Ginkgo biloba and the brain–myth vs. science

ginkgo-health-benefits-bullshitGinkgo biloba is actually an interesting plant because it has been relatively unchanged for nearly 270 million years. It is considered a living fossil, an informal term used for species like G. biloba that appear to be the same as a species otherwise only known from fossils and which has no close living relatives. The genus Ginkgo was fairly widely distributed until about 100 million years ago. It slowly disappeared from the fossil record until it was found only in one small part of China about 5 million years ago, where it is found today.  

The tree is native to China and is known to have been widely cultivated early in human history. It is used as a food source by various Asian cultures, with the Chinese eating the meaty gametophytes and the Japanese the whole seed. Unfortunately, the seed also contains a chemical, 4′-O-methylpyridoxine, that can be poisonous if consumed in a sufficiently large enough quantity.  Continue reading “Ginkgo biloba and the brain–myth vs. science”

“Natural” supplements are filled with dangerous junk

When Big Pharma develops a new prescription medication, the regulatory authorities, such as the US FDA, set regulatory guidelines for not only the claims made by the company but also for the manufacturing standards. Every ingredient used to manufacture a pill or injectable must be listed in the package insert and must be tested during the three or phases of clinical trials.

©Daily Mail UK, 2013
©Daily Mail UK, 2013

 

In general, if a pharmaceutical company makes any changes to the ingredients, even something as simple as a binder in the pill, it must re-file with the regulatory authorities for clearance to do so. Even if a manufacturer changes equipment or a process, without changing the the ingredients, it is required to file those changes with the FDA, and they may not proceed with the change. 

The same is not true of so called “natural health products.” In fact, according to a study published in BMC Medicinethe majority of herbal products on the market contain ingredients that are not listed on the product’s label. Furthermore, these companies (let’s call them Big Herbal) often substitute some of the ingredients with cheaper, untested alternatives and fillers. Continue reading ““Natural” supplements are filled with dangerous junk”

Supplements to treat the common cold–myth vs science

cold-cureIt’s getting colder outside, and if you go into any pharmacy, grocery store, chemist, or superstore, you will find literally a dozen or more homeopathic, herbal, or other unproven lotions and potions to prevent or treat the common cold, or rhinovirus. These supplements are a significant part of the annual US$108 billion dollar supplement/nutraceutical industry. 

These alternative medicine (so named because there is no scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, let alone safety) products make claims that are so wonderful, many people take them. Then they themselves tell their friends how fast they got rid of their cold. Or that their cold wasn’t as bad after taking the supplement.

The problem is that determine the length and severity of the course of the common cold is entirely subjective. Since the disease is rather mild with few serious complications, it’s hard to determine when it exactly stopped and started, and how bad it was.  The common cold tends to resolve itself without external help, but there really isn’t much you can do to make your immune system attack that cold faster.

 

Continue reading “Supplements to treat the common cold–myth vs science”

Vitamin D and high blood pressure–probably ineffective

supplementsVitamin D is a group of fat-soluble steroid-like biochemicals that have one known responsibility in human health–enhancing intestinal absorption of calcium and phosphate, minerals which are necessary for bone development and bone health. In humans, the most important D vitamins are vitamin D3 and vitamin D2, both of which can be ingested from dietary sources, including fishes, milk products, and many other foods. However, the body can synthesize vitamin D’s in the skin when exposure to sunlight is adequate. Because humans can produce their own vitamin D, it is not strictly considered an essential dietary vitamin, which are vitamins that cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by an organism, and must be obtained from its diet.

Even though supplementation is necessary for people who aren’t receiving adequate levels of vitamin D through either sun exposure or diet, excessive intake of the vitamin causes a condition called hypervitaminosis D. Excessive vitamin D can lead to acute problems, like excess thirst or increased urination, but over a long-term can lead to heart disease and other chronic conditions.  

Despite the understanding that vitamin D has only one real function, regulation of calcium and phosphate uptake, that hasn’t stopped the junk medicine pushers from making all sorts of claims about its usefulness in human health. In fact, recent studies have shown that vitamin D doesn’t reduce the risk of breast cancer, one of the more popular myths about the vitamin. Continue reading “Vitamin D and high blood pressure–probably ineffective”

More evidence Vitamin D supplementation does not reduce breast cancer risk

vitamin-DPotential causes for cancer are numerous. InfectionsRadon gasCigarette smokingSun exposure. Obesity. With over 200 types of cancer, each with a different pathophysiology, there may be an equal (and probably greater) number of causes.

Although some cancers can be easily prevented, such as never smoking, which reduces your risk of lung cancer, one of the most prevalent cancers in the USA, by over 85%. Or getting the HPV vaccine (Gardasil or Silgard) which blocks HPV infections that are associated with several types of cancer, including cervical, anal, and penile cancers. Unfortunately, the sheer complexity and number of types of cancer means that there is probably not going to be any simple panacea to preventing (or even curing) cancer. In fact, some hereditary cancers, such as those individuals who carry genes that are implicated in breast and ovarian cancers, may not be preventable at all. 

Other than eliminating direct risks, are there things that can be done to actually prevent “cancer”? Once again, with over 200 types of cancer, this may be an impossibility, but the three most popular cancer prevention ideas are diet, vitamins and other types of nutritional supplements. Vitamins and other supplements are a $61 billion industry in the US. They generate these sales with minimal regulation, minimal quality control over the quality and dosage, and no requirement to actually provide evidence that the supplements do what is claimed by the supplement industry, aka Big Herbal. The FDA only gets involved with the industry if there’s some dangerous side effect, or when the claims of the industry are so outrageous that the FDA has no choice but to get involved.

Not too astonishingly, there just hasn’t been much evidence that cancer can prevented with supplements. Prostate cancer and fish oil? May actually increase risk, but generally no effect. Prostate cancer and soy? Nothing there either. Folic acid and cancer? May actually increase risk.  Continue reading “More evidence Vitamin D supplementation does not reduce breast cancer risk”

Soy supplements and prostate cancer–no effect

Tofu is displayed in a supermarket in Santa MonicaOver the past few years, some research has suggested that there might be a correlation between high soy consumption and lowered prostate cancer risk. Most of the research suggesting the link was observational or based on animal studies on the role of soy supplements on the risk of prostate cancer, or on the risk of recurrence of the cancer after treatment.

According to the American Cancer Society, there is some logic to a potential causal relationship between soy consumption and risk of prostate cancer:

Plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) were first identified in the early 1930s. At that time it was discovered that soybeans, willows, dates, and pomegranates contained compounds that were much like estrogens. Scientists began studying the role isoflavones play in reducing breast cancer risk in the 1960s. In a 1981 prospective study in Japan, researchers found that daily intake of miso, a soybean paste, was linked to lower death rates from stomach cancer in more than 260,000 men and women. Around that time, other studies on soy began to be published in the United States. In October 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed to allow health claims about soy’s role in reducing heart disease on food products containing soy protein. Continue reading “Soy supplements and prostate cancer–no effect”

Herbal supplements–unproven, unregulated, unsafe

One of the more ironic memes on the internet is how pharmaceutical companies make so much money (and they do), with the false conclusion that somehow all that money means that they’re not really interested in providing drugs that are safe and efficacious. Then, those same memes will claim that “natural supplements” are healthier and better, while they ignore the profit motive of supplement pushers (henceforth called Big Herbal).

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an abomination that pushes fraudulent science, reported that in 2007, US adults spent $33.9 billion on visits to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers and for purchases of CAM products, classes, and materials. About $14.8 billion of that spending was on non-vitamin, non-mineral, natural products, such as fish oil, glucosamine (no evidence of effectiveness), and Echinacea (no evidence of effectiveness). What is surprising is that this $14.8 billion is about ⅓ of what is spent on prescription drugs. Finally, about $4.4 billion was spent on herbal supplements, which are supplements that use botanical products based on some historical or current belief that the products have some ability to treat some disease or symptom. Of course, sometimes these beliefs are myths, or even errors, like when a Swiss CAM products company misunderstood someone and believed that Native Americans used Echninacea for treating colds. They didn’t. Continue reading “Herbal supplements–unproven, unregulated, unsafe”

Folic acid supplements and cancer–myth vs. science

supplement-burgerPotential causes for cancer are numerous. InfectionsRadon gasCigarette smokingSun exposure. Obesity. With over 200 types of cancer, each with a different pathophysiology, there may be an equal (and probably greater) number of causes. Although many causes can be easily eliminated, such as stopping smoking, testing your house for radon, getting an HPV vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus infections, and wearing sunblock to reduce the risk of melanomas, the sheer complexity and number of types of cancer means that there is probably not going to be any simple panacea to preventing (or even curing) cancer. In fact, some hereditary cancers, such as those individuals who carry genes that are implicated in breast and ovarian cancers, may not be preventable at all.

Other than eliminating direct risks, are there things that can be done to actually prevent “cancer”? Once again, with over 200 types of cancer, this may be an impossibility, but the two most popular cancer prevention ideas are supplements and nutrition. Vitamins and other supplements are a $61 billion industry in the US. They generate these sales with minimal regulation, minimal quality control over the quality and dosage, and no requirement to actually provide evidence that the supplements do what is claimed by the supplement industry, aka Big Herbal. The FDA only gets involved with the industry if there’s some dangerous side effect, or when the claims of the industry are so outrageous that the FDA has no choice but to get involved. Continue reading “Folic acid supplements and cancer–myth vs. science”

Cancer Treatment Centers of America advertising

cancerYou’ve probably seen their commercials spread over all of the major TV networks. Beautiful scenes. Well-kept hospitals which often to appear to be near empty. And an anecdote or two or three from presumably real patients who describe their experience at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), a private, for-profit operator of cancer treatment hospitals and outpatient clinics which provide both conventional and alternative medical treatments. Included in their treatment plans are chiropractic and naturopathy, neither of which have any evidence whatsoever in providing any healthcare benefit to patients, let alone those suffering from cancer.

Reuters recently published an in-depth report on the validity of the claims that are made by CTCA in its advertising. Here are some of the ones specifically mentioned:

Vitamin D reduces breast cancer risk–is there anything to it?

vitamin-DOne of my favorite topics to debunk is the use of supplements to prevent (or worse yet, cure) cancer. As I have discussed in the past, supplements are, with just a couple of exceptions, worthless in preventing cancer

Potential causes for cancer are numerous. InfectionsRadon gasCigarette smokingSun exposure. Obesity. With over 200 types of cancer, each with a different pathophysiology, there may be an equal (and probably greater) number of causes for “cancer.” Although many causes of cancer can be easily avoided, such as stopping smoking, testing your house for radon, getting an HPV vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus infections, and wearing sunblock to reduce the risk of melanomas, the sheer complexity and number of types of cancer means that there is probably not going to be any simple panacea to preventing (or even curing) cancer. 

But because cancer is so frightening, and treating it is risky, debilitating and, in some cases, fruitless, we look for the easy solution, the easy prevention with a pill. But the evidence science has found indicates that this doesn’t really work. Of course, according to 2012 cancer statistics, 577,000 people died of various cancers in 2012, and about 160,000 died directly as a result of smoking (or second hand smoking). So, you can easily drop your risk dying of cancer by more than 25% just by quitting smoking. Otherwise, it’s just not that simple. Continue reading “Vitamin D reduces breast cancer risk–is there anything to it?”