mechanisms of both interventions is warranted, as well as exploration of potential benefits from their combined use.
Technically, this study is an equivalence study comparing two interventions. Such trials only make sense, if one of the two treatments have been proven to be effective. This is, however, not the case. Moreover, equivalence studies require much larger sample sizes than the 59 patients included here.
What follows is that this trial is pure pseudoscience and the positive conclusion of this study is not warranted. The authors have, in my view, demonstrated a remarkable level of ignorance regarding clinical research. None of this is all that unusual in the realm of alternative medicine; sadly, it seems more the rule than the exception.
What might make this lack of research know-how more noteworthy is something else: starting in January 2019, one of the lead authors of this piece of pseudo-research (Prof. Dr. med. Jost Langhorst) will be the director of the new Stiftungslehrstuhl “Integrative Medizin” am Klinikum Bamberg (clinic and chair of integrative medicine in Bamberg, Germany).
This does not bode well, does it?
I came across this article; it is neither new nor particularly scientific. Yet I believe it is sufficiently remarkable to alert you to it, quote a little from it, and hopefully make you chuckle a bit:
The Vatican’s top exorcist has spoken out in condemnation of yoga … , branding [it] as “Satanic” acts that lead[s] to “demonic possession”. Father Cesare Truqui has warned that the Catholic Church has seen a recent spike in worldwide reports of people becoming possessed by demons and that the reason for the sudden uptick is the rise in popularity of pastimes such as watching Harry Potter movies and practicing Vinyasa.
Professor Giuseppe Ferrari … says that … activities such as yoga, “summon satanic spirits” … Monsignor Luigi Negri, the archbishop of Ferrara-Comacchio, who also attended the Vatican crisis meeting, claimed that homosexuality is “another sign” that “Satan is in the Vatican”. The Independent reports: Father Cesare says he’s seen many an individual speaking in tongues and exhibiting unearthly strength, two attributes that his religion says indicate the possibility of evil spirits inhabiting a person’s body. “There are those who try to turn people into vampires and make them drink other people’s blood, or encourage them to have special sexual relations to obtain special powers,” stated Professor Ferrari at the meeting. “These groups are attracted by the so-called beautiful young vampires that we’ve seen so much of in recent years.”
Is yoga about worshiping Hindu gods, or is it about engaging in advanced stretching and exercise? At its roots, yoga is said to have originated from the ancient worship of Hindu gods, with the various poses representing unique forms of paying homage to these entities. From this, other religions such as Catholicism and Christianity have concluded that the practice is out of sync with their own and that it may result in demonic spirits entering a person’s body.
… Father Truqui sees yoga as being satanic, claiming that “it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter.” And in order to deal with the consequences of this, his religion has had to bring on an additional six exorcists, bringing the total number to 12, just to deal with what he says is a 100% rise in the number of requests for exorcisms over the past 15 years. “The ministry of performing an exorcism is little known among priests … It’s like training to be a journalist without knowing how to do an interview.” At the same time, Father Amorth admits that the Roman Catholic Church’s notoriety for all kinds of perverted sex scandals is also indicative of demonic activity – he stated that it represents proof that “the Devil is at work inside the Vatican.” “There’s homosexual marriage, homosexual adoption, IVF [in vitro fertilization] and a host of other things,” added Monsignor Luigi Negri, the archbishop of Ferrara-Comacchio, about what he says is evidence of the existential evil in society. “There’s the glamorous appearance of the negation of man as defined by the Bible.”
END OF QUOTES
Just one thought, if I may: according to Father Truqui, the most satanic man must be a ‘perverted’ catholic priest practising Yoga and reading Harry Potter!
Having yesterday been to a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event on MEDITATION in Cambridge (my home town since last year) I had to think about the subject quite a bit. As I have hardly covered this topic on my blog, I am today trying to briefly summarise my view on it.
The first thing that strikes me when looking at the evidence on meditation is that it is highly confusing. There seem to be:
- a lack of clear definitions,
- hundreds of studies, most of which are of poor or even very poor quality,
- lots of people with ’emotional baggage’,
- plenty of strange links to cults and religions,
- dozens of different meditation methods and regimen,
- unbelievable claims by enthusiasts,
- lots of weirdly enthusiastic followers.
What was confirmed yesterday is the fact that, once we look at the reliable medical evidence, we are bound to find that the health claims of various meditation techniques are hugely exaggerated. There is almost no strong evidence to suggest that meditation does affect any condition. The small effects that do emerge from some meta-analyses could easily be due to residual bias and confounding; it is not possible to rigorously control for placebo effects in clinical trials of meditation.
Another thing that came out clearly yesterday is the fact that meditation might not be as risk-free as it is usually presented. Several cases of psychoses after meditation are on record; some of these are both severe and log-lasting. How often do they happen? Nobody knows! Like with most alternative therapies, there is no reporting system in place that could possibly give us anything like a reliable answer.
For me, however, the biggest danger with (certain forms of) meditation is not the risk of psychosis. It is the risk of getting sucked into a cult that then takes over the victim and more or less destroys his or her personality. I have seen this several times, and it is a truly frightening phenomenon.
In our now 10-year-old book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we included a chapter on meditation. It concluded that “meditation appears to be safe for most people and those with sufficient motivation to practise regularly will probably find a relaxing experience. Evidence for effectiveness in any indication is week.” Even today, this is not far off the mark, I think. If I had to re-write it now, I would perhaps mention the potential for harm and also add that, as a therapy, the risk/benefit balance of meditation fails to be convincingly positive.
I highly recommend ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events to anyone who likes stimulating talks and critical thinking.
The media have (rightly) paid much attention to the three Lancet-articles on low back pain (LBP) which were published this week. LBP is such a common condition that its prevalence alone renders it an important subject for us all. One of the three papers covers the treatment and prevention of LBP. Specifically, it lists various therapies according to their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. The authors of the article base their judgements mainly on published guidelines from Denmark, UK and the US; as these guidelines differ, they attempt a synthesis of the three.
Several alternative therapist organisations and individuals have consequently jumped on the LBP bandwagon and seem to feel encouraged by the attention given to the Lancet-papers to promote their treatments. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence and asked ‘who should we believe the international team of experts writing in one of the best medical journals, or Edzard Ernst writing on his blog?’ They are trying to create a division where none exists,
The thing is that I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also know that things are a bit more complex.
Below, I have copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I find no glaring contradictions with what I regard as the best current evidence and with my posts on the subject. But I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:
|EFFECTIVENESS ACUTE LBP||EFFECTIVENESS PERSISTENT LBP||RISKS||COSTS||RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE|
|Advice to stay active||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Education||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Superficial heat||+/-||Ie||Very minor||Low to medium||Positive (aLBP)|
|Exercise||Limited||+/-, routine||Very minor||Low||Positive (pLBP)|
|CBT||Limited||+/-, routine||None||Low to medium||Positive (pLBP)|
|Rehab||Ie||+/-||Minor||Medium to high||Questionable|
Routine = consider for routine use
+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment
Ie = insufficient evidence
Limited = limited use in selected patients
vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects
sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record
aLBP = acute low back pain
The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.
I imagine that chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists will strongly disagree with my interpretation of the evidence (they might even feel that their cash-flow is endangered) – and I am looking forward to the discussions around their objections.
As I have stated repeatedly, I am constantly on the look-out for positive news about alternative medicine. Usually, I find plenty – but when I scrutinise it, it tends to crumble in the type of misleading report that I often write about on this blog. Truly good research in alternative medicine is hard to find, and results that are based on rigorous science and show a positive finding are a bit like gold-dust.
But hold on, today I have something!
This systematic review was aimed at determining whether physical exercise is effective in improving cognitive function in the over 50s. The authors evaluated all randomised controlled trials of physical exercise interventions in community-dwelling adults older than 50 years with an outcome measure of cognitive function.
39 studies were included in the systematic review. Analysis of 333 dependent effect sizes from 36 studies showed that physical exercise improved cognitive function. Interventions of aerobic exercise, resistance training, multicomponent training and tai chi, all had significant point estimates. When exercise prescription was examined, a duration of 45–60 min per session and at least moderate intensity, were associated with benefits to cognition. The results of the meta-analysis were consistent and independent of the cognitive domain tested or the cognitive status of the participants.
The authors concluded that physical exercise improved cognitive function in the over 50s, regardless of the cognitive status of participants. To improve cognitive function, this meta-analysis provides clinicians with evidence to recommend that patients obtain both aerobic and resistance exercise of at least moderate intensity on as many days of the week as feasible, in line with current exercise guidelines.
But this is not alternative medicine, I hear you say.
You are right, mostly, it isn’t. There were a few RCTs of tai chi and yoga, but the majority was of conventional exercise. Moreover, most of these ‘alternative’ RCTs were less convincing than the conventional RCTs; here is one of the former category:
Community-dwelling older adults (N = 118; mean age = 62.0) were randomized to one of two groups: a Hatha yoga intervention or a stretching-strengthening control. Both groups participated in hour-long exercise classes 3×/week over the 8-week study period. All participants completed established tests of executive function including the task switching paradigm, n-back and running memory span at baseline and follow-up. Analysis of covariances showed significantly shorter reaction times on the mixed and repeat task switching trials (partial η(2) = .04, p < .05) for the Hatha yoga group. Higher accuracy was recorded on the single trials (partial η(2) = .05, p < .05), the 2-back condition of the n-back (partial η(2) = .08, p < .001), and partial recall scores (partial η(2) = .06, p < .01) of running span task.
I just wanted to be generous and felt the need to report a positive result. I guess, this just shows how devoid of rigorous research generating a positive finding alternative medicine really is.
Of course, there are many readers of this blog who are convinced that their pet therapy is supported by excellent evidence. For them, I have this challenge: if you think you have good evidence for an alternative therapy, show it to me (send it to me via the ‘contact’ option of this blog or post the link as a comment below). Please note that any evidence I would consider analysing in some detail (writing a full blog post about it) would need to be recent, peer-reviewed and rigorous.
The title of the press-release was impressive: ‘Columbia and Harvard Researchers Find Yoga and Controlled Breathing Reduce Depressive Symptoms’. It certainly awoke my interest and I looked up the original article. Sadly, it also awoke the interest of many journalists, and the study was reported widely – and, as we shall see, mostly wrongly.
According to its authors, the aims of this study were “to assess the effects of an intervention of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing at five breaths per minute on depressive symptoms and to determine optimal intervention yoga dosing for future studies in individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD)”.
Thirty two subjects were randomized to either the high-dose group (HDG) or low-dose group (LDG) for a 12-week intervention of three or two intervention classes per week, respectively. Eligible subjects were 18–64 years old with MDD, had baseline Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) scores ≥14, and were either on no antidepressant medications or on a stable dose of antidepressants for ≥3 months. The intervention included 90-min classes plus homework. Outcome measures were BDI-II scores and intervention compliance.
Fifteen HDG and 15 LDG subjects completed the intervention. BDI-II scores at screening and compliance did not differ between groups. BDI-II scores declined significantly from screening (24.6 ± 1.7) to week 12 (6.0 ± 3.8) for the HDG (–18.6 ± 6.6; p < 0.001), and from screening (27.7 ± 2.1) to week 12 (10.1 ± 7.9) in the LDG. There were no significant differences between groups, based on response (i.e., >50% decrease in BDI-II scores; p = 0.65) for the HDG (13/15 subjects) and LDG (11/15 subjects) or remission (i.e., number of subjects with BDI-II scores <14; p = 1.00) for the HDG (14/15 subjects) and LDG (13/15 subjects) after the 12-week intervention, although a greater number of subjects in the HDG had 12-week BDI-II scores ≤10 (p = 0.04).
The authors concluded that this dosing study provides evidence that participation in an intervention composed of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing is associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms for individuals with MDD, both on and off antidepressant medications. The HDG and LDG showed no significant differences in compliance or in rates of response or remission. Although the HDG had significantly more subjects with BDI-II scores ≤10 at week 12, twice weekly classes (plus home practice) may rates of response or remission. Although the HDG, thrice weekly classes (plus home practice) had significantly more subjects with BDI-II scores ≤10 at week 12, the LDG, twice weekly classes (plus home practice) may constitute a less burdensome but still effective way to gain the mood benefits from the intervention. This study supports the use of an Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing intervention as a treatment to alleviate depressive symptoms in MDD.
The authors also warn that this study must be interpreted with caution and point out several limitations:
- the small sample size,
- the lack of an active non-yoga control (both groups received Iyengar yoga plus coherent breathing),
- the supportive group environment and multiple subject interactions with research staff each week could have contributed to the reduction in depressive symptoms,
- the results cannot be generalized to MDD with more acute suicidality or more severe symptoms.
In the press-release, we are told that “The practical findings for this integrative health intervention are that it worked for participants who were both on and off antidepressant medications, and for those time-pressed, the two times per week dose also performed well,” says The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Editor-in-Chief John Weeks
At the end of the paper, we learn that the authors, Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg, teach and have published Breath∼Body∼Mind©, a technique that uses coherent breathing. Dr. Streeter is certified to teach Breath∼Body∼Mind©. No competing financial interests exist for the remaining authors.
Taking all of these issues into account, my take on this study is different and a little more critical:
- The observed effects might have nothing at all to do with the specific intervention tested.
- The trial was poorly designed.
- The aims of the study are not within reach of its methodology.
- The trial lacked a proper control group.
- It was published in a journal that has no credibility.
- The limitations outlined by the authors are merely the tip of an entire iceberg of fatal flaws.
- The press-release is irresponsibly exaggerated.
- The authors have little incentive to truly test their therapy and seem to use research as a means of promoting their business.
Today is WORLD CANCER DAY.
Yesterday I prepared you for this event by alerting you to a disgusting cancer scam, and today I want to contrast this with more encouraging news from the strange world of alternative medicine. So I searched Medline for a fitting, recent publication showing at least some value of an alternative therapy. Believe me, such papers are few and far between.
But here is one:
The aim of this Cochrane review was to assess effects of yoga on health-related quality of life, mental health and cancer-related symptoms among women with a diagnosis of breast cancer who are receiving active treatment or have completed treatment. The authors conducted extensive literature searches and applied no language restrictions. RCTs were eligible, if they (1) compared yoga interventions to no therapy or to any other active therapy in women with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and (2) assessed at least one of the primary outcomes on patient-reported instruments, including health-related quality of life, depression, anxiety, fatigue or sleep disturbances.
Two review authors independently collected data on methods and results. The risk of publication bias was assessed through visual analysis of funnel plot symmetry and heterogeneity between studies. Subgroup analyses were conducted for current treatment status, time since diagnosis, stage of cancer and type of yoga intervention.
Twenty-four studies with a total of 2166 participants were included, 23 of which provided data for meta-analysis. Thirteen studies had low risk of selection bias, five studies reported adequate blinding of outcome assessment and 15 studies had low risk of attrition bias. Seventeen studies that compared yoga versus no therapy provided moderate-quality evidence showing that yoga improved health-related quality of life, reduced fatigue and reduced sleep disturbances in the short term. There was an overall low risk of publication bias.
Yoga did not appear to reduce depression or anxiety in the short term and had no medium-term effects on health-related quality of life or fatigue. Four studies that compared yoga versus psychosocial/educational interventions provided moderate-quality evidence indicating that yoga can reduce depression, anxiety and fatigue in the short term. Very low-quality evidence showed no short-term effects on health-related quality of life or sleep disturbances. Three studies that compared yoga to exercise presented very low-quality evidence showing no short-term effects on health-related quality of life or fatigue. No trial provided safety-related data.
The authors concluded that moderate-quality evidence supports the recommendation of yoga as a supportive intervention for improving health-related quality of life and reducing fatigue and sleep disturbances when compared with no therapy, as well as for reducing depression, anxiety and fatigue, when compared with psychosocial/educational interventions. Very low-quality evidence suggests that yoga might be as effective as other exercise interventions and might be used as an alternative to other exercise programmes.
As I said, this is most encouraging. Many women are attracted by yoga, and the news that it can improve their symptoms is clearly positive. I have said it often, but I say it again: in supportive and palliative cancer care there might be an important role for several forms of CAM. One has to make sure though that they do not interfere with conventional treatments, and – this is very important – cancer patients must not be misled to believe that they can be used to treat or cure cancer. Finally, patients should not pitch their hopes too high: the effect sizes of alternative treatments in cancer care are invariably small or modest which means that they can help to reduce symptoms but are unlikely to get rid of them completely.
On an even more sober note, I have to reiterate that none of the trials included in the above review reported safety data (yoga is not totally devoid of adverse-effects!). This is an almost stereotypical finding when assessing clinical trials of alternative therapies. It discloses a clear and unacceptable breach of publication ethics. How can we ever get a realistic impression of the risks of alternative medicine, if adverse effects remain unreported? It is high time that researchers, authors, journal editors and reviewers get this message and behave accordingly.
WARNING: THIS MIGHT MAKE YOU LAUGH OUT LOUDLY AND UNCONTROLLABLY.
Deepak Chopra rarely publishes in medical journals (I suppose, he has better things to do). I was therefore intrigued when I saw a recent article of which he is a co-author.
The ‘study‘ in question allegedly examined the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being. The authors describe it as “a quasi-randomized trial comparing the effects of participation in a 6-day Ayurvedic system of medicine-based comprehensive residential program with a 6-day residential vacation at the same retreat location.” They included 69 healthy women and men who received the Ayurvedic intervention addressing physical and emotional well-being through group meditation and yoga, massage, diet, adaptogenic herbs, lectures, and journaling. Key components of the program include physical cleansing through ingestion of herbs, fiber, and oils that support the body’s natural detoxification pathways and facilitate healthy elimination; two Ayurvedic meals daily (breakfast and lunch) that provide a light plant-based diet; daily Ayurvedic oil massage treatments; and heating treatments through the use of sauna and/or steam. The program includes lectures on Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle as well as lectures on meditation and yoga philosophy. The study group also participated in twice-daily group meditation and daily yoga and practiced breathing exercises (pranayama) as well as emotional expression through a process of journaling and emotional support. During the program, participants received a 1-hour integrative medical consultation with a physician and follow-up with an Ayurvedic health educator.
The control group simply had a vacation without any of the above therapies in the same resort. They were asked to do what they would normally do on a resort vacation with the additional following restrictions: they were asked not to engage in more exercise than they would in their normal lifestyle and to refrain from using La Costa Resort spa services. They were also asked not to drink ginger tea or take Gingko biloba during the 2 days before and during the study week.
Recruitment was via email announcements on the University of California San Diego faculty and staff and Chopra Center for Wellbeing list-servers. Study flyers stated that the week-long Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI) study would be conducted at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, located at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California, in order to learn more about the psychosocial and physiologic effects of the 6-day Perfect Health (PH) Program compared with a 6-day stay at the La Costa Resort. The study participants were not blinded, and site investigators and study personnel knew to which group participants were assigned.
Participants in the Ayurvedic program showed significant and sustained increases in ratings of spirituality and gratitude compared with the vacation group, which showed no change. The Ayurvedic participants also showed increased ratings for self-compassion as well as less anxiety at the 1-month follow-up.
The authors arrived at the following conclusion: Findings suggest that a short-term intensive program providing holistic instruction and experience in mind–body healing practices can lead to significant and sustained increases in perceived well-being and that relaxation alone is not enough to improve certain aspects of well-being.
This ‘study’ had ethical approval from the University of California San Diego and was supported by the Fred Foundation, the MCJ Amelior Foundation, the National Philanthropic Trust, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Chopra Foundation. The paper’s first author is director of research at the Chopra Foundation. Deepak Chopra is the co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.
Did I promise too much?
Isn’t this paper hilarious?
Just for the record, let me formulate a short conclusion that actually fits the data from this ‘study’: Lots of TLC, attention and empathy does make some people feel better.
This is hardly something one needs to write home about; and certainly nothing to do a study on!
But which journal would publish such unadulterated advertising?
On this blog, I have mentioned the JACM several times before. Recently, I wrote about the new man in charge of it. I concluded stating WATCH THIS SPACE.
I think the wait is now over – this paper is from the latest issue of the JACM, and I am sure we all agree that the new editor has just shown us of what he is made and where he wants to take his journal.
Just as I thought that this cannot get any better, it did! It did so in the form of a second paper which is evidently reporting from the same ‘study’. Here is its abstract unaltered in its full beauty:
The effects of integrative medicine practices such as meditation and Ayurveda on human physiology are not fully understood. The aim of this study was to identify altered metabolomic profiles following an Ayurveda-based intervention. In the experimental group, 65 healthy male and female subjects participated in a 6-day Panchakarma-based Ayurvedic intervention which included herbs, vegetarian diet, meditation, yoga, and massage. A set of 12 plasma phosphatidylcholines decreased (adjusted p < 0.01) post-intervention in the experimental (n = 65) compared to control group (n = 54) after Bonferroni correction for multiple testing; within these compounds, the phosphatidylcholine with the greatest decrease in abundance was PC ae C36:4 (delta = -0.34). Application of a 10% FDR revealed an additional 57 metabolites that were differentially abundant between groups. Pathway analysis suggests that the intervention results in changes in metabolites across many pathways such as phospholipid biosynthesis, choline metabolism, and lipoprotein metabolism. The observed plasma metabolomic alterations may reflect a Panchakarma-induced modulation of metabotypes. Panchakarma promoted statistically significant changes in plasma levels of phosphatidylcholines, sphingomyelins and others in just 6 days. Forthcoming studies that integrate metabolomics with genomic, microbiome and physiological parameters may facilitate a broader systems-level understanding and mechanistic insights into these integrative practices that are employed to promote health and well-being.
Now that I managed to stop laughing about the first paper, I am not just amused but also puzzled by the amount of contradictions the second article seems to cause. Were there 65 or 69 individuals in the experimental group? Was the study randomised, quasi-randomised or not randomised? All of these versions are implied at different parts of the articles. It turns out that they randomised some patients, while allocating others without randomisation – and this clearly means the study was NOT randomised. Was the aim of the study ‘to identify altered metabolomic profiles following an Ayurveda-based intervention’ or ‘to examine the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being’?
I am sure that others will find further contradictions and implausibilites, if they look hard enough.
The funniest inconsistency, in my opinion, is that Deepak Chopra does not even seem to be sure to which university department he belongs. Is it the ‘Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA.’ as indicated in the 1st paper or is it the ‘Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA’ as listed in the 2nd article?
Does he know from which planet he is?
In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.
According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”
The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”
This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.
Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.
Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:
- the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
- the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
- the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
- the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
- not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
- the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
- there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.
My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.
Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.