You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Erbal Ealth

I hope readers get that the title is not an error.  I wanted to reinforce the idea that relying on herbs for health promotion often is done with information missing.  However, I want to start the story at the beginning.

The other day a student forwarded a research article on the effectiveness of an herbal spice called turmeric as an anti-cancer agent.  The research raised the possibility that turmeric will prevent the growth and spread of breast tumor cells.  For readers not deep into cooking, like I am not, turmeric is a spice commonly used in Asian cooking, and might be thought of as a cross between ginger and pepper.  The average person in India has significantly higher consumption of turmeric than the average Westerner.  I haven't done a literature search to see if this study is corroborated by other studies with similar or different research designs, but one study does not equal settled science.

Nevertheless, it turns out that the age-adjusted breast cancer mortality in India is 7.4 per 100,000 while the comparable rate in the U.S. is 11.31.  I hope you are saying to yourself, "That is an interesting finding, but it doesn't prove anything."  First of all, it will be important to verify that record keeping in the two nations are the same.  While it is safe to assume that all, or nearly all breast cancer deaths in the U.S. are accurately recorded and reported, that may not be true in India.  They have a much bigger population to monitor, and their health care system ranges from magnificent to barely functioning.  Assuming record keeping is not a factor, we then must consider other factors responsible for breast cancer.  An important difference between India and the U.S. is the proportion of women who are overweight or obese; excess body weight is a risk factor for breast cancer.  In short, while this research study on turmeric's value in combating cancer is encouraging, there is much more we need to know before any health promotion advice can be given with any assurance.

This is typical of the huge herb and nutritional supplements market.  Wild claims are often made, most often too good to be true.  On the other hand, it is certainly true that there are healing properties found in plants, but because of the profit motive, promises made about these products are often completely disconnected from fact.

We might rely of the federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission to guide and protect consumers with respect to herbs and medicinal plants.  However, because of anti-government and anti-regulatory advocacy, the FDA does not require review and approval before these products are brought to market.  The FTC has the job of checking the accuracy of marketing claims.  However, the huge array of products and the overwhelming number of vendors, including web-based, means that the agency has not, so far, been able to keep up with the task.  The bottom line is that as a consumer, you are mostly on your own in trying to critique the health promotion potential of herbs and "nutraceuticals."  There is the standard advice to check with your doctor, but she may not have any specific information about these products.  It is impossible, even in medical school, to teach physicians what they need to know about all the products patients shouldn't use.

One final note is that sometimes people say "It may not help, but it can't hurt!"  Not so.  Some of these products are not safe, regardless of the claims made about them.  The best source I've found for reliable information is the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements.  If you rely on Google, absolutely beware of the source.

1 comment:

Reza said...

Even though I agree with your view, I'd like to point out that, as one of the professors at UK College of Pharmacy explained, the western medicine is highly relying on measurable facts. If something cannot be measured, it is not used. It reminds me of Lavoisier who turned down any theory that was not based on measurable facts.
One example of this is in homeopathy where serial dilution goes against the science of pharmacology. There are some studies that shows that it is efficacious. However, it is not looked upon favorably in western medicine.
I believe that because of the profit that pharmaceutical companies generate, funding for such studies(alternative to western medicine) is not available and many such studies are shut down. Sounds like a grand conspiracy theory, but I really believe in it true.