In the first week of February 2015, news about the latest measles outbreak went “viral.” A disease that in 2000 was declared basically eliminated from the U.S. is now on the rise. The controversy centers on the problem of parents who have believed, among other things, that vaccines cause autism, have refused to vaccinate their children, and now their children are at risk and are putting other children at risk of serious diseases.
Many, might I say the majority, of the circulating health-related beliefs today are fear-generating. Fear is a strong motivator of behaviors. The fears are based in beliefs (whether true or false) that affect health choices that affect lives. Beliefs, fears, behaviors–these reflect what we value, and values are a worship issue. Therefore, they demand discernment.
Consider other supposed health “facts.” How often have you heard: Toxins in our environment are causing chronic illnesses and we have to detoxify our bodies. Treat autism with vitamin supplements and by avoiding gluten. Take vitamin C for a cold. Take echinacea for a cold. Eat local honey to reduce allergies. Drink green tea and eat foods high in antioxidants to prevent cancer. Laetrile cures cancer. Take fish oil to prevent heart disease. Take chondroitin and glucosamine to relieve joint pain. Take saw palmetto to treat enlarged prostate. Take garlic supplements to lower cholesterol…ad infinitum.
Are these claims true? Should I really keep echinacea and chondroitin in my medicine cabinet and take vitamins every day?
This is not a trivial question. The answers we choose to believe can save hundreds of dollars or deplete the pocket book, can even save life or destroy it. On the one hand, a cancer patient swears his homeopath cured his nausea. On the other, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, who had a treatable type of pancreatic cancer with a good chance of surviving it had he had immediate surgery, instead chose alternative treatments. The cancer killed him.
For a Christian, even more important is the name of Christ. The way a Christian chooses his beliefs on health issues can cast a positive or negative light on his testimony. If a Christian is not discerning about health choices, then the watching non-Christian has reason to conclude that the Christian may also not be discerning about religious beliefs.
I know it is almost taboo to find fault with supplements and alternative treatments, but the defensiveness of proponents itself is cause for concern. Applying Proverbs 18:17, the wise will listen to opposing arguments and consider verifiable evidence, even seek evidence. So, I write this post to encourage the pursuit of discernment as well as to tell you about a book.
In Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, Paul Offit takes a look at alternative treatments from a research-based approach. That is why I chose the book. I did not want an author who simply reiterates the common assertions of the zeitgeist, but one who validates with science. As I read the book I also stopped to search and verify some of his 254 citations.
In the prologue, Offit discusses the fact that in the last fifty years alternative medicine has moved from the fringe into the mainstream. “In 2010, a survey of six thousand hospitals found that 42 percent offered some form of alternative therapies. When asked why, almost all responded, ‘patient demand’” (p. 1). This is consumer-driven, not fact-based.
Why would patient demand be so high for treatments not scientifically proven? Offit says,
The reason alternative therapies are popular is simple. Mainstream doctors are perceived as uncaring and dictatorial, offering unnatural remedies with intolerable side effects. Alternative healers, on the other hand, provide natural remedies instead of artificial ones, comfort instead of distance, and individual attention instead of take-a-number-and-wait-your-turn inattention. (p. 2)
It is also true that some alternative treatments can help. For example, many alternative practitioners encourage a healthy lifestyle. Some plants are sources of chemicals with truly curative properties. That is why many conventional drugs are made from herbs.
Some of the topics Offit tackles are Dr. Oz and other alternative healers, “the lure of all things natural,” vitamins and antioxidants, laetrile and other supposed cancer cures, anti-aging treatments, autism causes and cures, chronic lyme disease, and more. For example, he tells the history of how vitamin C gained such unjustified fame as a cold treatment and cancer cure and how it was disproven for both.
I was a little shocked to learn that alternative medicine is a mostly unregulated industry. I have repeatedly heard people accuse “Big Pharma” of greed. My initial agreement has diminished as I’ve heard repeatedly from my own nurse daughter of cases in her work when Big Pharma outright gave expensive meds to needy patients, no strings, no advertising. (Define “expensive” as $30,000 for one IV bag of chemo.) Meanwhile, as to regulation, whatever we believe about the supposed greed of pharmaceutical companies, the more serious inconsistency is that while “Big Pharma” has to test products for years at the cost of billions and inform purchasers of risks, big alternative supplement manufacturers do not have to do the same. Why? They have a powerful lobby, like the National Health Federation, that has repeatedly blocked legislation and oversight by the FDA. The industry does not have to prove the efficacy or even safety of many of its products. However, as of 2007, after fraud too rampant to ignore, requirements were passed so that the manufacturers have to ensure that the product in the box or bottle is what the label says it is. I wonder what was actually in that bottle labeled “Echinacea” I bought pre-2007!
Offit is not against all supplements, but against charlatans and against the false claims that endanger the unsuspecting or, at the least, waste their money. He warns in order to prevent people from being duped.
So, for example, Offit summarizes the history of homeopathy. It was invented by Samuel Hahnermann. “Homeopathy” means “similar suffering.” According to homeopathic theory, we should take that which will induce the same symptoms as the illness we have. So if you are vomiting, take something that will make you vomit. This reminds me of Pharaoh’s magicians who, when they saw the swarm of frogs brought forth at Aaron’s rod, themselves made frogs come onto the land (Exodus 8:1-7). However, true homeopathic medicines should be diluted thirty times or more until there is nothing or almost nothing left of the original active ingredient. “Although the active ingredient was gone, Hahnemann believed, the final preparation would be influenced by the medicines having once been there” (p. 39). This isn’t medicine, but mysticism.
Because antioxidants have long been touted as cancer preventatives, we’ve been told to ingest antioxidant supplements and foods high in antioxidants. That could be a serious mistake. Research shows that supplemental antioxidants like vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene actually increase the risk of cancer. One study based in Seattle was even stopped when researchers noticed that those taking the “supplements were dying from cancer and heart disease at rates 28 and 17 percent higher, respectively, than those who didn’t” (p. 59). Why? Although antioxidants are known cancer inhibitors, raising levels through supplements upsets the body’s balance of antioxidants, inhibiting the immune system from killing new cancer cells.
A common belief is that natural equals good and artificial equals bad. This is simply illogical. Water is water, whether from (natural) rain or a by-product of combustion. Estrogen is estrogen whether it is ingested from a plant or synthesized in a factory. Arsenic, mercury, radium, and black widow venom are all natural–”natural” does not always mean healthy.
How do we explain those cases in which there really was relief after taking an alternative medicine or treatment? Offit does not deny that there can be real results from alternative therapy. Often, very real experiences of improvement are a placebo effect. The power of placebo is a well-documented phenomenon. Results can be amazing. To my chagrin, this section of his book reminded me of an experience of my own. In preparation for surgery, I saw the anesthetist inject something into my IV port and thought it was a sedative. Feeling odd, I said, “I feel strange.” She answered that it was only an antibiotic. I felt embarrassed that I’d probably been tricked by a placebo response. The anesthetist must have injected something else because no sooner had I admitted, “It must be my imagination” than I was saying, “Now I really do feel weird.” At least, I think I finished that sentence.
Lessons I gained or had reinforced:
Don’t make health an idol. Jesus said, “Do not be anxious for your life…Seek for His kingdom” (Luke 12:22, 31). I don’t mean that we are to disregard health, but diet and supplements ought not dominate our thoughts, time, talk, finances, or be viewed as the key to a child’s sinful behaviors. Jesus did not teach that out of the diet come anxious or angry words and behaviors, but “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts” and deeds (Mark 7:21). Refuge ought not be sought in diet, drugs, or alternative drugs and therapies, but in Christ.
Don’t reject conventional medicine because it is conventional. For centuries, man existed with only what is today called natural and alternative. It was conventional medicine that was one of the major factors in reducing infant and child mortality, and improving quality of health for decades of life. While far from perfect, unlike alternative medicine, it has been built on a great deal of substantiated research and, unlike alternative medicine, there are laws to protect you and provide full disclosure before you buy.
Be discerning. Ephesians 4:14 says that Christians “are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Certainly, that has a primary application to knowledge of God and His Word and ways. Still, false health claims, with promises of healing and health, are deceitful schemes whirling en mass through our culture on the currents of TV, internet, emails, and conversations. They attract us to idolatry of good health.
Many cite personal experience. Anecdotal evidence is pseudoscientific. Just because one person is “cured” by the homeopath does not mean that the homeopath’s treatment worked or would work consistently. The person might have improved anyway, or the substance may have had more active ingredient (as used in conventional medicine) in it than what the label indicates. Just because Jeanne Calment smoked most of her life and lived to age 122 does not mean that smoking promotes long life.
“It is not good for a person to be without knowledge, and he who makes haste with his feet errs” (Prov. 19:2). Christians talk about being good Bereans regarding spiritual claims. Why then do we not research the latest diet buzz or the supplements the alternative practitioner prescribed to swallow daily by the handful (and charged generously)? All it takes is googling to learn that margarine is not one molecule away from plastic. Even if it was, so what? Water is only one atom away from hydrogen peroxide and that doesn’t make water poisonous.
If we passively accept what we hear, then we are not being wise, we mislead others by passing along false information, and we waste time, money, and mental effort that could be put into the gospel and the building of character.
Consider your witness for Christ. This is the bottomline issue and far more vital than any health issue. If we are unnecessarily gullible in accepting the winds of non-evidence-based health claims, why would an unbeliever take us seriously when we tell him that God became a man and died? And then rose again?
In this short response to the book, I’m not proposing that all alternatives are fake. I am encouraging discernment. We need to think before we gulp. Find scientific substantiation. If there is none, ask for it. If there is still none, find a different consultant or doctor. Ask: Has this been proven safe? Can you tell me where to find documentation? Does this come with a PI (Package Insert, that explains all about the drug, how it works, and side effects)?
Finally, a tasty tidbit of my own:
Enjoy chocolate. Something so good certainly must be a food group! (Tongue planted squarely in cheek) However, I argue that it fits the legume classification. After all, cocoa is derived from the cacao bean. A bean is a legume. So cocoa must be a legume. The body builds proteins from the combination of legumes and grains, like flour. So, chocolate cake is a protein food. Likewise, powdered sugar is a vegetable, made from the sugar cane plant. Add milk, a dairy product, to make frosting. Now frosted chocolate cake is nearly a completely balanced meal.
- Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/consumer-health/in-depth/alternative-medicine/art-20046087?pg=1
- NIH: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/decisions/consideringcam.htm
- National Council Against Health Fraud
- A Caution About Alternative/Naturopathic/Holistic Treatments
- About SBM « Science-Based Medicine
- A brief history of acupuncture
- How to know whether alternative medicine is safe. “Unlike prescription drugs, the manufacturers of medicinal herbs and botanicals are not required to prove the safety and efficacy of their products prior to marketing them. In addition to the definite possibility that these substances might be ineffective, there are two major safety considerations–their potential for causing drug interactions and the risk of product contamination. If you are researching for negative reports on a particular substance you may find the NIH’s index “How Safe is this Product or Practice?”