Vitamin supplementation is unnecessary for the vast majority of people. You wouldn’t know this walking through a drug store, where you’ll usually find an entire aisle packed with supplements. Alternative health providers like naturopaths tend to be strong supporters of supplementation, but this advice seems to be based mainly on the belief that “vitamins are magic” rather than good science. The best research hasn’t established a strong evidence base for taking supplements. We definitely need vitamins in our diet to live. But that’s where we should be getting those vitamins – from our food, instead of from pills. If you eat a reasonable and balanced diet, and have no medical conditions that require special consideration, vitamin supplementation won’t offer meaningful health benefits. In the absence of any deficiency, vitamin supplements seem to be useless at best and harmful at worst. Continue reading
I’m a dog person. I always wanted a dog as a child, and while my extended family all had dogs, we never had one in our home. I finally got my wish just over a decade ago. My wife and I were referred to a breeder with an excellent reputation for raising healthy, family-friendly Labrador Retrievers. Within moments of meeting a tiny black lab, we immediately put a deposit down. When we took Casey home a few months later she was healthy – a ball of kinetic energy. The breeder offered us a health guarantee – free of hip and elbow dysplasia, supported by certifications from the dog’s parents and grandparents. The breeder recommended we use a specific brand of food (which we ignored), and other than vaccinating her and promising not to breed her, there were few conditions for the guarantee. We were excited “parents” and that first year was a lot of fun.
At about 12 months of age, Casey started limping. At first we thought it was a temporary consequence of boisterous play. It was initially subtle, but then became very obvious – she started walking differently, and it didn’t go away. The x-rays confirmed what we feared: elbow dysplasia. Our breeder was deeply apologetic – consistent with the guarantee, she offered to replace our dog. Giving up our pet was out of the question, so we started looking at treatment options. The veterinarian offered surgery, but even he wasn’t enthusiastic, citing the very real likelihood it would do nothing. Knowing the toxicity of anti-inflammatory drugs, I wasn’t optimistic that would be tolerable for the long run. Instead we went the supplement route. Continue reading
Many of you are aware that I’m a contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog. Today the founder and executive editor of SBM, Steven Novella, has announced that he and the SBM blog are being sued for writing about questionable Alzheimer’s disease treatments by a Florida physician, Dr. Edward Tobinick. Dr. Novella has indicated that he intends to fight, rather than pull the blog post:
The claims and practice of Dr. Tobinick have many of the red flags of a dubious medical practice, of the sort that we discuss regularly on SBM. It seems that Dr. Tobinick does not appreciate public criticism of his claims and practice, and he wants me to remove the post from SBM. In my opinion he is using legal thuggery in an attempt to intimidate me and silence my free speech because he finds its content inconvenient.
Of course, we have no intention of removing the post as we feel it is critical to the public’s interest. This is what we do at SBM – provide an objective analysis of questionable or controversial medical claims so that consumers can make more informed decisions, and to advance the state of science in medicine.
We also feel it is critical not to cave to this type of intimidation. If we do, we might as well close up shop (which I suspect the Tobinicks of the world would find agreeable). Defending against even a frivolous lawsuit can be quite expensive, but we feel it is necessary for us to fight as hard as we can to defend our rights and the work that we do here at SBM.
One of the challenges to providing science-based care is managing debilitating symptoms in patients who lack a clear diagnosis. If a comprehensive workup on an ill patient reveals nothing conclusive, patients and their health care providers are equally puzzled and frustrated. A diagnosis is seen as giving legitimacy to symptoms, and can be the first step towards defining a science-based treatment plan. Vague or “medically unexplained” symptoms are among the most difficult therapeutic challenges. To patients, the science and profession of medicine has failed to “deliver” and the patient can be left feeling their condition lacks legitimacy. These patients are at the greatest risk for alternative medicine approaches, such as unorthodox diagnoses and treatments. In this world, the lack of objective evidence is no barrier to defining conditions and their treatments. One of the most problematic tactics used is the attribution of these symptoms to conditions known as fake diseases. Continue reading
So, when is a therapeutic product not a therapeutic product? It’s a head-scratcher. Under Vanessa’s Law, disinfectant toilet bowl cleaners and hand sanitizers will be “therapeutic products,” while some cold medicines and, potentially, even low-dose statin cholesterol-reducing drugs, will not. (Health Canada has just proposed switching red yeast rice containing up to 1mg lovastatin from prescription to NHP status.) Consumer Health Products Canada believes that arming Canadians with the tools they need to take more control over their own health is vitally important to public health and to the sustainability of our health care system. Our member companies produce and sell the vast majority of the OTCs and NHPs that Canadians use in their own self-care. We embrace the provisions of Vanessa’s Law because they are entirely consistent with the law-abiding, safety-first way our members conduct business. But, if passed with the currently proposed, lop-sided definition of “therapeutic products,” we fear that Vanessa’s Law will distort the marketplace for consumer health products and could undermine consumer confidence in the roughly 50% of our member’s products that fall under the Natural Health Products Regulations.
One of the most pervasive yet appealing health myths is the idea that natural equals safe. It’s a statement that’s repeated constantly by manufacturers of supplements and “natural” health products. It’s been the primary argument used, with considerable success, to give these products completely different regulatory structures than exist for drug products. Weaker regulation of supplements and natural health products has been a boon to manufacturers, but the same can’t be said for consumer protection. It’s effectively a buyer-beware marketplace in most parts of the world, with little accurate information available to consumers. But supplement manufacturers aren’t content with the minimal regulation that’s currently in place – they want health “freedom”. In this case, “freedom” means the right to sell any product, while being exempted from safety and regulatory requirements. New Canadian legislation is poised to raise safety standards for drugs and enhance the ability of regulators to recall dangerous products, yet consumers of natural health products are left behind. The legislation proposes to exempt anything considered a “natural health product”. This is not only bad public policy, but it has the potential to cause avoidable harm. After all, shouldn’t users of supplements and natural health products be entitled to the same safety and quality standards as those that use prescription drugs? If the supplement industry gets its way, the answer will be “no”. (There is an opportunity until June 10 for you to provide feedback on this legislation – see below.) Continue reading
Imagine a retail pharmacy where some of the medicines on the shelves have been replaced with similar-looking packages that contain no active ingredients at all. There is no easy way to distinguish between the real and the fake.
Another section of the store offers a number of remedies with fantastic claims, such as “boosting” the immune system, “detoxifying” the body, or “cleansing” you of microscopic Candida. They look sciencey, unless you realize that they treat imaginary medical conditions.
A corner of the store offers unpurified drugs supplied as tinctures and teas. The active ingredients aren’t known, and the batch-to-batch consistency of the product is unclear. The store will suggest products for you based on your symptoms.
Walk past the enormous wall of vitamins and other supplements and you’ll find a nutritionist who will tell you what products you should be taking. You’ll also find a weight loss section. From a science-based perspective, this shouldn’t even exist, given no product has been shown to offer any meaningful benefit. But there are dozens of products for sale.
At the back of the store you’ll finally find the pharmacist. A sign on the counter offers blood- and saliva-based tests for food “intolerance” and adrenal “fatigue”, claiming to test for medical conditions that actually don’t exist or lack an evidence base. The pharmacy also offers a large compounding practice, advertising what it calls “personalized” approaches to hormone replacement with “bioidentical” hormones.
Welcome to the “integrative” pharmacy.
You may not see all of this in your local pharmacy, but they’re coming: claims of a new “integrative” way to provide health care that is changing the face of retail pharmacy. Unfortunately, it’s harkening back to the era of patent medicines and snake oil. It’s not good for the pharmacists and the profession of pharmacy, and it’s even worse for the patients we serve. Continue reading
Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? It’s increasingly likely that you do, as over half of all American adults took some sort of supplement over the past 30 days. Now there’s evidence to suggest that about one-third of all Americans are taking supplements and prescription drug at the same time, which is renewing questions about risks and benefits. (I have not seen equivalent Canadian data, but I suspect the trends are very similar.) The same study reveals that combining supplements and prescription drugs is more common among those with certain medical conditions, compared to those without.
Many of us supplement in the absence of evidence of benefit, or even medical need. For example, there is little persuasive evidence to suggest that routine supplementation with products like multivitamins is necessary. There are exceptions of course: Those potentially becoming pregnant, those on dietary restrictions (e.g., vegans), and those with demonstrable medical need are among the cases where there is a clear benefit to vitamin supplementation, for example. The majority of us take supplements, like multivitamins, for “insurance” rather than because we have a deficiency or medical need. The evidence for non-vitamin supplements, like herbal products, is just as questionable as it is for vitamins, with few products showing meaningful health benefits. Ultimately decisions about supplements come down to evaluations of risk and benefits. Since I started working as a pharmacist, I’ve always cautioned consumers about the quality concerns and efficacy with herbal products and supplements, and the resultant risks that make me very hesitant to suggest their routine use – especially when they’re combined with prescription drugs. Yet the evidence suggests that it’s occurring – with increasing frequency. Continue reading
The re-emergence of vaccine-preventable disease should surprise no-one that’s been following the anti-vaccine movement.
Dealing with anti-vaccinationists is like a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles are the same old tropes that keep popping up, no matter how often they are refuted with facts. Vaccines are a remarkable success of modern medicine: They are health interventions that are both demonstrably effective and remarkably cost-effective. Vaccination has likely prevented more deaths in the past 50 years than any other health intervention. Smallpox was a ruthless killer that took 300 million lives, just in the 20th century alone. Today it’s gone – eliminated forever. And now there are now over two dozen diseases that are vaccine-preventable. They should be an easy sell, and to most people, they are. But the control of vaccine-preventable disease relies in part on herd immunity – sufficient immunization to stop the spread of infection (no vaccine offers 100% protection) and protect those that cannot be immunized. Even a modest number of unvaccinated individuals can lead to reemergence of disease. None of this matters to antivaccinationists, to whom vaccines are bad. Viewing anti-vaccine websites for only five to ten minutes can increase the perception of risk of vaccination, and decrease the perceived risk of omitting vaccines. It also lowers vaccination intentions. By changing perceptions of safety, the willingness to vaccinate decreases. Now imagine that someone you believe to be a health professional openly questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines – would it reduce your willingness to vaccinate? The evidence says it does. And that’s why the modern practice of naturopathy or “naturopathic medicine” is so concerning. Naturopaths have opposed vaccinations since the invention of naturopathy – starting with smallpox: Continue reading
Does Tamiflu have any meaningful effects on the prevention or treatment of influenza? Considering the drug’s been on the market for almost 15 years, and is widely used, you should expect this question has been answered after 15 flu seasons. Answering this question from a science-based perspective requires three steps: Consider prior probability, be systematic in the approach, and get all the data. It’s the third step that’s been (until now) impossible with Tamiflu: Some data was unpublished. In general, there’s good evidence to show that negative studies are less likely to be published than positive studies. Unless unpublished studies are included, systematic reviews are more likely to miss negative data, which means there’s the risk of bias in favor of an intervention.
The absence of a full data set on Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and the other neuraminidase inhibitor Relenza (zanamivir) became a rallying point for BMJ and the AllTrials campaign, which seeks to enhance the transparency and accessibility of clinical trials data by challenging trial investigators to make all evidence freely available. (Reforming and enhancing access to trial data was one of the most essential changes recommended by Ben Goldacre in his book, Bad Pharma.) In 2009, Tamiflu’s manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche committed to making the Tamiflu data set available to investigators. Now after four years of back-and-forth between BMJ, investigators, and Roche, the full clinical trials data set has been made freely available. An updated systematic review was published today in BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal), entitled “Oseltamivir for influenza in adults and children: systematic review of clinical study reports and summary of regulatory comments.” This will be a short post covering the highlights. As the entire study and accompanying data are freely available, I’ll await continued discussion in the comments. Continue reading