Everyone has heard the stories in the news and on the TV; the miracle cures and the life-saving medications, the alternative therapies that offer heart-rending tales of lives saved, and the scary stories of what conventional medicine really does to our bodies.  Alternative medicine, more often than not, comes with glowing testimonials and mind-blowing claims – and usually high price tags too.  It’s easy to get sucked into the hype and with such media whirlwinds, it’s hard to know what to believe.  This is especially true when people get frustrated with traditional doctors and their perceived lack of time or bedside manner.  Patients feel lost and out of control.  But just what are ‘alternative therapies’ anyway?  And where is the harm, if someone wants to try something different?

In Philadelphia, a 12 year old girl was admitted to hospital with acute pancreatitis that was reportedly caused by an overdose in dietary supplements[1].  In New York, 9 year old Joey Hofbauer died from Hodgkin’s disease after his parents decided to treat him with Laetrile (a treatment not approved by the FDA, partly due to its link with cyanide toxicity), instead of with conventional medicine that would probably have saved his life[2].  In the UK, five year old Billie Bainbridge died from a rare form of brain cancer after her parents chose to ignore the advice of her doctors and flew her to the US to be treated with antineoplastons – an alternative medication derived from urine[3].  As shocking as these stories may be, unfortunately they are far from alone.  What’s more, it’s difficult to match these stories to those who purport to have been saved by alternative therapies, but which ones should we believe?

Over-Supplemented Herbaholics

                  Dietary supplements are big business.  In 2012, the industry grossed approximately $32,000 billion[4] and around 50% of all Americans use some form of alternative medicine[5].  With so many advocates declaring the benefits of supplements, herbal treatments, and unconventional medicines, it’s easy to assume that they are safe.  However, despite popular belief, supplements and alternative therapies are not regulated in the US in the same way that food and prescription medication is.  Since the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was actioned in 1994, it is not a legal requirement for dietary supplements to be tested for safety before going to market and the pharmacies that produce these pills do not need to prove their claims.  It is only after their release – and after adverse reactions – that the FDA can act to remove these products from the market[6].  Since the 1994 Act, 51,000 new supplements have been released and of those, only 0.3% have documented safety and efficacy testing[7].  That’s a scary statistic, especially when you think about how many people pop these pills without truly knowing what is in them or what they do. 

It gets worse.  Josephine Briggs from the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine claims that many of the supplements on the market today are actually prescription drugs in disguise[8].  This, she claims, is especially true of weight loss pills and body-building drugs.  Several, for example, contain the chemical Meridia.  Meridia is a prescription drug that was actually removed from the market after it was found to increase the patient’s risk of heart attack.  Due to the Supplement Act of 1994 however, this chemical can legally be used in dietary supplements and alternative treatments without warning.  This is not the only one either.  In fact, the FDA reports that supplements are the cause of 50,000 adverse reactions a year[9]

Marketing plays a part too.  Many of the claims made by proponents of dietary supplements are so well argued that they become ‘general knowledge’ – whether they are true or not.  Vitamin C and the common cold is the perfect example.  Originally championed by scientist Linus Pauling, the idea that high doses of vitamin C help ward off colds and flus has been proven to be false on numerous occasions, even though many still believe it[10].  And although a little more citrus fruit in your diet may be a good thing, overdosing on synthetic vitamin C supplements in the way that Pauling recommends can have horrible side-effects, such as heartburn, vomiting, headaches, and kidney stones[11]

The list goes on. 

Is There Anyone We Can Trust?

                  It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Dr. Paul Offit (most famous for developing the rotavirus vaccine) claims that of all the products brought to market since the 1994 Supplement Act, there are some that do good, albeit for people who are already healthy.  Omega 3, for example, is excellent for helping to prevent heart disease.  Likewise, calcium and vitamin D are great for post-menopausal women, and folic acid is crucial for healthy foetal development and pregnancy[12].  There are other alternative therapies that have been shown to work to some degree too.  Tai Chi, the Chinese meditative exercise, can work well as a complementary therapy for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease as it helps with strength and balance.  Acupuncture, furthermore, has been shown to provide effective pain relief in a variety of cases, as well as reducing symptoms of asthma, anxiety, and irritable bowl syndrome.   

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

                  The results of such treatments, however, may not be what they seem.  Alternative medicine is increasingly marketed as ‘mind over matter’, or in other words, as a legitimate placebo.  From the Latin “I shall please”, a placebo is a medically inert treatment (such as a sugar pill, or acupuncture) that has medically positive results (such as pain relief)[13].  Acupuncture in particular has been shown to be successful with pain reduction, although actual medical benefit is unlikely to be the reason.  One explanation is that it works because patients are relaxed and find their clinicians caring and considerate – often in contrast to conventional doctors.  This atmosphere, along with the ‘drama’ of the treatment, releases endorphins in the brain – chemicals that are physiologically similar to the pain relief drug morphine[14]

                  So if the treatment doesn’t cause harm and can actually do good, surely there can’t be anything wrong with it?  However, many argue that evoking the placebo response in trusting patients is a bad thing.  Firstly, it reduces the symptoms rather than the cause – removing pain will not cure cancer, for example.  Secondly, the question of whether it is ethical to mislead patients so succinctly is important.  Is it right to deceive patients about what is really happening?  Thirdly, it raises a possible danger of clinicians and doctors becoming arrogant and developing a “god-like view of themselves”[15].  Most would agree, however, that the small-scale deception and low risks of such treatments are worth the positive consequences. 


The term ‘quackery’ conjures up images of shysters and sham artists, working their way through towns and villages, selling their magical potions and cure-alls.  The sad truth of the matter though, is that quackery is still alive and well today.  Quacks are everywhere, hiding in the gaps that conventional medicine can’t fill, or that genuine treatments are working towards, or they shout over the doctors who try to show the truth – whether they are conventional or otherwise.  It’s easy to understand how people get caught up in the world of alternative medicine: people who are sick, people who are vulnerable, people who are desperate.  It’s for their sakes that we need to weed out the bad guys and learn what we’re looking for.  Look out for those demanding exorbitant fees up front, be wary of practitioners who warn you away from conventional medication, and ensure that treatments have been tested and are safe before undergoing therapy.  Don’t think of these treatments as alternative to conventional medicine but rather, as complementary to it.  Yes, medical science makes advances every day and yes, there are certainly some alternative therapies that work but if it looks too good to be true, then in all honesty, it probably is.  

[1] Szabo, L. (2013), Books Raises Alarm About Alternative Medicine, [online].  Available: www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/06/18/book-raises-alarm-about-alternative-medicine/2429385, [10th September 2013]

[2] Offit, P. (Dr.) (2013), Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, London: Fourth Estate, p.18

[3] Offit, P. op. cit., pp.190-191

[4] Laraviere, D. (2013), Nutritional Supplements Flexing Muscles as Growth Industry, [online].  Available: http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidlariviere/2013/04/18/nutritional-supplements-flexing-their-muscles-as-growth-industry/, [16th September 2013]

[5] Offit, P. op. cit., p.1

[6] FDA (1994), Dietary Supplements, [online].  Available: http://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/ [18th September 2013]

[7] Offit, P. op. cit., p. 91

[8] Cited in Szabo, L. op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Offit, P. op. cit., pp.52-53

[11] Zeratsky, K. (2012), Is it Possible to Take Too Much Vitamin C? [online].  Available: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vitamin-c/AN01801, [18th September 2013]

[12] Offit, P. op. cit., p.103

[13] Vitelli, R. (2012), Exploring the Placebo Effect, [online].  Available: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201211/exploring-the-placebo-effect, [15th September 2013]

[14] Offit, P., op. cit., p.230

[15] Grange, JC. (2008), ‘Dangers of Placebo’, British Medical Journal, vol. 336, p.1087

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QUACKERY: THE DARK SIDE OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE by by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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