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See A Damn Doctor
Don't take medical advice from your friend with dred locks and Birkenstocks or some gray-skinned person at your local health food store. Oh, but everybody knows (insert name of trendy herb here) is highly effective, and the medical establishment and big pharma is in a conspiracy to keep it from being studied. Well, no, it's just not financially beneficial to them to study stuff anybody can mix into a vitamin pill. But, guess what: somebody studied echinacea recently, and found it does...absolutely nothing...for your cold. Gina Kolata has the story in The New York Times:

Echinacea, the herbal supplement made from purple coneflower and used by millions of Americans to prevent or treat colds, neither prevented colds nor eased cold symptoms in a large and rigorous study.

The study, being published today in The New England Journal of Medicine, involved 437 people who volunteered to have cold viruses dripped into their noses. Some swallowed echinacea for a week beforehand, others a placebo. Still others took echinacea or a placebo at the time they were infected.

Then the subjects were secluded in hotel rooms for five days while scientists examined them for symptoms and took nasal washings to look for the virus and for an immune system protein, interleukin-8. Some had hypothesized that interleukin-8 was stimulated by echinacea, enabling the herb to stop colds.

But the investigators found that those who took echinacea fared no differently from those who took a placebo: they were just as likely to catch a cold, their symptoms were just as severe, they had just as much virus in their nasal secretions, and they made no more interleukin-8.

Some researchers say still further investigation is needed, with stronger doses and with echinacea species and preparations different from those used in this study. But Dr. Stephen E. Straus, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the government agency that sponsored the new research, says he for one is satisfied that echinacea is not an effective cold remedy.

"This paper says it will not pre-empt a common cold, and it stands on top of prior studies saying it doesn't treat an established cold," he said, adding, "We've got to stop attributing any efficacy to echinacea."

For more info on other health food store and medical myths, check out

Posted by aalkon at July 29, 2005 8:14 AM

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I get asked about this kind of garbage all the time. I majored in biochemistry/molecular biology as an undergraduate and I have a medical degree. I like to see some kind of analysis before I make any judgments on efficaciousness of substances. This is not what most people do when it comes to illness and medications. Most people include some kind of "magical" belief in what works. It comes across as a need to control that which they cannot control and this is a source of great fear. Most of us have a little of this lurking deep inside us and don't like to admit it.

Posted by: emkeane at July 29, 2005 5:44 AM

Thank you for weighing in on this. It's amazing to me how many people say they don't trust "the medical establishment" -- which bases its treatment on data -- and then run off to lap up the advice of some gray-skinned vegan at the health food store. Thanks, but I'll take the best facts we have, not a "prescription'" to throw three drops of lavendar oil over my left shoulder on a full moon!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 29, 2005 6:29 AM

This reminds me of friend who claim milk "creates mucus" and argues that humans weren't meant to drink cow's milk. Why not??? Non-fat milk is a refreshing source of protein and calcium, butter is a great source of vitamin A, and cream is well, just a heavenly treat.

I'd much rather get my calcium from some naturally occuring food than from fortified orange juice(?!?) or tums.

Posted by: Diana, milk drinker at July 29, 2005 10:43 AM

Amen, Diana. A life without cheese is a life not worth living.

Posted by: MissPinkKate at July 29, 2005 12:13 PM

I would go further. I would say that non-fat milk makes no sense, as you need fat to be healthy and not hungry. Moreover, I haven't researched it except in a surface way, but in my most cursory opinion, it's a mistake that we cook the crap out of everything; ie, pasteurize it. I have to say, I am at my healthiest and my skin is at its very best when I spend a month in France. Nonfat milk? Probablly doesn't exist here. If you eat fat, you're full. If you eat non-fat stuff, you must feel hungry all day! I had steak au poivre and potatoes at 1pm...and then a tarte tatin around 4:30 (apple tarte, French size, meaning for one person, not a family of 6)...and a glass of wine with the delightful La Coquette (French blogger)...and I wasn't hungry until now (11:25pm). If I'd had some non-fat stuff, I'd be starving all day -- and I say that from unfortunate experience. Besides, it tastes like crap (and I don't mean to insult crap by saying that). -Amy Alkon, hedonistic fundamentalist

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 29, 2005 2:21 PM

Oh, and the cheese here is not pasteurized. Which is just one of many reasons why it's fantastic. And guess what? You don't see French people dropping in the street from disease because of it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 29, 2005 2:26 PM

Can't find a better summation of "The French Paradox" than that.

Posted by: Dmac at July 29, 2005 2:48 PM

Hmmm. I like your logic. And your photos certainly back up your claims to health. Fat does satiate.

Posted by: Diana at July 29, 2005 6:53 PM

One of the best ways to approach this is look at it from a simple economic point: how much would people pay to avoid a cold (or get larger breasts or penis, etc.). When someone says some tripe about “the medical establishment” not wanting to investigate a natural product for the simple fact it is a nature product just think of how much a person would pay for its benefits—weigh this against the fact that drug companies invest millions to reap billions of dollars from such aliments as high blood pressure or elevated blood sugar, conditions that have no immediate effects verses that of a cold (or larger breasts or penis). In short, anything that could reap such profits would immediately be exploited, researched and developed to go OTC (over the counter). Indeed, magical thinking (and belief) play into the hands of those who would want you to believe that some mystical cure is all that you need.

Posted by: Dr. Jensen at July 29, 2005 9:34 PM

On drug development:

Naturally occurring substances are not patentable. If a drug company spends $60,000,000 in 12 years to determine the effectiveness of "compound X" and it works, then nothing is stopping another company from marketing this same substance and they are not so far in the hole to begin with.

On fat in the diet:

Fat is composed of lipids. These same lipids as a group are vital components of cell walls. They take part in metabolic pathways, facilitate the storage of energy, act as second messengers in cellular signal transduction, allow faster conduction of nerve impulses, protect the body from dessiccation, and do so many more interesting and vital things in the body that they should be extolled and revered for the life-giving properties they produce. Without them, life as we know it in the broadest sense would not exist on this planet. Lipids slow gastric emptying; simple physiology experiments show this. [Carbohydrates exit the stomach fastest, followed by proteins. Fats are much slower and will a person feel full for longer.] Simple experiment: Try taking a 2 minute break in the middle of a meal. This puts a person 2 minutes closer to feeling full as the hormones that cause the physiological sensations take a few minutes until their effect is experienced.

There are usually some rare exceptions to most aspects of medicine and biology, but if it sounds wacky then it probably is wacky. Humans are omnivores (look at our teeth) and most people in the world eat what they grow or what is grown locally. In the US, this is not the case. A cafeteria-style diet brings on weight gain in lab animals. This is thought to be true for people too. (It's the reason for the animal study in the first place.) If the lab animals eat the same thing every day they maintain a steady normal weight.

Yes. You are more likely to beat cancer than lose weight and keep it off to match the five-year survival rate of all cancers as an averaged group. (That's >50% vs. approximately 5%.)



Posted by: emkeane at August 2, 2005 10:48 PM

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