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Getting over the hype of alternative medicine

The Skeptics Corner
By Dustin White

Over the last couple of decades, it appears as if “alternative” or “complementary” forms of medicine have increased in popularity. With a few celebrities supporting the movement, as well as an increasingly aggressive marketing campaign, it would appear as if a large portion of the population is succumbing to what some had labeled as a fad.

With the supposed miracle properties that many of these alternative methods claim to possess, it would seem to make sense that people would turn to them when science-based medicine seems to fail. If the claims were true, then it should be a time of great advancement in the medical field.

As with most claims dealing with so-called miracles, it is of little surprise that many of the hyped-up claims in regards to alternative medicine fall flat when actually investigated. Instead, relying solely upon such practices can prove to be harmful; not only to those relying on them, but also to others who are exposed. In this week’s Skeptic’s Corner, we will delve into some of these claims, and the problems that lie behind them.

Homeopathy
Homeopathy rests on the idea that like cures like. The basic concept is that a substance that causes a healthy individual to become ill, will cure similar symptoms in an individual who is sick.

This system of alternative medicine was first formed in 1796 by an individual named Samuel Hahnemann. Since then, little has changed in regards to the method that homeopathic cures are produced.

The general method in which a homeopathic “medicine” is manufactured is by taking a substance, and then diluting it with either distilled water or alcohol. Usually, the substance that is used is one that can cause symptoms like the ones in which are being treated. Hahnemann found out quite quickly that there was a need to dilute the substance, as administrating it in a pure form had the possibility of either increasing the symptoms, or causing a dangerous toxic reaction.

According to his ideology, the greater the substance was diluted, the more powerful it would become. Starting with a one part in 100 solution, each additional dilution would take one part of that diluted solution to be further by a factor of 100. By just the second stage, the solution would already have diluted the substance to one part in 10,000. Hahnemann advocated that such a process would be repeated 30 times.

The major problem with this idea is that the original substance is so diluted that the plausibility that it has any real effect is not reasonable. Once the substance has reached the 13th dilution, the solution won’t even contain a single molecule of the original material, and will be nothing more than water or alcohol.

However, not all who prescribe homeopathic remedies suggest such high dilutions. Even with a relatively low level of dilution, the amount of the actual substance is near negligible.
For this reason, most studies have shown that the cure is either useless, or just marginally better than a placebo. As the disease becomes more serious though, studies increasingly show that homeopathic remedies provide no benefits.

Because of such studies, and homeopaths encouraging the use of such remedies for diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria, the World Health Organization issued a statement in 2008, warning against using homeopathic remedies for such ailments.

Blocking of cures
A popular claim of alternative medicine advocates is that either the drug companies, or the Food and Drug Administration, are blocking cures for serious diseases such as AIDS or cancers. They claim that if we had the technology to send a man to the moon, surely we would have found a way to cure cancer.

Finding a cure for cancer though has proved to be much more difficult than mastering the technology in order to achieve spaceflight.

One of the main misconceptions here is that cancer is cancer, while not realizing that it actually includes a large array of diseases. Cancer also is a continually changing disease. While the cells may initially respond to treatment, those same cells have the possibility of mutating and thus warding off further attempts of curing the ailment.

Advocates of alternative medicine often latch on to such misconceptions, and use them in order to further their own products. Often, they are able to get their “medicines” on the market much easier by bypassing the FDA and going straight to the shelves. They do so by not making any specific medical claims, but instead, working the effects of their product in such a way that it implies that they can cure various ailments or conditions.

With little incentive to actually test their produce, it makes financial sense as to why they would go to market instead. Without the proper testing though, many of these products are issued to individuals even though they have no evidence supporting their effectiveness.

While this lack of oversight often does not lead to any harm, as many of the products amount to not much more than placebos, there have been cases in which the effects have been disastrous. This is especially true when celebrities decide to back the ideology.

A timely example of this is the anti-vaccine movement, where a number of celebrities have placed their support behind. With recent outbreaks of the measles and whooping cough, diseases that were largely eradicated in the United States because of vaccines, many are seeing the direct consequences of a refusal to accept science-based medicine.

The main problem with the claim that the FDA is blocking cures though is that one must ignore the advancement in medicine. A great example of this is with the treatment of AIDS/HIV. In the timeframe of only about a decade, AIDS/HIV went from being a death sentence to being a manageable chronic disease. Today, scientists are putting forth research and applications that possibly foreshadow a cure in the not so distant future.

This advancement would not be the case if the FDA continued to block such treatments. However, as we do see, the process from going to what is considered a death sentence, to a disease that can be managed and possibly cured is not instantaneous. It does take time and effort, but scientists continue to move forward.

Vitamins
One of the largest markets in regards to alternative medicine is the vitamin supplement business. While it is true that humans do need vitamins, many do not understand the various factors surrounding their intake.

For the most part, vitamin supplements are not needed (in certain cases, they definitely are, such as with pregnant women). Except in specific circumstances, healthy individuals will get the necessary amount of vitamins that they need by simply eating.

While the intake of some vitamin supplements can be useless, in other cases, there can be severe side effects. For instance, even though many individuals believe that vitamin C can treat the common cold, numerous studies have shown that it has no effect in that regard. Instead, when taken in excessive amounts, it can lead to a number of complications ranging from diarrhea to insomnia and kidney stones.

In more serious cases, a number of studies, over the course of the last two decades, have suggested that taking vitamin E can increase the chances of getting cancer. In such studies, individuals who were taking vitamin E often had much higher rate of developing a number of different cancers as well as heart disease.

These studies have also looked at the effects of taking multivitamins, and similar results were shown; that individuals who were taking such had a significant increase in mortality rates. Because of such research, no national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends the use of vitamin supplements.

Why believe
The question that arises then is why do people think that alternative medicines work? For some, it is because they provide a placebo effect. In fact, some supporters of alternative medicines even go as far as claiming that placebo effects are meaningful, and thus should be pursued.

Others see that science-based medicine is limited. It doesn’t, at this time, provide a cure for everything, and some see that as a failure. So they look for other means that claim to have the answers, and many proponents of alternative medicine have no qualms about claiming that they have the actual answers.

The ability to admit that one doesn’t have all the answers though should be reassuring though, as that means, ideally, that they are willing to continue to push forward until they can answer those questions. That is largely what science-based medicine is based on; relying on research, and continuing to further that research.

Then for others, it is simply having more options open. They don’t necessarily have any problems with science-based medicine, but want to have a larger array of choices. Since many are scientifically illiterate, they rely on what is being provided to them via media outlets and other trusted sources.

Often, alternative medicine supporters do have a great use of propaganda, and can disseminate their material widely, in a fashion that people find easy to understand. Since many seem reasonable, it is understandable that the information would be believable.

On the other hand, researchers and proponents of science-based medicine can be difficult to understand. With a market flooded with poor material, it can also prove to be complicated to wade through all of the information and get to the material that is actually reliable.

Next week we will delve further into the medical field, and examine a few areas of mistrust, and limitations in the field.