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Thoughts on Crowd-Sourcing Health Advice

I was recently asked why I spoke out against what I consider to be useless and dangerous supplements for people with chronic illness (cancer was the specific topic). The argument was that people should just do their own research on supplements and make up their own mind; it’s their body after all.

Here’s the thing, I wholeheartedly agree with a person making their own decision about their body. On my herb walks I’ll show you the poisonous plants along with the medicinal. If you choose to eat the poisonous plants after having been shown what they look like and told about their poisonous actions, I’ll support that decision (assuming you’re of sound mind).

The problem I have is when people falsify reports, fake studies and generally prey on the average person’s lack of understanding science to sell potentially dangerous things labeled as “natural.” Most people don’t know how to read a study or find unbiased research. Even medical professionals have a hard time with this occasionally.

People in our culture place a large value on “science,” or anything that looks like science.  The marketing world has taken advantage of this and frequently produces reports and articles promoting their product that appear to be based in science. It’s not just supplement and herb companies doing this! Even bloggers and home-based salespeople are taking advantage of this trend to produce marketing materials based on weak science.

Why Do I Care?

Herbalism is not just my full time profession, it’s the fulfillment of my life’s path. I don’t say that lightly. I started studying herbalism when I was 14-years old. I had logged over 2000 hours of in-person, one-on-one training by the time I opened my first practice at 19 years old. In the last 13 years of full time practice I’ve added thousands of hours of training with the best herbalists, naturopaths and doctors in the world. I spent the majority of my teenage years and all of my twenties refining my understanding of the human body and how natural medicines could help. I estimate that I’ve spent over 25,000 hours with sick clients, many without monetary compensation.  Not once in that time did I ever doubt that this is what I was supposed to be doing. I’m not alone! There are thousands of amazing herbalists across the country that share my story and experiences.

When I see advice given about my chosen path that is harmful or potentially harmful, I say something because I care, not only about the people that might be harmed, but also about the integrity of my profession. This is the same attitude an engineer would have seeing an unsafe building design; the same as an electrician would have seeing dangerous wiring. It is a natural feeling to be protective of others when we see them headed towards danger.

When I speak out against something, it’s not because I have all the answers, or from a place of needing to assert superiority over others, it’s from a place of concern. If you’re the one giving the dangerous advice, I don’t assume it’s out of malicious intent, I assume that you don’t know better. I’m sincerely trying to help you understand why I’m concerned. If you’re selling something I consider dangerous, know that I’m not speaking out to hurt your livelihood. I’m not anti-MLM, or anti-essential oils. I know a couple of MLM’s that have effective and unique products and I use essential oils regularly. I am against deceitful marketing and poor science, and I will point out the flaws in both simply as a matter of principle.

To Everyone Crowd-Sourcing their Health Information  

I’m addressing this to everyone getting information from other people who are marketing products and sharing information on the internet. This also includes bloggers giving their advice and testimonials.

There are many wonderful people out there that have devoted their lives to helping others with the herbal medicine or other natural remedies. Becoming a skilled herbalist requires a huge investment of time and money. Many of us have spent thousands of hours training and doing research, consulting with clients and tracking our results and regularly reading articles and books and attending classes.

Access to full text journal articles for research can run thousands of dollars a year. Tuition at a comprehensive herbal school ranges from $7,000-$35,000. This doesn’t include the money we spend on conferences and continuing education. We have often sacrificed hobbies, vacations, and relationships in order to be competent enough to help those with complicated illnesses.

Please keep this in mind when we get upset at what we consider to be overly simplistic or dangerous advice. We see this kind of advice spouted daily in FaceBook groups, blogs and even mainstream media. Most of these comments are made by people who have been hoodwinked by the proponents of a particular product or narrow school of thought. Often these people have spent very little time educating themselves outside of a very narrow group of people.

In contrast, we respect the many traditions of healing from around the world, including Oriental traditions, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda, traditional Western herbalism, the eclectics and native cultures. You won’t find us upset at any recommendation with a long history of use from any of these wonderful traditional systems of medicine, but we do not respect recommendations driven by poor science and marketing.

In my previous blog, The War in the Natural Health World, I gave some suggestions for determining how legitimate a claim is. Read this article to help you differentiate legitimate claims and from marketing hype and psydo-science.

Here is a list of things we commonly see that raise alarms for many professional herbalists:

  1. The recommendation to use essential oils for everything or to take essential oils internally.
  2. The recommendation that an alkaline diet, a vegan or vegetarian diet, or any particular diet will  cure everything
  3. The recommendation that coffee enemas or harsh cleansing programs will cure everything
  4. Recommending cleansing programs to people who are in deficient conditions or elderly; or to pregnant women and nursing mothers
  5. The idea that any one herb, supplement or product is a “miracle cure” for everything, such as the idea that Colloidal Silver or essential oils are the answer to all infectious diseases
  6. People who suggest that natural remedies are the answer to everything and discourage people from seeking proper medical attention when it is warranted

Here are my comments on a few of these issues that raise concerns for many of us.

Essential Oils are the New Black

Every few years, a new natural product comes on the marketplace and it’s all the rage. The latest rage is essential oils. They are cool, they are in and they are hip. Just about everyone who’s anyone in the natural world recommends them….but professionals use them occasionally and with great caution and respect. Essential oils are very concentrated extracts from plants. They do not have all the actions of the whole plant and only contain the aromatic parts of plants, primarily Terpenes and terpenoids. There are many other compounds in plants that may be helpful in restoring health that cannot be found in essential oils.

Essential oils, even though they are natural, don’t get an exempt from rational use. Like with any medicine, plant or chemical, you should understand why you are using them. One of the principles of Herbal Medicine is to work on root causes, not treat symptoms only. If you recommend an essential oil, or anything for that matter, you should know the cause of the problem you’re recommending it for. This means having at least a basic understanding of physiology in addition to knowing the pathology. Here are a few great articles that address the major issues with essential oils:

http://theida.com/aromatherapy-education/the-quality-of-essential-oils

http://www.thebarefootdragonfly.com/friends-dont-let-friends-drink-essential-oils/

Deceitful marketing is a big issue for us. There is no such things as a therapeutic grade essential oil:

http://www.cropwatch.org/Therapeutic%20Grade%20Essential%20Oils%20corrected.pdf

A must read article on using essential oils safely:

http://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety

Alkaline Diets

There are many memes floating around the intrawebs and advice frequently given touting the power of an alkaline diet and supplements to alkalinize the body. Alkalinizing the body is supposed to cure everything from hangnails to cancer. The problem with this is study after study has shown that what you eat or take doesn’t have an action on the blood or interstitial fluid pH. You can alter the pH of your urine with diet, but studies have shown this is not reflective of health or disease in any significant way. The kidneys and lungs keep a very close control of the blood and interstitial pH, so much so that a one- point shift in pH often causes death.

The acid/alkaline theory advocates people eliminate meat, dairy, grain, eggs and fish, while eating lots of green vegetables, to alkalinize the body. While I fully support eating lots of green vegetables, and I even recommend people limit certain food groups like grains, it’s not because of any action on the pH of the body. Green vegetables are nutrient dense and packed full of more beneficial phytochemicals than science can keep up with. For some people eliminating certain foods like grains and eggs can be very beneficial because many people have negative immunological responses (food allergies/sensitivities) to those foods.

However there is no science, nor tradition to support an alkaline diet or supplements to make you alkaline. One really popular aspect of the alkaline diet is that cancer grows in an acidic environment. Science has shown for decades now that cancer cells make their own acid (lactic) as a part of their cellular metabolism. It’s not an acidic environment that causes cancer, it’s cancer that causes a localized acidic environment. Instead of posting hundreds of links to the science refuting the Acid/Alkaline theory, here are a handful of well written articles that describe in detail the problems with the theory and have links to the science for those wanting to delve more into the research.

http://chriskresser.com/the-ph-myth-part-1

http://chriskresser.com/the-acid-alkaline-myth-part-2

http://sciencebasedpharmacy.wordpress.com/2009/11/13/your-urine-is-not-a-window-to-your-body-ph-balancing-a-failed-hypothesis/#more-1424

Vegan and Vegetarian Diets Are Best

I often get ask if I ‘m a vegan, the assumption being that a vegan diet is the most healthy and therefore herbalists are all vegans. The fact is I’m an omnivore, I eat animal protein regularly and I think that animal protein is healthy. In my practice some of the sickest people I have seen are vegans. They are also some of the most dogmatic people I’ve seen and convincing them that their diet isn’t based in science or tradition is almost impossible.

Never in the history of mankind has there been a vegan culture. All traditional peoples ate some animal protein and many cultures expended huge amount of energy and time to ensure quality animal protein was included in their diet. While I believe that you can get enough healthy animal protein as a vegetarian via milk and eggs, so many people have digestive issues that keep them from being able to eat diary and eggs, making the healthy vegetarian diet difficult at best.

The proponents of vegan diets point towards studies showing benefits to the cardiovascular system and increased longevity. The problem is those studies with only a couple of exceptions are observational studies and notoriously prone to observational bias. Of the actual double blind studies done (the gold standard of studies) comparing an Ornish diet (a vegan diet) to a meat eating diet (Atkins), the meat eating diet outperformed the vegan diet in almost every category including weight loss, triglycerides, blood pressure, HDL improvement and on top of that participants were twice as likely to stick to it as the vegan diet.

You can read the details of the study here:

http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=205916  

Most of the observational studies didn’t take into account that meat eaters are more prone to also be smokers and consume alcohol. In the one study where they recruited 10,000 health conscious participants and followed them for 17 years, there was no difference in mortality between vegan and meat eaters. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8842068

Proponents of a vegan diet will often point to the China Study. For the sake of simplicity I’ll simply say that the China Study was performed by a scientist trying to prove his theories. He intentionally skewed the results and manipulated the data in attempts to prove his theory and the entire study has been thoroughly debunked:

http://rawfoodsos.com/2010/07/07/the-china-study-fact-or-fallac/

http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/China-Study.html

Forks over Knives is a documentary that also misrepresents the research and has been debunked:

http://rawfoodsos.com/2011/09/22/forks-over-knives-is-the-science-legit-a-review-and-critique/

That being said, please don’t misunderstand me, I LOVE VEGETABLES, and I hope you do too. Vegetables are incredibly nutrient dense and packed full of phytonutrients that improve your health and decrease your risk of disease. I commonly advise my clients to eat at least a pound a day of green vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables.

I also want people to understand that I am a meat-eating, animal-rights proponent. I believe in the humane treatment of animals and I believe that all life, plant and animal, is sacred. There is ongoing research pointing to the possibility that plants are sentient beings. A great source for some of that research is in the documentary What Plants Talk About, which you can view in its entirety here:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/what-plants-talk-about/video-full-episode/8243/

All life requires sacrifice and ALL life should be revered and consumed with gratitude.

You can read additional commentary on vegan diets here:

http://authoritynutrition.com/top-5-reasons-why-vegan-diets-are-a-terrible-idea/

http://chriskresser.com/why-you-should-think-twice-about-vegetarian-and-vegan-diets

Coffee Enemas

A less popular but persistent therapy is the coffee enema. Coffee has its own cult following, and I’m one of its members. I love a cup of rich dark coffee in the mornings and research points towards the benefits of coffee in moderation for those that don’t have anxiety and insomnia. However the use of coffee enemas is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to 1917. Studies have shown that coffee enemas are not beneficial for cancer:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1805327/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9252839

Studies also have shown the danger of coffee enemas, which include sepsis, rectal burns, colitis and death:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6710988

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7420666

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20054322

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18657805 

In short drink a cup or two of coffee if you like it, but please don’t use it rectally.

Cleansing

Colon, liver, lymph and kidney cleanses are almost as popular today as when I started my training in 1996. Cleanses are a traditional part of several styles of herbalism and have their place in herbal medicine. Unfortunately many people have retained the idea of cleansing without the context to know when to do it. The group of people that benefit from certain types of cleanses is relatively small. There are also some HUGE misconceptions about what a cleanse is, what it does and how to do one. The fact is the body will cleanse itself if it is healthy enough to do so. Many Americans are undernourished, one of the big contraindications for cleansing. To address this we did a comprehensive webinar on The Facts and Myths of Detoxification, which everyone should watch before attempting a cleanse, or advising someone to cleanse.

I hope this clears up some of the most common issues I encounter on the internet. I encourage you all to find a good Herbalist to guide you through the maze that is the natural world. And remember to read The War in the Natural Health World to help you decipher some of the claims being made by people.