Should you try a “natural alternative” before medication?

Natural remedies are popular. But are they an appropriate substitute for medication?

Natural remedies are popular. But are they an appropriate substitute for medication?

The idea of taking medication can be frightening. And as consumers and patients that want to make our own informed health decisions, it’s understandable and even appropriate to question our physicians when they recommend drug treatments. We need to understand the rationale for any medication that’s recommended or prescribed, the benefits of therapy, the side effects, and if there are any other approaches that might be more appropriate. Dietary supplements and natural health products are widely marketed as being safe and effective, and are occupying more and more shelf space in pharmacies, usually right beside the pharmacy counter. Many of my patient encounters in the pharmacy have included a discussion on the merits of drug therapy, versus the supplements that may have flashy packaging and impressive claims of effectiveness.

One encounter from my time working at a local pharmacy still sticks with me. I met a new patient who was anxious and eager to get my advice. He’d been cautioned by his family doctor that he was on the borderline of being diagnosed with diabetes. He had come to the pharmacy seeking a supplement that could help him avoid diabetes and medication. Rather than recommend any supplement, I suggested that the best approach he could probably take would be to lose some weight and get some exercise – it could be more effective than any supplement or drug, and would definitely help his health. He agreed, and then asked me what supplement he could take that could help him with some weight loss.

This type of discussion occurs all the time, and seems more common when there’s a lack of trust in the physician, or when the goals of treatment aren’t understood. The patient, reluctant to accept the physician’s recommendation, heads to the pharmacy for what they believe is a second opinion. In some cases, the patient may question the physician’s advice: “All my physician wants to do is prescribe drugs,” is a statement I’ve heard more than once. In those that are reluctant to accept medical treatment, there’s often a willingness to consider anything that’s available without a prescription – particularly if it’s perceived as “natural.” Natural products and dietary supplements are thought to be gentle, safe, and effective, while medicine may be felt to be unnatural, harsh, and potentially dangerous. Yet when I explain to patients that there’s actually little evidence to suggest most supplements offer any meaningful health benefits, I am sometimes met with puzzled or dismissive looks. The supplement industry’s marketing has been remarkably effective, glossing over the fact that the research done on dietary supplements is overall unconvincing and largely negative when it comes to having anything useful to offer for health. Continue reading

What’s the best detox or cleanse?


With 2016 upon us, it’s finally time get serious about your health. You’re resolving to eat better and exercise more. But first, you need to reset your body – and purge yourself of all of your lifestyle and dietary overindulgences. But how? The options seem limitless, and everyone has advice: There’s Dr. Oz, Gwyneth, and even your favourite Kardashian has advice: They’re all telling you how it’s essential to “detox”, “cleanse” and “flush” away all of your toxins. Your local pharmacy has an ever-growing section of products promising a newer, more pure you: supplements, homeopathy, ear candles, and an entire aisle of “detox kits” all promise to suck toxins out of your body. Don’t forget your local naturopath who sells IV vitamin drips as the detoxification solution to your problems. The approaches may differ but all the advocates are completely convinced of one fact: Detoxing will deliver a renewed body and better health. Not only will you look better, you’ll feel better. It is a new year. Wouldn’t a purification from last year’s habits (dietary and otherwise) of last year be the best way to start? Well before you pull out your credit card, there is one fact that “detox” advocates are reluctant to tell you. Continue reading

Review of 17 “alternative” therapies finds no evidence of effectiveness

Reiki is as science-based as The Force

Reiki is as science-based as The Force

Health care systems around the world are being pressured to “do more and spend less”, to make healthcare more cost effective. Owing to aging populations and the growing cost of providing health services, there’s more scrutiny than ever on the value of different health treatments, with the goal of reducing the use of treatments that don’t help. The Choosing Wisely initiative was establishing expressly for this purpose. Regrettably, while well-intentioned, Choosing Wisely hasn’t had as much of an effect as you might expect. Medicine can be slow to change, as David Gorski discussed in a post over at Science-Based Medicine. Unless we ruthlessly scrutinize what we do for effectiveness, and are willing to act on what we learn, self-driven change is unlikely. One way that governments (and insurers) can dramatically reduce the use of a health service or treatment is to simply stop offering it, or paying for it. Yet stopping funding is something that is relatively uncommon in health care. It seems to be much more difficult to stop a practice, possibly owing to inertia, a reluctance to change, and the sometimes-vociferous protests that can emerge from patients or physicians that may feel that their preferred therapy is effective. The formidable challenge of stopping health care funding, once it has started, is one reason why this blog has been very critical of the expanding scope of practice being granted to alternative medicine purveyors – the legislative alchemy that is the first step towards insurance coverage. Because once that’s in place, it will be far more difficult to stop it. So it’s essential to understand the evidence. Continue reading

A disturbing case of “naturopathic medicine” for whooping cough

Whooping cough does this to children. It can even kill them. And it's preventable. Antvaccinationists oppose this.

Whooping cough does this to children. It can even kill them. And it’s preventable. Yet some prefer the disease over an effective vaccine.

Over at Science-Based Medicine you’ll find my recent post on Heather Dexter, who claims to be a “Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor” in Michigan,  and blogs at She recently used her blog to describe, in astonishing, horrific, gut-wrenching detail, how she let three of her children suffer for months with whooping cough without seeking proper medical attention. She’s pulled the post off her website now, but the internet never forgets, and you’ll find this case discussed over at Naturopathic Diaries, the Skeptical OB, and at Respectful Insolence as well.

In all my blogging about naturopathy I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a case that left me so upset – because Dexter’s belief in the “naturopathic philosophy” meant that three small children endured months of misery (apnea, vomiting, and turning blue),  useless remedies (homeopathy, herbal remedies, and even regular enemas) all because of a belief system that prioritizes a philosophy over scientific evidence.

Find the original post over a Science-Based Medicine.

Photo via OneSalientOversight via Reddit.

How a diet scam was born: The rise and fall of green coffee bean

Green Coffee Beans - Fake Cures For Real Conditions
I thought I’d written my final post on the Dr. Oz-fueled green coffee bean extract (GCBE) diet supplement fad. But now there’s another appalling chapter, one that documents just how much contempt The Dr. Oz Show seems to show for its audience, and how little Dr. Mehmet Oz seems to care about providing medical advice that is based on good science. Last week it was revealed that the “naturopath” that Dr. Oz originally featured in his GCBE segment, Lindsey Duncan, didn’t disclose a direct conflict of interest when he spoke. After inaccurately describing the supplement’s effectiveness, he directed consumers, using keywords, to web sites that he owned or operated. The infamous “Dr. Oz Effect” worked, with Duncan selling $50 million in GCBE supplements in the following months and years. It has also been announced that Duncan and his companies have been fined $9 million by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The documentation released by the FTC [PDF] gives remarkable insight into how a scam to make millions was launched, and how the Dr. Oz Show is a willing platform for the routine promotion of dubious “experts” and worthless supplements. Continue reading

Naturopathy and “biomedical” treatments for autism

For the past several months I’ve been contrasting the advice from naturopaths against the scientific evidence, in a series I’ve been calling “naturopathy versus science”.  In past posts I’ve looked at the naturopathic perspectives on fake diseases, infertility, prenatal vitamins, vaccinations, allergies and even scientific facts themselves. From a blogging perspective, naturopathy is a fascinating subject to scrutinize, as there is seemingly no end of conditions for which naturopaths offer advice that is at odds with the scientific evidence. As a health professional,  I want to encourage the best use of health resources, and support patient autonomy and decision-making by providing credible, evidence-based information. Given repeated calls for naturopathy to be “integrated” with conventional medicine, I’ve spent a lot of time reading what naturopaths have to say about different medical conditions. What I’ve found is concerning. Naturopaths describe themselves a health professionals capable of providing primary care, just like medical doctors. And they’re increasingly seeking (and obtaining) physician-like privileges from governments.  Yet there is a lack of evidence to show that naturopathy offers anything distinctly useful or incrementally superior to science-based medicine.

Defining the scope of “naturopathic” treatment is difficult. Naturopaths offer an array of disparate health practices like homeopathy, acupuncture and herbalism that are only linked by the (now discarded) belief in vitalism – the idea we have a “life force”. From this philosophy can sometimes emerge reasonable health advice, but that has little to do with the science or the evidence. As long as it’s congruent with the naturopathic belief system, it’s acceptably “naturopathic”. One of the signs that naturopathy isn’t medicine is that it needs a prefix. Notice how there isn’t a “pharmacy medicine” or “nursing medicine” that’s distinct from science-based medicine. It’s just “medicine” – health professionals base their practices on scientific evidence and principles that reach across professions. Naturopathy doesn’t share the same evidence base as medicine, and in some cases, disagrees with its basic scientific principles. It needs to be qualified as distinct, and hence: “naturopathic medicine”. Notice how Rexall makes it easier to find the non-evidence-based products:

naturopathic and homeopathic

This week an advertisement was passed to me that promoted naturopathy at a Toronto public school: Continue reading

Naturopathy, Paternalism and Infertility Treatments

Pregnancy Test
This is another post in the naturopathy versus science series, where a naturopath’s advice is assessed against the scientific literature.

It’s Naturopathic Medicine Week in the United States, so it’s time for another look at the alternative medicine practice that blogger Orac likes to call the One Quackery to Rule them All. Naturopathy is an oddity among alternative medicine, because it’s a hodgepodge of other practices linked by an underlying belief in vitalism: the pre-scientific notion that living things have a “life force”. Vitalism disappeared from medicine when Wöhler synthesized urea in 1828, yet the belief in vitalism is a central tenet of naturopathic philosophy. Naturopaths liken themselves to be primary care providers akin to family physicians (general practitioners) but their practices are quite different: rather than make decisions based on scientific evidence, naturopaths pick and choose based on what they feel is congruent with their vitalistic philosophy, sometimes despite good scientific evidence that shows they are wrong. For example, homeopathy is an alternative medicine practice that is very popular with naturopaths. It is an elaborate placebo system where “remedies” contain no medicinal ingredients: they are literally sugar pills. There is no demonstrable medical effect from homeopathy, and so it isn’t part of science-based medicine. Yet homeopathy is a “core clinical science” for naturopaths, and the practice of homeopathy is part of their licensing exam.

Continue reading

The truthiness of naturopathic “facts”


This is another post in the naturopathy versus science series, where a naturopath’s advice is assessed against the scientific literature. It’s a cross post from Science-Based Medicine, where the original post has (at last count) 436 comments:

When you think medicine, your first thought may be “physician”. But the practice of medicine today is a collaboration, as few health professionals, even physicians, can deliver health care completely independently. As a pharmacist I’ve worked closely with physicians, nurses, and other health professionals my entire career. Collaboration starts early, and the setting is usually the teaching or academic hospital, which is always crawling with students, interns, and residents from all professions. Teamwork and trust are essential. In order for different professions to work effectively together, there has to be a common foundation. For medicine, that foundation is science. From basic science principles through a common understanding of fields like biochemistry and physiology, health professionals all work from the same basic understanding about how the body works and what the principles of medicine actually are. If I give a recommendation to a physician or a nurse, I’m basing that assessment on an evidence base that we both rely on. It’s not “pharmacist evidence” versus “physician evidence”, it’s “medical evidence”. This is reality-based healthcare. Continue reading

Which prenatal vitamin is best?


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

Naturopathy versus Science: The Vaccination Edition

Follow the link for the "response" to this cartoon

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