If you are after legitimate health advice, you may have a job ahead of you.
Whether you turn to a natural health product, or to your doctor, much of the information that you receive will be marketing disguised as health information.
According to Dr Ben Goldacre, an Oxford- trained physician and academic:
“…the whole edifice of medicine is broken, because the evidence we use to make decisions is hopelessly and systematically distorted …” (from his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients)
Medicine is broken. Your well-meaning doctor gets almost ALL of her information from pharmaceutical company marketing. And natural medicine is not much better. A zealously promoted natural supplement is almost always just hype.
In this post, I will discuss two examples of broken medicine: 1) Antidepressants, and 2) “Raw Food” branded natural supplements.
Doctors are honorable professionals. When they prescribe antidepressants, they do so with a genuine desire to help patients. Doctors have been told the drugs they prescribe have passed clinical trials. Problem is: Those clinical trials were conducted by the same pharmaceutical company who owns the drug.
Industry now sponsors 90 percent of published clinical trials, and industry cooks their results to suit their sales. They choose subjects that are most likely to give positive results, and, most importantly, they quietly SHELVE up to 50% of studies that show negative results. Then they actively market the drug to doctors under the guise of professional journals and continuing education.
This has prominent health experts worried. According to a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine,
“The entire system of clinical investigation is now driven by profit. We are seeing the corruption of a system of research that used to have high ideals and be clearly in the public interest.” (1)
In his writings, Professor Jerome Avorn from Harvard Medical School goes further to explain that pharmaceutical marketing is the main source of knowledge about new drugs for most doctors. (2)
In 2010, non-company researchers finally had an opportunity to reexamine all of the SSRI antidepressant clinical trial data, and they made an alarming discovery. They found that the majority of people, SSRI antidepressants work no better than placebo. (3)
The benefit of SSRI’s for most people are placebo. The side effects are real: weight gain, impaired sexual function, infertility, and osteoporosis. Withdrawal symptoms are real, so do not stop an SSRI without speaking to a doctor.
“Raw food” supplement fraud
My concern here is about foods and natural supplements that are marketed as “raw” to catch your dollar. Like the featured image of Raw Pepsi cola, which was an unhealthy refined sugar beverage, like any other cola.
The premise behind “raw food supplements” is that they are more naturally sourced than conventional synthetic supplements. This is built around a grain of truth. Some nutritional supplements are than others, and some supplements, like supermarket-variety calcium chalk tablets and synthetic vitamin E, are downright harmful. It is worth seeking a better quality supplement, but the label “raw” is nonsensical.
And if you have been sold the idea that ONE BRAND of supplement is better than any other, then you have been sold a bill of goods. Any truly beneficial supplement will be available from more than one brand. An example is magnesium bisglycinate, which is superior to the conventional, and cheaper, magnesium oxide. But magnesium bisgycinate is not proprietary and it is not “raw” (whatever that means).
When it comes to the actual raw food diet (and not the spin-off commercial products), it is not wholly without merit. Any diet that eliminates refined sugar and processed food is an improvement on our standard western diet. But as Dr David Katz writes, the raw food movement is “a whole lot of hype that runs well ahead of any legitimate science.” He says that “..opinions about nutrition are disseminated with religious zeal, as if gospel.”
Needle in a haystack
How do you see beyond the buzz, and find a legitimate beneficial treatment? Whether you’re looking for a pharmaceutical or a natural treatment, the onus is on you, the patient, to do the research.
This may sound surprising, but before you take a pharmaceutical drug, I suggest that you look at its Wikipedia page. Wikipedia is not perfect, but it is more likely to give you a balanced discussion of the drug’s efficacy and side effects. In particular, Wikipedia will discuss controversy and criticism. See the Wikipedia page for SSRI antidepressants.
You can try Wikipedia for information about natural supplements, but a lack of discussion there does not necessarily mean that the treatment is without merit. Ultimately, when it comes to natural medicine, you must either do a lot of research on your own, which means knowing how to interpret and filter information. Or you must trust a practitioner or a website to filter that information for you. As a rule of thumb, you should choose a practitioner or website who is not also selling the product that they want you to take.
Yours in Health,
- Relman A. Trust me, I’m a scientist. New Scientist, 22 September 2001:46 – 47.
- Avorn, Jerome. 2004. Powerful Medicines. Vintage books.
- Jay C. Fournier et al. Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity. 2010. JAMA 303 (1): 47–53. PMID 20051569.