Snake oil

Every so often, I get eNastygrams kvetching about my stance on ear candles. The less obnoxious complainers employ the “Oh, you should just try it!” argument, while the nastier ones suspect I’m trying to keep all that ear wax business to myself. Neither group can be dissuaded from their religious faith in ear candles; my counter-argument, that candles are unsafe and ineffective, falls on wax-filled deaf ears.

Medical conspiracy theorists abound. To them, we who practice “Western Medicine” are blinkered buffoons at best, greedy bastards at worst, due to our allegiance to drugs and treatments which seem downright destructive. In truth, our allegiance is to evidence-based medicine, but that has no sex appeal — not like all-natural herbs, touch therapy (which involves no touching at all; the practitioner’s aura heals the patient’s aura, thereby oh whatever), or omigod (literally) angel therapy.

Most folks seem to regard alternative medicine with tolerant skepticism. The argument, it can’t hurt and it might help, often wins people over. And, true, most of these treatments can’t hurt — not in any obvious way.

My friend, the one who is being treated for breast cancer, asked me about Ambrotose. Ambrotose, as best I can tell from what I’ve learned online, is a combination of “natural sugars” which are not abundant in our diets (mannose, fucose). Yes, Ambrotose is a sugar pill, but Mannatech, Inc. wants you to think it can cure all your ills — not that you’ll find that information on their website, of course, since the FDA takes a dim view of unfounded therapeutic claims.

Ambrotose users claim it cures autism, fibromyalgia, asthma, Down Syndrome, “weak immune systems”, cancer, you name it; but they’re careful about their phrasing:

Although I would recommend Ambrotose to everyone who cares about living in the best health possible, please understand that Ambrotose, and most of Mannatech’s product line, are natural, non-toxic, food products — and not drugs — and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease. They simply give the cells of the human body the nutrients they need in order to function and communicate properly. When our cells do get the nutrients they were designed to have — but are unfortunately uncommon in modern diets — the result is a strong immune system and a healthy body that can heal, correct, and repair itself. The body is the healer, not the substances that facilitate the healing.

As for the cure-for-cancer claim, this author does a decent job dispelling the myth, concluding,

The main danger I believe is that patients will not only lose money but will also lose precious time. Cancer is a complex disease. It requires professional help. Regardless of the sometimes uncaring attitude of certain errant members of the medical profession, one should not reject everything that conventional medicine has to offer in favor of a regimen discovered on the Internet. The answer is not simply to construct a do-it-yourself program, but to find expert and sympathetic guidance in the rapidly expanding realm of complementary oncology.

Regarding direct evidence of Ambrotose’s benefit, the studies are underwhelming at best.

Ambrotose is marketed through Mannatech and, Amway-style, through other users of Ambrotose. Thus, folks (like my friend) are sold on the idea of Ambrotose by consumers who receive discounts based on how much of it they sell and how many other salespeople they recruit. Sounds a little like a pyramid scheme, doesn’t it? Not surprisingly, the Texas Attorney General’s office has taken an interest in Mannatech Inc.’s  claims and practices.

But it’s just a sugar pill, you say. What harm can it do? Aside from the expense, I’m concerned some patients will shy away from conventional (evidence-based) treatment in favor of less toxic “natural treatments.”

Indeed, alternative medicine is less toxic. Chemotherapy is poison, after all; cancer cells are less robust compared to healthy cells, so they tend to succumb to the poison, while healthy cells recover. It’s undoubtedly hard for some people to embrace wholeheartedly a concept that seems to have advanced little since the days of leeches and exsanguination. You mean I can cure my cancer and not throw up/lose all my hair/feel like roadkill? Sign me up!

And that’s the problem, of course.  At local health food stores, I’ve heard store owners urge their patrons to try this or that “nutriceutical” as a “safe” alternative to their medications. Scary stuff, in my opinion.

Someone will surely bring up the argument: How do you know this won’t work? After all, lack of proof that a treatment is helpful is not proof of uselessness; and traditional medicine, for all its saves, has its share of spectacular failures as well. Maybe we missed something. Maybe that Chinese herbalist down the road knows something I don’t know.

I’ll tell you the same thing I told my friend. I don’t have enormous faith in traditional medicine. Our practitioners are overworked, flawed humans, and our knowledge base has holes you could drive an ambulance through. But I do have faith in the greed of the big pharmaceutical corporations — the profit hunger of the folks at Glaxo, Merck, Abbot Laboratories, Astrazeneca, and so forth. They may not give a damn if some poor African dies of tuberculosis, but are they eager to be the first to market a better drug for breast cancer? You betcha.

Ultimately, what revolts me the most is the fact these alternative medicine — excuse me, nutraceutical — manufacturers are preying upon the hopes and fears of an extremely vulnerable slice of our population. And they’re doing it on the strength of testimonial evidence. That’s criminally negligent . . . but there’s a better, shorter word for it.




  1. mm says:

    It cures Down Syndrome? Astonishing. Whoda thunk a simple pill could cure the nasty complication of an extra copy of a chromosome?

    Can it also make my ass smaller?

  2. Suisan says:

    And the other thing that bothers me about the all-natural medical sales pitch is that the underlying theme really is The Body Heals Itself.

    If you eat the right things, if you bathe your body in positive energy, if you think the right thoughts, then the body can do its work and regenerate. Yes, OK. I actually believe some of that to some extent. And I believe that you should try to live as healthy a lifestyle as you can (she said, eyeing the dusty treadmill in the corner).

    However, there’s an underlying “blame the patient” mentality about all that which disgusts me. The ones who believe hardest get better. The others? Well, I guess it didn’t work for them. (Never spoken out loud, but certainly hinted at: Maybe the ones who don’t get better didn’t do all they could to get better.)

    And then I have a second comment about the “strengthening the immune system” crap. I guess we all want protection against the common cold, but your immune system needs to shut off again after it’s repelled the invaders. Otherwise the immune system attacks your own body. I bet victims of lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis might prefer to have a slightly weakener immune system, thank you very much.

  3. noxcat says:

    One word about the greediness of pharmaceutical companies – Viagra.

    How is that more important than a better treatment for any cancer?? (Ok, maybe not prostate, but..:) )

    Yeah. If you figure out how to cure Diabetes, then the pharmaceutical companies lose a huge chunk of guaranteed income. It’s why I call myself a Pharmaceutical Cash Cow.

  4. Walnut says:

    I like your fat ass, Mo.

    Suisan, yeah, tell me about it — since my wife suffers from an overexcited immune system, after all. And, didn’t I just rant about “blame the patient” not long ago? I think so. I hope so.

    noxcat: viagra, paxil, prozac . . . Big Pharma is an easy target, but at least they occasionally do good things for us.

  5. shaina says:

    the boyfriend was gone before i got your present…no worries.
    but seriously, what should i do with it???

  6. Dean says:

    I don’t think they actually spent much money developing Viagra. It was, I think, investigated as a possible drug for other things. They discovered this side effect, conducted the clinical trials, et voila. Big profit.

    Noxcat: the company that finds a cure (a real cure) for diabetes is going to make a pile of money. You can bet they’re looking for it.

  7. Dean says:

    And I let the stuff about big pharma sidetrack me: I get tired of the snake oil sold under the ‘food’ label. For some reason, the FDA will allow exaggerated claims for things that are ‘foods’, even those that are clearly sold in place of drugs (St. John’s wort, for example).

    Oh, I’ve got a cold (not enough echinacea, doncha know, a weak immune system, toxins in my blood…) and I’m cranky. One part of me thinks that letting people spend their money on bullshit is a form of social darwinism, but another part of me hates that companies can effectively lie (in the form of failing to tell the whole truth) and make money at it.

    Bash big pharma all we like, they spend millions (yes, it’s because they have to) on studies that prove that the drugs do what they say they do. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the voodoo n’ magic hat crap that is the health food industry.

    Doug knows this, I think. One of the things doctors do when they consider which drug to prescribe is to weigh the risks with the potential benefits. Something like aspirin, not a huge risk. Chemo drugs? Huge risk. Potential benefits? Enormous.

    Ok, I’m ranting. Time to put the monkey child to bed.

  8. Walnut says:

    I’d like to see more integrity in the peer review of big pharma-backed clinical studies. Most of the time, things work as they’re supposed to . . . most of the time. But fuck-ups happen and greed is not the best motivator for good medicine.

  9. Suisan says:

    Want unbiased research and peer review? Someone’s got to pay for it. I’d prefer it not be someone with financial stake in the outcome. It would help immeasurabley if the fricking government would fund some basic fricking research in this country.

  10. Walnut says:

    What if we required the pharmas to pay for it, but set it up so that they had no pull on the physicians? I’m no politician, but I figure there must be some way to manage that.

  11. Amelia Elias says:

    And here’s another thought–how about not letting Big Phara pay the FDA? Don’t you think it might be a leetle bit less biased if the FDA was totally financially separate from Big Pharma?

    But of course, it doesn’t make any difference in how fast drugs get approved. No, naturally not. To think otherwise is just silly.

  12. Lyvvie says:

    I’ve only just heard about ear candles from my Mom, who has used them and raves on about how neat they are. I’m thinking that’s the appeal: they’re neat. They’re new, and weird and fun. you stick something in your ear and get to listen to it crackle and feel weird things and then get a big brown bonus at the end. It’s like those super-sticky nose pads that sucks all the gunk out of your pores, and you get to pull it off and look at all the blackheads and detritus stuck on the end – ewwww neat!

    Gone are the days when simply picking a scab or stuffing a pea up our nose was sufficient enough of a bodily intrusion to intregue the creepy kid in all of us. ( When I was six, I broke a beaded necklace and pushed a bead down my ear canal because I wanted super hearing like The Bionic Woman. I got the idea from the show’s introduction.)

  13. Walnut says:

    Big diff between ear candles and those nose pads: candles put that shit INTO your ears.

    You’ll always be bionic in my book, Lyvvie 😉

  14. cornealius says:

    Hi I just wrote a piece about alternative healing as it relates to my CFS/ME and would be interested in your opinion of it

    it’s at