Health Guarantees and the People Who Abuse Them
We live in a world of absolutes. Everyone wants their health advice in black and white. They want health guarantees. Tell me what herb cures cancer. Does Echinacea cure colds? What drug should I take if I have diabetes? And everyone from the media to natural health practitioners to the medical community is only too happy to comply. Ahh! If only things were that simple. If only our health options truly existed as clear cut choices that provided health guarantees. Unfortunately, in the real world they do not. Ultimately, health is a game of odds -- and the real world choices we face are anything but absolutes.
As I said in the very first edition of Lessons from the Miracle Doctors, there are no health guarantees. Good health comes down to "playing the odds."
For example, if you smoke cigarettes, there's no guarantee that you're going to get sick and die. (We've all heard stories of the man who smoked and drank like a fiend for 80 years, only to be shot to death by a jealous husband when the smoker was discovered in bed with the other man's 20-year-old wife.) On the other hand, there's no question that your odds of having emphysema or lung cancer or of having parts of your mouth, lips, and tongue surgically removed increase dramatically if you smoke. Again, it's all a question of odds. And as a real life example, as I've pointed out in previous newsletters on this subject, there's always Hugh Hefner, with his addiction to Pepsi and his ever present pipe.
Well, in the same way, if you follow the Baseline of Health® program as laid down in this website and in my book, your odds of having good health and long life are significantly increased--not guaranteed, but significantly increased. And as a side benefit, you're going to feel a whole lot better, have more energy, vitality, sexuality, youthfulness, and radiance in the process.
A question you might be asking yourself right now is: if I've covered this topic before, why are we visiting it again?
And the answer is simple. I want to explore some of the most recent abusers of this principle and examine the health consequences for anyone who might be seduced by the appeal of absolutism and thus miss the bigger picture.
The Health Experts Who Pitch Cures and Failures with Absolute Certainty
There are five primary abusers of absolutism. These include:
- The Natural Health Community
- The Media
- The Professional Skeptics
- The Politicians
- The Medical Community
Let's take a quick look at them one by one.
The Natural Health Community
The natural health community is, unfortunately, frequently guilty of speaking in absolutes. How many times have you read about miracle cancer cures or ways to guarantee that you never get cancer? Unfortunately, they're not true. When it comes to cancer, you can absolutely change your odds, but there are no guarantees. You can't guarantee that you'll never get cancer, and you can't guarantee that you can cure it if you get it. Cells are always going rogue in your body as part of the normal metabolic process -- anywhere from several hundred to several thousand times a day. And yes, your immune system is designed to find and eliminate all of those aberrant cells -- but sometimes, no matter what you do, they slip through the net and begin to multiply. And some cancers, once they get started, know how to fool your immune system into ignoring them. In fact, some cancers can even co-opt your immune system into helping it spread. When it comes to cancer, there are only odds, no guarantees. You can improve your odds, but there are no guarantees. Thus, when people guarantee natural cures for cancer, they are being less than forthright.
Likewise, when natural health writers guarantee that certain actions, such as overeating sugar, guarantee that you will come down with diabetes, they are overstating reality. Your odds of getting diabetes may increase, but it's not guaranteed. Nor is it guaranteed that you will not get diabetes if you eat a perfect diet. Something to keep in mind is that eventually, every health guru, me included, dies from something. That's one of life's few guarantees.
One of the hot topics circulating through the natural health blogs at the moment is the study out of France done on the effects of consuming GMO corn.1 Essentially, the study, which billed itself as one of the most exhaustive ever on the subject, concluded that eating GMO corn and/or Monsanto's Roundup weed killer caused rats to develop horrible tumors and suffer severe kidney and liver damage. Other effects were also noticed in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen, and blood stem cells. To quote from one leading health site, "News of the horrifying findings is spreading like wildfire across the internet, with even the mainstream media seemingly in shock over the photos of rats with multiple grotesque tumors... tumors so large the rats even had difficulty breathing in some cases. GMOs may be the new thalidomide."2 It's all pretty frightening, but there are a couple of caveats before we take these conclusions as absolute gospel.
First, it's one study done with rats. Does that matter? Oh my, yes! Rats are not people.
Recently, someone commented on a Baseline of Health Foundation Daily Health Tip we mailed out concerning the virtues of goldenseal. As they wrote, "I wanted to point out that the US National Institutes of Health conducted toxicological studies in animals fed with Goldenseal Root. They concluded in 2010, and corroborated by another group in 2011 that Goldenseal Root is a potent carcinogenic agent (cancer genesis).3 So, please take "A Closer Look at Goldenseal Root" before you recommend it to your members."
A question we might want to ask ourselves based on this comment is: "If we're up in arms about the GMO corn study, why aren't we up in arms about the goldenseal study referenced in this comment -- I mean if goldenseal is a proven carcinogen?" My answer to both this question and our reader's comment follows.
"And then there is the study, also published in 2010, that shows that goldenseal is cancer protective.4
"The bottom line is that a couple of studies with mice don't mean very much. Standard lab rats and lab mice are insulin-resistant, hypertensive, and short-lived. With a two-year life cycle, they metabolize drugs and supplements much more quickly than their human counterparts. In addition, having unlimited access to food makes the animals prone to cancer, type-2 diabetes, renal failure, and liver disease; it alters their gene expression in substantial ways; and there's reason to believe that ragged and rundown rodents will respond differently--abnormally, even--to experimental drugs or natural supplements. In the end, only about 4-20% of mouse studies statistically translate to humans. Although mouse trials are useful, they are far from definitive.5
"Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that with over 100 years of commercial use for goldenseal, and millions of people using it, there has been no evidence of an increased incidence of cancer among those users. If only pharmaceutical drugs could make that claim."
So what does this mean vis-à-vis Roundup and rats? It means that unless we're applying double standards, the same logic has to apply. One rat study does not a conclusion make. It may raise concerns, but it is hardly definitive and at best has about a 20% chance of relating to humans. Also, it needs to be noted that Roundup Ready Corn was first commercialized in 1998. In other words, it's been eaten en masse for some 14 years, and there's no sign yet that it's producing results in humans anything like what we've seen in the rat studies. Are cancer rates up? Absolutely, but they were up for years prior to the introduction of Roundup Ready Corn. There is no evidence of any spike since its introduction. There is the question of time, of course. Perhaps not enough time has elapsed. But so far, there is no indication that the results of this study translate directly to humans
But there are other problems with the study. For one thing, the rats in the study fed higher doses of Roundup pesticide or GMO corn didn't consistently get sicker than those fed lower doses. In fact, some rats fed higher doses had better health outcomes. Another curiosity is that the study got the identical results from two entirely independent treatments. The rats fed straight Roundup and the rats fed Roundup Ready Corn, but with no Roundup in it got exactly the same tumors. That's pretty much a nonsensical result. And maybe most important of all, the strain of lab rats used in the study (Sprague-Dawley albino strain Crl:CD(SD)IGS BR®) is predisposed to tumors, especially mammary tumors such as those seen in the study rats. By about 2 years of age, on average, about 80% of this strain of rats will get tumors--just from being alive--regardless of what they eat or are exposed to. Since the study ran two years, you do the math.
So, does that mean Roundup Ready Corn is safe? Not at all! I've expressed concerns about any GMO foods for years. What it does mean, however, is that no absolute conclusions concerning the carcinogenic properties of GMO corn and Roundup can be drawn at this time. Calling GMO corn the "new thalidomide" might make for great headlines, but when based on one seriously flawed rat study, such a claim is a tad premature to say the least. One final thought to keep in mind when considering the relevance of animal studies to humans is chocolate. Chocolate can kill your dog. With humans, it just makes us feel like we're in love. For most people, those are very different responses. Note: onion, garlic, and macadamia nuts can also be deadly to pets. If one bases conclusions concerning the safety of foods and supplements on the results of one or two animal studies, the odds of coming to false conclusions are high. At best, animal studies merely point a direction for further study.
I resent being put in the position of having to defend Roundup and GMO corn, but the alternative health community has grabbed onto a bad study as proof of point. Yes, there is much to dislike about Roundup and GMO corn, but it is not found in the French study. And coming to absolute conclusions based on one badly done, agenda driven, rat study is not only bad science; it's bad health. It's also a dangerous precedent. If we were to accept one flawed rat study as proof that GMO corn is unhealthy, wouldn't we be obligated to do the same for the equally flawed rat study on goldenseal? What's good for the goose and all that…
The above French study (and we can now see how flawed it is) has been used as a rallying cry in support of California's Prop 37, the ballot measure mandating the labeling of genetically modified food. I know many in the alternative health community are trying to encourage their California followers to vote in favor of 37. I really, really wish I could support this measure, but I can't. I'm all in favor of honest labeling and in having both GMO and irradiated products clearly identified. As a formulator, I scrupulously make every attempt to avoid GMO ingredients in any product that carries my name. But this is a seriously flawed measure that reeks of exemption by influence and ambiguity through bad writing. For example, pet foods containing meat would likely require labels, but meats for human consumption would not. Cheese, alcohol and all restaurant foods are exempt. But foods that are milled or pressed, such as olive oil, quite easily could be prevented from carrying a "natural foods" label. The measure is fuzzy in this regard. There are some who would say that even a bad law requiring GMO labeling is better than no law at all. I beg to disagree. Prop 65, which was previously passed to protect consumers from exposure to things like lead and arsenic, has done little to change their use and consumption. What it has done is unleash a multi-million dollar industry of ambulance chasing lawyers and out-of-state, carpetbagging bounty hunters who are now attempting to feed off its teat. And they have made a point of specially targeting small natural food and supplement companies because they don't have the resources to fight a prolonged legal battle and are, thus, more likely to pay the extortion fee to make the problem go away. Make no mistake; ultimately, you the consumer will pay the cost in higher prices. Do we really want to approve another badly written measure to drive up costs?
Just last Friday, Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stoneyfield Farms, a huge organic dairy company with over $400 million in annual sales, was on Bill Maher's Real Time promoting a yes vote on Prop 37. Bill was very impressed that Gary had managed to take Stoneyfield from 7 cows to $400 million in sales -- and it is very impressive. What was left unsaid is that The Dannon Company now owns 85% of Stoneyfield, and it was marketing and distribution from Dannon that helped propel Stoneyfield to the top of the food chain. One of Dannon's products is Activia, which is powered by Bifidus RegularisTM, which "appears" to be a genetically engineered (GE) strain of bacteria. Let's just say that Dannon is cagey and ambiguous when pressed on this issue. Does that mean that Activia is unhealthy or even dangerous? Not at all. Many vitamins and even human growth hormone are now produced by GE bacteria. If it's not dangerous, then, why does it matter? It matters because dairy is exempt from Prop 37. If it were not, Dannon might be forced to declare Activia as GMO on its label. How convenient, then, that Gary can promote Prop 37 without damaging the interest of his parent company. Is he doing anything wrong? Not at all. But it is convenient, and it does bring us back once again to the main point. What kind of GMO labeling law exempts dairy, meat, and poultry?
I know I'm on the same side of the issue as Monsanto and big agribusiness on this. How in the world did that happen? But that doesn't mean it's the wrong position -- and keep in mind that we share the position for diametrically opposed reasons. And I know I'm going to get howls of protest from some of our readers, but badly written laws are bad laws. And no, something (approving a bad ballot measure) is not necessarily better than nothing (in this case, not approving the measure). Even though I desperately want to support Prop 37, I have to recommend against it as it's written. Yes, it's easy to support in principle -- if you don't live in California, or your business is exempt. There's no price to pay. But those of us who live in California and have to deal with the consequences and costs of a badly written law deserve better.
I've dealt with this issue so many times that I'm beginning to feel like a typical software upgrade -- now on version 11.3. Relying on health information you see in the media is just plain stupid. There are three primary reasons for this.
- Budgets have been cut so severely at most newspapers and magazines that there is virtually no investigative journalism left when it comes to issues of health. In fact, the media primarily functions as a transcribing service. As I've pointed out previously, one of the national news services picks up the press release on a new study and calls a couple of their "reliable" doctor sources to comment on it. The news service then broadcasts the identical report, almost never challenged, to all of its newspaper, magazine, and TV subscribers. Those news outlets then merely rewrite the story they've just received, with no further investigation of their own. And that's why so many of the stories (and even the headlines) you read on any particular study look so similar from newspaper to TV station to radio show -- because they're all rewrites of the same story.
- Again, because of collapsing budgets and competition from other news outlets and the internet, most news media is now more into marketing the news rather than presenting it. In fact, some stations even let you vote on the stories you want to hear each day as a way of getting you to watch their channel. The bottom line is that if you're marketing the news, the more dramatic the headline and story, the easier it is to sell. Thus a study that indicates that conventional food has only about 30% more pesticide contamination than organic comes with the headline that reads, "Organic Foods a Waste of Money." In other words, the media will happily turn statistical ambiguity into market grabbing absolutism with reckless abandon.
- And let's be honest here. Due to massive advertising revenues provided by the medical/pharmaceutical industrial complex, the press will rarely write favorably about natural remedies or negatively about medical mishaps. There's just too much money at stake. Make no mistake, this has a profound influence on journalistic content.
The bottom line is that the mainstream media is driven to speak in absolutes, even when no absolutes are there. Anyone who takes them too seriously deserves the false information they get.
The Professional Skeptics
Professional skeptics, like my "good friends" Robert Carroll and Stephen Barrett, by definition, must speak in absolutes. For example, on his Skeptic's Dictionary website, Bob Carroll expresses his disdain for all things related to alternative medicine, "Some will be harmed by AM [alternative medicine, ed.] and many people will benefit from it, but the entire benefit from AM comes from the so-called placebo effect, which includes the reduction of stress hormones due to the calming effect of good ritual, "bedside" manner, promise of relief, and desire of the patient to be helped and to please the healer, classical conditioning, and the illness running its natural course."6 When you think about it, categorically stating that ALL alternative medicine is bogus is a pretty amazing absolutist statement that presents one with some startling contradictions. One of the most obvious concerns is the connection between herbal medicine and pharmaceutical drugs. To believe that the entire benefit from alternative medicine comes from the placebo effect requires you to believe that herbs such as foxglove, cinchona bark, and Pacific yew trees have no intrinsic benefits but that the drugs derived from them -- digitalis, quinine, and taxol -- do. Now that requires some logical gymnastics. And in truth, there are dozens of drugs derived from plants. And the reason researchers looked at those plants in the first place is because they had been used as healing plants for hundreds of years. How miraculous it would be indeed if all you had to do to turn a plant's placebo benefit into an actual medical benefit was to patent its active ingredient. When you think about it, it's not so much a testament to science, as it is to healing power of patents. Talk about the power of capitalism!
But Bob Carroll saves some of his most cutting remarks for acupuncture. "The evidence from the scientific studies also shows clearly that sham acupuncture is just as effective as true acupuncture. What is not so clear to some people, but is easily ferreted out from the evidence, is that acupuncture most likely works by classical conditioning and other factors that are often lumped together and referred to as ‘the placebo effect.'"7
Unfortunately, once you've invested so completely in an absolutist position such as Bob Carroll's, you're faced with a conundrum when contradictory evidence appears such as the recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that stated, "Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo."8 You can do a mea culpa and admit you were wrong, of course, but that isn't likely since you're so invested in the wrong position. That means you either end up ignoring the new evidence as does Bob Carroll, or dub them "dubious" as does Stephen Barrett -- even though the study was spearheaded by that bastion of conservative medical think, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and represents the most rigorous examination to date on the subject of acupuncture.9
There really isn't much to say here that I haven't said dozens of times before. Politicians are absolutely the worst people to control what you do for health. Yes, they have a role to play as regulators in trying to maintain standards, but when it comes to grandstand issues, their motivation is almost always political -- and often influenced by a huge dollops of lobbyist money. For example:
One of the funniest examples of how the regulation of health by politicians is political by definition comes from the movie "Thank You for Smoking" when the tobacco lobbyist, Nick Naylor, is called in to testify before a U.S. Senate committee to "defend" cigarettes. He ends up turning the tables on his interrogators by attacking the Senator from Vermont for promoting cheddar cheese, which leads to clogged arteries, the number one killer in the U.S. And no, I'm not advocating for cigarettes.
The bottom line when it comes to politicians is that they are raging with the hobgoblins of their own minds. They need to:
- Stop playing games.
- Stop subsidizing things that harm our health.
- Stop playing both ends against the middle -- lobbyists and public opinion against health.
- Regulate without bias across the board. In other words, level the playing fields between unhealthy and healthy foods and between mainstream medicine and alternative medicine (as if that will ever happen).
- Make sure people are educated about their choices.
- And then just get out of the way and let people make their own choices. If they make bad choices, that's part of what freedom of choice means. Just level the playing field so the deck isn't stacked against them.
The Medical Community
If there is any group that should know better, it's the medical community. Virtually every study done on their behalf draws its conclusions based on percentages and numbers. This drug will reduce your chances of having a heart attack by 12%. And this chemotherapy drug will reduce your chances of surviving your cancer by 15%.
The medical community tends to be selective about which studies it communicates to the public and seems to have no problem converting percentages to absolutes when telling the public about the studies. Consider a sampling of the following items we have discussed previously in our newsletters.
Although statin drugs can lower your risk of having a second heart attack, statistically, they have not been shown to add a single day to your life. Does your doctor tell you that when prescribing them for you -- or do they just allow you to infer that it helps you live longer?
Chemotherapy drugs all work on odds. For example, taking chemotherapy drugs after colon cancer may improve your odds of survival by about 15% in exchange for the side effects -- some of which may be permanent. Does your oncologist tell you the odds so you can make an informed decision, or are you allowed to infer that you have no choice but to take the drugs if you want to get well? Even worse, that 15% improvement is across the board. It's not like everybody's odds improve 15%. No, what it means is that only one in six people will receive any benefit at all. The other five out of six will only get side effects. Whether or not they get a recurrence of the cancer will have nothing to do with the chemotherapy drugs. Is that explained to you?
When it comes to flu vaccines, doctors always cite the cohort studies that found that flu vaccine is 98% effective in preventing the flu. What they don't tell you is that the same study also found that the same flu vaccine will also protect against being struck by lightning, killed in a drive by shooting, or dying in an airplane crash. Makes you wonder if there's something wrong with those study results, doesn't it. In fact, other studies have shown that flu vaccines are only marginally beneficial -- and that's if they guess the right strains to defend against.
Sometimes doctors just ignore studies that conflict with what they already believe. Men, has your doctor told you that the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recently concluded that "many men are harmed as a result of prostate cancer screening and few, if any, benefit?"10 And yet, despite these recommendations, many doctors have chosen to continue annual screenings. A Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine survey showed that of 125 primary care doctors interviewed, many were hesitant to stop PSA testing in patients who received it regularly.
And women, has your doctor told you that most recent studies indicate that mammograms would have to reduce breast cancer mortality by 51 percent to counterbalance the risks of the screening for women between the ages of 24 and 29, and they don't come close, leading to the conclusion that the risks far outweigh the benefits for this age group? And even for older women into their 30s, the benefits appear marginal. In fact, when you combine the increased risks of breast cancer from regular mammograms with the increased risk of cancer from hormone replacement therapy, you come to the unmistakable conclusion that much of the increase we've seen in breast cancer in the last 50 years is a direct result of medical intervention. And if that weren't bad enough, has your doctor told you that the rate of mammogram false positives, by some estimates, is as high as 90 percent or greater?11
Cures rarely come in magic bullets, although the medical community loves to think they do. And of course, by applying that criterion when examining alternative remedies, they get to "prove" that they don't work.12 But as we said at the beginning of this newsletter, real health does not come in magic bullets and absolutes. It comes by dealing with the body as a whole and by improving your odds.
If you don't do that, if you don't worry about the odds and think you're going to be able to take some magic bullet provided by your doctor, you're going to be disappointed. In fact the odds are very bad. As an indicator, it's worth noting that a recent study confirms that the Baby Boomer generation's overall health is in sharp decline. Australian researchers have completed the first stage of a report on the generation born between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1960s. Among other findings, the researchers found that obesity among baby boomers is more than double the rate of their parents at the same age, and the odds of boomers having three or more chronic conditions was 700 percent greater than the previous generation.
It's your body. It's your life. It's your choice. Why not stack the odds in your favor?
- 1. de Vendômois JS, Roullier F, Cellier D, Séralini GE. "A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health." Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5(7):706-726. http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm
- 2. Mike Adams. "Shock findings in new GMO study: Rats fed lifetime of GM corn grow horrifying tumors, 70% of females die early." NaturalNews.com 19 Sept 2012. http://www.naturalnews.com/
- 3. National Toxicology Program. "Toxicology and carcinogenesis studies of goldenseal root powder (Hydrastis Canadensis) in F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice (feed studies)." Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser. 2010 Aug;(562):1-188. http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/LT_rpts/TR562.pdf
- 4. Karmakar SR, Biswas SJ, Khuda-Bukhsh AR. "Anti-carcinogenic potentials of a plant extract (Hydrastis canadensis): I. Evidence from in vivo studies in mice (Mus musculus)." Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2010;11(2):545-51. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20843149
- 5. Melissa Hendricks. "The Mouse Model: Less than Perfect, Still Invaluable." Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. (Accessed 14 Oct 2012.) http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/institute_basic_biomedical_sciences/news_events/
- 6. Robert Carroll. "FAQ." the Skeptic's Dictionary. (Accessed 14 Oct 2012.) http://skepdic.com/faq.html
- 7. Robert Carroll. "Acupuncture." the Skeptic's Dictionary. (Accessed 14 Oct 2012.) http://www.skepdic.com/acupuncture.html
- 8. Andrew J. Vickers, DPhil; Angel M. Cronin, et al. "Acupuncture for Chronic PainIndividual Patient Data Meta-analysis." Arch Intern Med. 2012;():1-10. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1357513
- 9. LINDSEY TANNER. "Acupuncture can help with pain, study finds" The Associated Press. 16 Sept 2012. (Accessed 14 Oct 2012.) http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2012/sep/16/acupuncture-can-help-with-pain-study-finds/
- 10. "Screening for Prostate Cancer Current Recommendation." USPSTF May 2012. (Accessed 15 Oct 2012.) http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/prostatecancerscreening.htm
- 11. "More on the Dangers of Mammography." Credence Publications EClub. (Accessed 15 Oct 2012.) http://www.credencegroup.co.uk/Eclub/Eclubsearchable2/220302/dangersofmammograms.htm
- 12. Rita Rubin. "Strike Vitamin D Off the List for Cold Prevention?" WebMD Health News. 2 Oct 2012. (Accessed 15 Oct 2012. http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/news/20121002/strike-vitamin-d-cold-prevention