Friday, September 13, 2013

Do You Believe in Magic: A Nice book, another Facebook Post Cut&Pasted

I'm reading an interesting book "Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine" by Paul A. Offit, M.D. 

Among other things, the book discusses the increase in cancer rates associated with increased vitamin use, the fact that there is a dubious distinction between natural and unnatural that supplement makers use to manipulate buyers. It's going to be somewhat of a long post, with a bunch of snippets from the book that really popped out at me. The reason this book is hitting so close to home for me is partly because I've had family members die of Cancer, and others that are living with it, and also because I've in my days used quite a lot of vitamins and supplements, and promoted their use to family and friends I'm sure. In other words, it could affect my own health or the health of those people I love. So getting back to the theme, the dubious distinction between "natural" which lulls us all into thinking that anything called "natural" must be obviously safe and "synthetic" which scares us into lazily thinking it's obviously unsafe. Things like Arsenic, spider venom, and certain poisonous mushrooms are 'naturally' found in nature. That doesn't automatically make them safe or good for us. The distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" or "synthetic" is something that has often fooled us into trusting or not trusting something, and I'm just as guilty of it as anyone. After all, many pharmaceuticals are made from plants, and some naturally growing 'natural' plants are poison and toxic. That's why we don't just eat any berry or mushroom we see growing in the wild if we don't know it, and recognize it as a safe one. It also discusses how there are extremely large corporations, making tons of money, and spending tons of money on disinformation campaigns, actively framing the debate as an issue of freedom to buy what you want, basically fooling the public into 'wanting' to 'not' know what is in what they are buying, due to a fear that if there is any regulation, the big bad government will take away their rights. It's similar to the way fear after 911 was used to push through an erosion of privacy rights when people were scared enough to do whatever they were told was necessary to protect them. I'm going to quote some of the book now. ....................................................................................................................
"Dr. Sidney Wolfe, representing Ralph Nader's consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, said, "This is a drug industry. The difference between large doses of vitamins and over-the-counter [drugs] is non-existent. Exploiting of genuine concerns people have for their health [by promoting] vitamin pill-popping solutions is no better than . . . fraud." Marsha Cohen, an attorney with Consumers Union, made a plea for common sense. Setting eight cantaloupes in front of her, she said, "We can safely rely upon the limited capacity of the human stomach to protect persons from overindulgence in any particular vitamin-or mineral-rich food. For example, you would have to eat eight cantaloupes to take in barely 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C. But just these two little pills, easy to swallow, contain the same amount. . . . And 1,000 milligrams, it should be recalled, is on the low end of Dr. Pauling's recommended 250 to 10,000 milligrams daily." - pp. 76-77 

(This is my own words again) (Sidenote: By the way, there's a whole section earlier on Dr. Pauling, how he genuinely made many really important scientific/medical discoveries, but then eventually got taken in by the whole vitamin craze, and more or less abandoned his rigorous scientific training when it came to vitamins. It just goes to show, than any one of us, or any really intelligent person, can sometimes be fooled. The problem, as the earlier part of the book describes, is that when a really famous or respected person gets taken in, drinks the Kool-aid, so to speak, they often take many others with them, because so many people trust them. I'm not gonna quote a bunch of that stuff, you'll have to buy the book or borrow and read it later if you want to delve into that. But basically, he was a really famous and respect scientist, nobel winner, who sort of had a fall from grace, as far as the Scientific/Medical community is concerned. Unfortunately, because of his fame, and legitimate earlier achievement, he pretty much singlehandedly shaped a lot of what we all now take for granted about vitamins. It was a hell of an interesting read, but I can't quote the entire damn book, even if it seems that way in this day and age of Twitter, which I don't use, and other Social Media, like Facebook, which I do use.)

Anyway, back on track, and slightly less tangential (yeah, right, as if anything that comes out of my brain or mouth could even not be a really long extended tangent; if I were a super hero, I would be Tangent Man!), in other words, there are healthy aspects to vitamins, but too much of anything can be unhealthy. Getting vitamins and minerals by eating foods that contain them helps to make sure we don't get too much, but popping vitamin pills allows us to really easily eat way more vitamins than is really good for us. The vitamin and supplement companies love it, all the way to the bank. They, it would appear, have fooled us into thinking that we need much larger amounts of vitamins than we can get by simply eating foods with vitamins in them. In actual fact, since there are NO regulations that anything marketed as a vitamin or dietary supplement have to be tested for safety, or tested to prove that they actually do what they say they will do. I'm sure some of them 'might' be helpful. Some of them might do nothing for us, but be harmless. Others might actually be contributing to Cancer. Without regulation and testing, just like any food or drug, we the public have absolutely no way to know if a supplement is safe or not. Here's an interesting snippet of a debate between David Kessler, who was representing the FDA, trying to protect the public from false claims, and make supplement makers test and label what they put out, to avoid snake oil salesmen from simply putting anything out and making untested claims about what it does and/or it's safety. Now I'm gonna put the quoted passage, that contains part of a debate, plus Dr. Offit's commentary. I'll use a line of dots to separate what were my words, from the entire quoted piece from the book, and also another section of broken dashes to separate the exchange between Kessler and Hatch since formatting is limited here in facebook. There's also a quote at the beginning and end of the entire piece I've quoted followed by a page number in case anyone's actually interested in finding it in the book for some odd reason. .........................................................................................................................

(The quote from the book starts now.) "The exchange centered on the FDA's recent seizure of primrose oil due to bogus claims. Hatch: What safety hazard was the FDA addressing that warranted such intensive use of agency resources and personnel?
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(Still from the book, but it's a transcript of a debate) Kessler: Senator, I can read you the claims made for oil of evening primrose. The list starts with cancer. Hatch: Remember, the issue is safety I am talking about." Kessler: My real concern is the types of diseases for which oil of evening primrose is promoted. Hatch: But my question is: What proof do you have that this substance is unsafe? Kessler: This is being promoted for a lot of different diseases, anywhere from hypertension to atopic dermatitis. Hatch: Safety, Doctor, safety! This is the question! Is an American citizen more likely to die from an adverse reaction to a drug approved by the FDA or a dietary supplement? Kessler: Senator, I am amazed. What do you think are 'in' pharmaceuticals? Half our pharmaceuticals come from plants. There are chemicals in pharmaceuticals and those chemicals are found naturally.

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(Still from the book, just the end of the debate transcript) Kessler was making an argument that had been made for centuries. The source of a chemical doesn't matter; only the chemical matters. And whether it is synthesized by a pharmaceutical company or found in nature, the chemical is the same. And it should be regulated in the same way. Otherwise consumers will think they're getting a guarantee of safety when they're not. In the end, industry money trumped common sense. On May 11, 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act became law. The act defined a supplement as 'a product intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, or an amino acid.' "Breathtaking in its dimensions," wrote Dan Hurley, "[the act] would end forever the simple legal dichotomy between 'food' and 'drug' to create a third, hermaphroditic category that was both yet neither: the dietary supplement. And beyond the usual suspects-vitamins, minerals, herbs, and amino acids-the law would permit manufactures to define a product as a 'dietary supplement' merely by saying so, no matter how artificially derived. Put lamb's brain in a drug or food, and be prepared to spend millions of dollars and a few years on studies showing that it is safe and effective; put it in a supplement and you're good to go, no evidence necessary." The New York Times called it the "Snake Oil Protection Act." - pp. 85-87 

(My own words again) And another tiny snippet comparing a drug that was regulated and being watched by the FDA, Vioxx and Vitamins, which under the laws, the FDA is not allowed to really watch, or test. 

(back to quoting the book) "So which is more dangerous: Vioxx or vitamins? Indeed, both have dangers. The better question is, why does everybody know that Vioxx can cause heart disease and nobody knows that megavitamins can cause cancer? The answer is that we have chosen not to know." - pp. 88-89 

(back to my own final words) I feel like I've been gullible with the whole vitamin thing. It's easy after all to be fooled. Places like health food stores that sell these things seem so grass roots and innocent. And in a lot of ways the people running them probably are. I think we all have maybe been taken in a bit. All I know, is from now on, my strategy will be to simply eat lots of healthy food. Lots of veggies, lots of fruits, and other good foods. Although I can be a pig, there is a limit to how much I can eat, plus food, unlike vitamins and supplements, it would seem, do have to be regulated and tested for safety. I'm sure that doesn't mean that there is never something that doesn't get tested enough, or that a few palms might not get greased in some occasions to look the other way, but at least there is some attempt to regulate and make sure food isn't stored in places where rats can poop on it and things like that. Plus I can't eat 8 canteloupes in one sitting. I do know I can eat more Pizza in a sitting that is really healthy for me. That's down to self control, and I am making inroads in trying to be more conscious of what I eat. Not perfect, but trying to go in a better direction. And possible hypocrite alert. I have been eating Protein shakes after I exercise. I think I will perhaps delve further into that product to see if I can find any scientific (trying to avoid the pseudoscience that can sometimes be hard to spot for a non professional like myself) studies on that particular product. Who knows maybe that will be covered later on in Offit's book as I'm not done yet. Cheers, to anyone who actually made it through this entire post and didn't just skip it, as I often do if I think something smells of conspiracy theory. I'll just leave it by saying that the book is a very interesting read. The experience kind of reminds me a bit of the feeling I got when I first read Carl Sagan's book about credulity and lack of skepticism in the modern world "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark". I'll might as well post links to both books for any of you interested in reading either of them.

Hell this post is so long, I may copy it and post it in my blog, which has lain dormant for at least a year probably. (That was from the Facebook post. The blog is dormant no more!)

I don't think it's the first time I've plugged this Sagan book, probably won't be the last!