We are fat and getting fatter by the day.Several years ago, Johns Hopkins University did a study showing that, if obesity trends continue, in four years, an astonishing three-quarters of all Americans will be overweight. In Britain, according to an Oxford University epidemiologist, who wrote a government report on the subject, in less than 15 years, 86 per cent of UK men will be overweight and, in 20 years, 70 per centof UK women will reach the same level of obesity.
As fatness becomes the norm, increasing thinness becomes the ideal. Two decades ago, the average model weighed 8-per-cent less than the average woman; today’s models weigh 23-per-cent less than today’s average woman. With such a dysmorphic body ideal, it’s small wonder that we’re addicted to dieting.
Nevertheless, as a corrective measure, dieting is, by any standard, an absolute disaster: 90–95 per cent of dieters regain the weight they lost, and continue on a yo-yo cycle of dieting and weight gain that wreaks havoc with their hormones, setting up a hormonal imbalance with parallels to type 2 diabetes.
In our special report this month, we examine new evidence showing that, far from a failure of willpower, failed dieting often results from a broken fat thermostat. Two recently discovered hormones, leptin and ghrelin, carefully police current fuel and fuel supply, or stored fat, and constantly signal the brain when more food is required. When levels of leptin are high, and levels of ghrelin low, the brain knows you’ve had enough food and creates a feeling of satiety. The reverse hormonal situation tells the brain that you need more food and it gets to work, making you feel hungry.
In the overweight, this complex signaling system is often scrambled. The brain is deaf to any messages about energy supplies and consequently creates a situation in which the individual is literally hungry all the time. Likewise, when people undergo a crash diet and leptin levels fall, your brain thinks you’re starving and stimulates great hunger to restore your leptin levels to normal.
Bad lifestyle habits—from eating too much sugar and processed food to living under constant stress—cause the brain to stop responding to this hormonal signalling. As our cover story notes, one highly overlooked factor in obesity is chronic sleep deprivation.
The complex interrelationship between the two ‘fat hormones’ and the rest of the body, what you eat, and how well you rest, exercise and cope with the challenges all around you suggests that dieting is far too narrow a solution for obesity.
As with other aspects of health, your weight is a holistic issue, a snapshot of how well you live your life, and correcting weight, like correcting much disease, can never be viewed in isolation.
The biggest headache for any drug-company executive is the placebo, or ‘sugar pill’, used in controlled trials to show that a drug in question works. Patients are divided into two groups, one of which is given the active drug, while the other takes the placebo, but no one knows who got what, not even those giving the pills. The idea is that far more patients will improve with the drug than with the placebo. Upon this assumption is built the entire edifice of modern medicine.
In practice, so many patients receive the same relief and even the same side-effects with a placebo as with the drug itself that a placebo is not a true control. Indeed, placebo power was best illustrated in patients with Parkinson’s disease, where the body’s system for releasing the brain chemical dopamine is faulty. The standard treatment for Parkinson’s is a synthetic form of dopamine. Yet, in one study, doctors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver showed on PET scans that, when patients given inert placebos were told they had received dopamine, their brains substantially increased the release of their own stores of the chemical (Science, 2001: 293: 1164–6).
The placebo problem—the subject of this month’s News Focus—was raised to another degree of complexity when Harvard’s professor of medicine Ted Kaptchuk ran a double-blind trial in which patients with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo, but told that they were taking a sugar pill, while the other patients were given nothing at all (PLoS ONE, 2010; 5: e15591). The placebo group were also told that placebos have been shown to create powerful mind–body self-healing.
Kaptchuk found that nearly two-thirds of his placebo group reported symptom improvement—even more than had improved with the powerful IBS drug alosetron in a recent trial (Clin Ther, 2008; 30: 884–901).
This raises the very basic question I’ve been wrestling with for some time: do pharmaceutical drugs ever work? Is it ever the drug itself that heals, or is the mental expectation of healing enough to marshal the body’s healing mechanisms?
Other research bolsters the idea that the ‘healer’ may be more powerful than any agent. A recent study of 83 rheumatoid arthritis patients attended by a homeopath concluded that the consultation with a sympathetic practitioner—rather than the remedy itself—was the cause of the physical improvements reported by the patients (Rheumatology, 2010; doi: 10.1093/rheumatology/keq234).
There’s also the power of healing rituals—the idea of ‘taking some-thing’, even when that something is known to be fake. Of 46,000 heart patients, those taking a placebo fared as well as those using the heart drug. The only survival factor appeared to be the belief that the therapy would work and a willingness to follow it religiously. Those who tended not to survive were those who had been lax with the regimen—whether active drug or placebo (BMJ, 2003; 326: 841–4).
Such studies suggest that what we take doesn’t matter; the connection with the healer, the healing words and practices, the expectation of healing—in other words, our thoughts about healing—are always what turns out to be the true healer.
Nearly a year ago, Hollywood was shocked when actress Brittany Murphy, just 32, died from pneumonia, which she contracted after taking over-the-counter drugs. Within five months, her doting husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack, aged 40, was also dead from a cardiac arrest—his heart had literally broken.
This phenomenon, called ‘stress cardiomyopathy’, is extraordinarily common; an emotional upset, such as the loss of a loved one, causes heart dysfunction and failure in people without previous heart disease.
As with Monjack, the heart muscle weakens, causing it to literally break. Those left behind die of a broken heart—largely due to loneliness.
Of all the potential risk factors, our cover story this month shows that loneliness is the greatest of all. Heart expert Dr Dean Ornish has discovered that every so-called lifestyle risk factor laid at the door of cardiovascular disease by the medical community has less to do with having a heart attack than simple loneliness. All the usual risk factors—smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and high-fat diet—only account for half of all heart disease.
No single environmental or dietary risk factor appears to be more important than isolation—from other people, from our own feelings and from a higher source. In that sense, heart disease—like a goodly number of other illnesses—can be viewed as a disease of being on our own.
Researchers at Brigham Young University were so intrigued by such statistics that they pooled and analyzed data from 148 studies comparing human interaction with health outcomes over an average of seven years. Their stark conclusion: relationships of any sort—good or bad—improve your odds of survival by 50 per cent.
Isolation was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, and twice as harmful as obesity. And the survival advantage may be an underestimation of the benefits of healthy relationships.
Social psychologists at the UK’s University of Exeter have shown that the most important predictor of health—even more than diet and exercise—is the number of groups to which you belong, particularly if you have strong relationships within them. The greater your group membership in voluntary social organizations such as religious groups or unions, the lower your risk of death from all causes.
“As a rough rule of thumb,” wrote Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam in his book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2002), “if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.”
This research demonstrates something fundamental about the human experience—or, indeed, the experience of all living beings. The need to move beyond the boundaries of our individual selves is more vital than any diet or exercise programme; it protects against the worst toxins and greatest adversity. This connection is the most fundamental need we have because it generates our most authentic state of being.
Despite our propensity for one-upsmanship and competition, our most basic urge always is to connect. May your year be full of joy and health for you—primarily through connection.
Our dog Ollie, as a small, tricolored Cavalier King Charles spaniel, was bred by royal decree and born with a peculiar sense of regal entitlement and a permanent look of disdain. He belongs in a Peanuts cartoon—the curmudgeonly dog whose thought balloon continuously registers exasperation with his clueless owners. He refuses to eat except when it’s inconvenient, and is extraordinarily picky, even when fresh organic meat is his for the taking.
Consequently, it’s fascinating to see what Ollie eats in the wild, especially when he’s out of sorts. Invariably, he heads for certain grasses or leaves and, after feasting on bunches of them, is completely cured.
Animal behaviourists realize that animals, across species, appear to have a natural instinct for determining which plants can heal different diseases. Stories abound of animals eating just the right things to heal themselves. After witnessing sick bears eating Ligusticum roots and getting better afterwards, Native Americans dubbed the plants with a name that means ‘bear medicine’.
In her book, Wild Health, animal behaviorist Cindy Engel offers scientific evidence that animals instinctively know how to maintain optimum health. Given a smorgasbord of choice, even animals like rats will choose a nutritionally balanced diet.
Perhaps more extraordinary is the evidence that animals know how to self-medicate against a host of problems, including parasites, infection, skin conditions and accidental poisoning. Scientific evidence shows that animals are somehow able to differentiate among the thousands of toxic secondary compounds in plants that kill internal parasites. A number of species, including rhinoceroses and wild bison, feast on a specific bark known to be toxic to the microbes that cause dysentery.
Even animals in captivity often show a native sense of self-medication superior to their doctors. A captive capuchin monkey with a severe skin infection didn’t get better until given access to tobacco leaves, which cured its skin condition permanently.
All this is relevant to two features in this month’s issue. In our Special Report (pp 10–4), WDDTY publisher Bryan Hubbard has amassed extra-ordinary evidence that the contents of your fridge or larder not only can protect against illness, but may also cure disease once it takes hold. Cancer, asthma, Alzheimer’s, dementia—and a host of other serious and even life-threatening illness—is vanquished by the likes of apple juice, rhubarb, brussels sprouts and blueberries.
Yet, we’re eating less and less real food (p 5). A team that recently analyzed McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets found that barely half of it is chicken—the rest is taste enhancers and other chemicals, including a compound used in Silly Putty and another used in lighter fluid.
The medicine we take is also increasingly dangerous, even contaminated, as was the case of millions of drugs produced by GSK, for which it has been fined by the American Food and Drug Administration (p 6).
Considering an animal’s natural instinct for the healthy, one wonders what animals like Ollie would make of our tendency to consume toxic junk as food and toxic chemicals as medicine.
All of us at WDDTY are shaken to the core by the recent disclosures that most studies in the medical literature are marketing dressed up as research. For as many as 90,000 published drug trials, a drug company hired a PR firm—a ‘medical education and communication company’ (MECC)—to carry out its clinical trials, engaged a ‘ghost’ to write an article with a positive spin, enlisted a prominent academic to put his name to the paper he’s had nothing to do with—and then succeeded in getting it published in a peer-reviewed journal.
This widespread practice came to light a few months ago during the discovery process of a class-action lawsuit against drug manufacturer Wyeth by 14,000 women who developed breast cancer after taking HRT.
The 1500 documents afford an unprecedented glimpse into the underworld of pharmaceutical marketing. The paper trail reveals how an MECC called DesignWrite, hired by Wyeth, launched a major damage-limitation exercise after a major study demonstrated an unequivocal link between HRT and life-threatening illness.
Wyeth’s HRT products had reached annual revenues of $2 billion, but nose-dived by 65 per cent in 2002, when the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study found that hormone replacement therapy—specifically Wyeth’s version—increased the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, stroke and heart disease.
DesignWrite proceeded to flood the professional press with positive reports of Premarin, cast doubt on the WHI, downplayed the cancer-causing potential of HRT and claimed cardiovascular benefits, while promoting unproven uses of HRT such as for preventing dementia.
A few months later, the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, which produces evidence-based consumer-health information, encountered “serious obstacles” in trying to wrest all sponsored published and unpublished studies from Pfizer on its antidepressant reboxetine. Eventually, it emerged that the company had withheld three-quarters of its patient data from unpublished trials. After these hidden data were finally handed over, the Institute concluded that the drug was “overall an ineffective and potentially harmful antidepressant”.
There’s no way to determine the full extent of such dirty research, although one review concluded that as much as three-quarters of every journal is ghosted. As Dr Joseph S. Ross of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine put it: “It’s almost like steroids and baseball. You don’t know who was using and who wasn’t; you don’t know which articles are tainted and which aren’t.”
These disclosures undermine the entire edifice of modern medicine. The BMJ now plans to encourage efforts to “re-evaluate the integrity of the existing base of research evidence”—in other words, virtually the whole of existing medical research needs to be done all over again.
The most insidious aspect of this story is the topic of this month’s special report—that the extraordinary disease-fighting power of a simple nutrient like vitamin C has been virtually ignored by the modern medical press. The published medical evidence was promising 70 years ago—long before MECCs were around to tinker with the data.
Dr Bruce Moseley, an orthopaedic specialist at Methodist Hospital in Houston, TX, was convinced of the powerful effect of the human mind on healing. He recruited 180 patients with severe knee osteoarthritis and divided them into three groups, two of which underwent true surgery to clear out degenerative tissue and debris. The third group underwent a sham operation: they were surgically prepared, put under anaesthesia and wheeled into the operating room, where incisions were made in their knees, but no procedure was carried out.
Over the next two years, none of the patients knew who had received the real operations and who had received the placebo treatment, yet all three groups reported moderate improvements in pain and joint function. In fact, the placebo group reported better results than some of those who had received the genuine operation.
The mental expectation of healing was enough to marshal the body’s healing mechanisms. The intention, brought about by the expectation of successful surgery, led to physical change (N Engl J Med, 2002; 347: 81–8).
The role of the mind in healing—the subject of Bryan Hubbard’s cover story this month—completely baffles the medical community. Yet, it is well documented that belief in a placebo will bring about the same physiological effects as an active agent—so much so that it causes the drug industry enormous difficulty when designing trials; as so many patients report the same relief and even the same side-effects with a placebo as with the tested drug itself, a placebo is not a true control.
How can belief—and, in this case, a wrongheaded belief—affect the outcome of healing? Some clues come from intriguing brain studies showing that the electrical activity within the brain, and between the brain and other parts of the body, is identical whether we are merely thinking about doing something or actually doing it.
In weightlifters, for instance, the EEG patterns in the brain that are activated to produce specific motor skills become activated while the skill is only being simulated mentally. Indeed, just the thought is enough to produce the neural instructions to carry out the physical act.
In the case of placebos, our bodies don’t distinguish between a chemical process and the thought of a chemical process.
According to a major review, the only factor for survival appears to be a belief that the therapy will work and a willingness to follow it religiously. Patients who stick to their doctor’s orders fared equally well whether taking a drug or a sugar pill. In contrast, those who tended not to survive were those who were lax with their regimens, regardless of whether it was a placebo or an actual drug (BMJ, 2006; 333: 15–9).
Such studies suggest that our beliefs—about our medicine, about the outcome of a health crisis, about our connections to our place in the world—are a more powerful healer than any diet or exercise programme; they protect us against the worst toxins and the greatest adversity.
Knowing this, every doctor now has a duty to never give a negative diagnosis, and every patient has a duty to follow only the regime that he truly believes in. The thought it generates in us—whether positive or negative—is our most potent medicine. May we always use it wisely.
Just occasionally, I come across a doctor willing to break the conspiracy of silence on the damage caused by their tools. My hero of the hour is American psychiatrist Grace E. Jackson, who is utterly and refreshingly horrified by psychiatric and most other forms of pharmaceutical medicine. In fact, so incensed was Jackson over the current state of affairs that she felt compelled to self-publish a whistle-blowing book—Drug-Induced Dementia—that painstakingly catalogues the vast amount of scientific proof that modern medicine is the primary culprit behind all forms of dementia, one of the more rampant epidemic conditions of our time.
One of her more outrageous snippets of information is that, in the 1950s, doctors discovered that synthetic-dye and rocket-fuel derivatives had what they considered to be medicinal effects on psychiatric patients. Chlorpromazine, the first antipsychotic agent, was born.
There was only one hitch: the drugs caused the patient to ape the symptoms of sleeping sickness. The doctors also noted that, over time, the drugs produced all the hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease—abnormal gait, tremor, dementia and involuntary movements. Patients were also stupefied, with no feelings or excitation—in effect, a vegetable.
However, with the sort of logic peculiar to modern medicine, these debilitating effects were welcomed as being better than having a crazed hallucinating patient. Indeed, doctors viewed the arrival of parkinsonian effects as a benchmark of the patient’s therapeutic progress: they were proof-positive that the drugs were working.
Yet, the damage caused by psychiatric medicine is only the tip of the iceberg. As our cover story this month reveals, a number of the major classes of drugs can bring on dementia, including heart drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs, sleeping pills, antidepressants, narcotics, stimulants, anticholinergics and antiepileptics.
As most people over the age of 50 are taking at least one prescription drug, and up to six or more a decade later, it’s small wonder that dementia is one of the world’s fastest-growing disorders, now absorbing one-third of the entire US Medicare bill. It’s now expected that one in four of us will have some form of dementia by the time we reach 80.
This giant problem, created entirely by the pharmaceutical industry, is once again a byproduct of the refusal of our current medicine to consider the body a holistic entity.
In 1970, German physicist Fritz-Albert Popp stumbled upon the fact that humans emit a tiny current of photons, or light, from the DNA of every cell. He also discovered something else remarkable. If a medicine was applied to one part of the body, a massive change occurred in the amount of light emitted not only from where he’d applied the agent, but also from other, more distant parts of the body. Popp soon recognized that this light was a communication channel within a living organism—a means of instantaneous, or ‘non-local’, global signaling.
Popp’s work affords us a glimpse of the body at work as an exquisite, interconnected whole. What affects one part affects every other part simultaneously. Whenever we atomize anything, such as our body—dividing it up and treating each piece separately—we invite calamity.
In 2002, WDDTY learned of plans within the European Union to radically restrict natural medicine across all member countries, starting with laws to create a very low ceiling of ‘safe upper limits’ in vitamins.
Although the laws were ostensibly to create a ‘level playing field’ within the European supplement market, the proposals bore the heavy hand of Big Pharma.
At the time, the solution appeared simple. As most people in the UK use some form of natural medicine, all we needed to do was band together and whip up a national protest to stop them in their tracks.
In early 2003, we invited all the heads of the largest vitamin companies and representatives of all the leading natural medicine organizations—homeopathy, herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and others—to a meeting in central London.
Many of the organizations never showed up. Of the 50 or so that did, many felt that our concerns were alarmist. Others welcomed the new moves as good for business. The few attempting to fight the legislation were more busy fighting each other.
No group seemed able to see the bigger picture. Each organization was mainly concerned with whether their own business was under fire. If it wasn’t, they weren’t interested. Not my problem.
As publisher Bryan Hubbard makes clear in this month’s cover story, Big Pharma had big plans even then. Without sufficient opposition, within the next year or two, laws will come into effect in the EU that will drastically restrict all access to high-dose vitamins and herbal medicine.
And this pogrom won’t end with Europe. The near-identical international laws that have been drafted within the United Nations suggest that a well-organized, concerted effort is afoot to finish off any forms of alternative options to orthodox medicine.
The plan is to watch Europe closely to assess the level of consumer protest. Thus far, that protest has been minimal. The Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) and Consumers for Health Choice—the two consumer groups that have maintained any sort of consistent attack, challenged the law and lobbied Parliament—are starved of funds.
The individual organizations to this day remain isolationist. Not my problem. This attitude reminds me what Pastor Martin Niemöller reportedly said about the passivity of many Germans towards Nazism:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn’t a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Social Democrats, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn't a Social Democrat;
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn't a Jew;
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
For all of us wishing to maintain alternatives to drug-based orthodox medicine, these laws are all our problem, and every last one of us has an obligation to speak up now.
In these austere times, President Obama’s Congress and the fledgling UK coalition government are casting around furiously for ways to trim their bloated deficits. Yet, in the midst of all this slashing and burning, healthcare is the area that clearly remains a no-go zone.
In the UK, although Prime Minister David Cameron has been combing through the UK’s £156 billion budget deficit for savings, he remains committed to apportioning even more money to the UK’s National Health Service. Spending is expected to rise every year for the NHS, commensurate with inflation, during his government.
Today, the NHS costs taxpayers about £100 billion each year. That’s about 10 times what was spent (in real terms) in 1948, when it started with a budget of £437 million (which translates to about £9 billion in today’s money). Furthermore, the NHS has recently hugely overspent and is itself estimated to be in debt for £7 billion.
Part of the reason for the vast budget increase has to do with recent modernization efforts. However, by the NHS’ own reckoning, one-fifth of the total budget—or £20 billion—is spent on prescription drugs. Of the total £100 billion NHS cost, 12 per cent (£12 billion) is being spent on new drugs—many of which are merely ‘me-toos’ of earlier drugs.
Meanwhile, the US spends some $2 trillion on all forms of health-care—more than the entire Third World debt combined. Once Obama’s healthcare plan comes into effect, it will cost £700 billion more per year.
Universal healthcare is still a cherished ideal. Although the British NHS and the Obama plan are laudable, the problem isn’t the principle—it’s what the money is being spent on.
In our cover story this month, publisher Bryan Hubbard found that even doctors are now complaining that enormous numbers of expensive procedures and drugs are useless, dangerous, or both. US experts are even asking doctors to nominate their top-five useless treatments, and many are balking at having to keep the list so short.
Topping the list is a wide range of high-profile drugs for a range of diseases from arthritis to ADHD. Despite the claims and the invariably high cost, most of these medications are not safe and have never been proven to work. Also, many of the high-tech, so-called ‘miracle’ treatments most beloved by hospital doctors, such as angioplasty, not only have no proven benefit, but often can kill the patient. In addition, in most cases, the big expensive tests—mammograms, biopsies, electrocardiograms, X-rays—cause or spread cancer and don’t even spot anything useful.
The problem is not simply a waste of lives and money. Useless medicine requires even more expenditure to clean up the mess—$77 billion in extra costs every year in the US alone, as reported in 2000 by the American Medical Association. But because healthcare for all is such a lofty notion (and such a political hot potato), healthcare is never called to account for its expenditures. The National Audit Office readily admits that it never audits whether patients ever get better.
Yet, by asking this simple question and acting on the answer, both Cameron and Obama could make the kindest cut of all.
It’s reassuring to think that there are big organizations out there so wedded to our best interests that they are beyond reproach, impossible to buy or sell. The premiere organization with this kind of impeccable reputation the world over is the World Health Organization, one of original agencies set up by the newly formed United Nations. Its objectives were lofty; as described in its founding constitution, it was intended to “combat disease, especially key infectious diseases, and to promote the general health of the people of the world”.
The WHO, as it’s commonly known, was set up three years after the end of World War II, and its headquarters—as if to underscore its even-handed mandate—were in formerly neutral Switzerland.
At the time of its inception, polio raged around the world so, in short order, the WHO’s main line of focus became infectious disease. In 1980 the WHO triumphantly declared that smallpox had been wiped off the face of the earth and set, as its next target, the eradication of polio.
So, it came as a shock to all of us in these offices to find out just how cozy a relationship there had been between senior members of the WHO and the pharmaceutical industry in the swine-flu affair of last year.
As you may recall, it was the WHO that first raised the alarm over swine flu, predicting a phase-6, or runaway, pandemic that was expected to claim the lives of millions of people just in the US, the UK and Europe alone. This, of course, persuaded countries in Europe and in North America to splash out millions for supplies of Tamiflu and flu vaccines.
Yet, we all now realize that the pandemic never arrived, leaving many countries, including the UK, with huge unused stocks of antivirals and vaccines that were not needed—and lots of egg on its face.
In this month’s special editorial (WDDTY vol 21 no 3), we’re told that senior representatives of the drug companies making the drugs in question funded a group of scientists claiming to be an independent working party on influenza, headed by someone who is among the WHO’s most influential scientists on vaccines. Furthermore, a batch of senior execs met with the WHO’s Director-General to press her into revealing when she was going to announce a phase-6 pandemic. These disquieting relations led to worldwide fear, damage by unnecessary (and dangerous) drugs and, of course, record profits for Big Pharma.
That the line between regulation and commerce is becoming ever thinner is also apparent in the cancer industry. As our cover story reveals, an enormous body of evidence shows that cancer may be caused by bugs after all—specifically, by an imbalance in our usual bacterial flora caused by environmental insults. Yet, every scientist who has ever touched this proposition has been vilified or even imprisoned by the regulatory agencies or big cancer organizations—again largely advised or funded by the pharmaceuticals.
Big Pharma has become rather like the Matrix—invisible, all-powerful, almost impossible to control. One way to make progress in cancer and to stop phony wars like swine flu is to make a clean sweep of all those so-called watchdog agencies that are supposed to be safeguarding the public interest.
Early in my career, I worked in the editorial department of a newspaper syndicate in New York, editing a variety of columnists, one of whom was the renegade medical columnist Dr Robert Mendelsohn.
Bob introduced me to the dangers of modern medicine. In particular, I remember his stark warnings about what he maintained were the most dangerous and unproven new drugs on the market. Top of Bob’s list were a new class of new painkiller, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Motrin. These, their manufacturers claimed, would take down inflammation without the use of steroids.
Bob was almost alone in his criticism of these so-called miracle drugs, warning that they also happened to cause serious, life-threatening stomach ulcers and bleeding.
That clarion call burned in my consciousness. So, it was particularly shocking for me to learn, a few decades later, that US and UK regulatory agencies had approved Motrin and other me-too drugs like it—albeit in slightly diluted form—as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.
The drug in question was ibuprofen—a drug now considered so tame that we’re routinely advised to give it to children. Bob’s nemesis had been watered down, repackaged and sanitized: same drug, virtually the same side-effects, but with most of the warnings taken away.
In our cover story this month, publisher Bryan Hubbard has shone a bright light on the dark side of medicine: the burgeoning OTC business.
After the success of Motrin and other drugs with OTC status, many other drug companies have followed suit. Tired of years of regulatory red tape, many companies are creating a ‘lite’ version of their best-seller drugs to sell directly to consumers. The advantages are legion: the OTC version of the drug manages to remain completely under the radar, with little regulation, no post-marketing follow-up, no consumer awareness of potential dangers and no accountability. A pharmaceutical company is obliged to disclose far less about the potential dangers of an OTC drug than a drug that requires a prescription.
Yet, as many OTC drugs have the same deadly side-effects as their big brothers, the likelihood is that untold millions of people are being harmed, and even killed, by OTC drugs.
Nevertheless, because no one writes out a prescription for these products, there’s no one to monitor where the bodies are buried.
What is most worrying about the exodus of ‘Rx to OTC’, as it’s termed, is the complete abdication of responsibility by regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA).
Back in Motrin’s early days, the FDA had an entire agency committed to rooting out fraud in drug-testing. These days, any semblance of that watchdog activity has all but disappeared, as the FDA and its counterpart in the UK become increasingly chummy with Big Pharma and increasingly lax about drugs being sold directly to consumers.
The entire balance of the evidence has shifted. A drug—and the testers themselves—used to be considered dangerous until proven safe. Now, the only regulatory requirement is the market share.
The US and UK governments and the press are exulting in the recent highly public hanging of Dr Andrew Wakefield, found guilty of misconduct by the British General Medical Council (GMC). Wakefield, you may recall, is the British gastroenterologist who first raised the alarm bells over the measles–mumps–rubella vaccine (MMR).
In the minds of many medicos and in the press, the MMR vaccine now stands fully vindicated. The scientist who claimed that the MMR vaccine causes autism has been discredited. Order has been restored.
In our Special Report this month, publisher Bryan Hubbard set out both to investigate the Wakefield decision and to uncover any evidence purporting to demonstrate the safety of the vaccine.
Wakefield never maintained that the MMR vaccine caused autism. All he did was raise a cautious alarm after finding that a number of children with autism were presenting with the same gut problems that seemed to have developed right after their MMR jabs.
Now, he and his colleagues in America have carried out a subsequent study on monkeys, which demonstrated that the hepatitis B vaccine can cause neurological damage and progressively severe chronic inflammation in gastrointestinal tissue—exactly what he originally discovered with the MMR vaccine and autistic children.
Despite being exhaustively peer-reviewed and accepted for publication, Wakefield’s monkey study was subsequently pulled as ‘not suitable’ for publication after the GMC delivered its verdict. The pulling of the study ultimately became the centrepiece of our story. The more that Bryan dug into this issue, the more layers of deceit he uncovered in the form of censorship, data-massaging and burying of damning data.
He found dirty tricks at the heart of medicine that would have made Richard Nixon’s Watergate henchmen proud. He found journalism bought and paid for by drug companies.
But what has been most shocking to us as journalists is the misinformation spread about by our own colleagues in the press. Virtually no major newspaper, or TV or radio station (save the Huffington Post) has bothered to look beyond the official releases of the GMC or government agencies to learn the truth about MMR. Some journalists have even allowed themselves to get in bed with drug companies.
The safety of the vaccine is now beside the point. Wakefield’s error was to challenge medicine’s most sacred cow: vaccination is now in a sense a standard-bearer for a certain mindset. It represents the triumph of Science over the randomness of Nature. Most doctors look to vaccination as proof that medicine has conquered infectious disease.
Researchers, scientific publications, doctors, drug companies and even journalists are willing to do almost anything to maintain that assumption of a priori benefit. Vaccination is now performed for its own sake—whether or not it is necessary, beneficial or even safe. To attack anything about any jab has come to be viewed as treason.
What needs to be put on display is not an honest scientist like Wakefield, but the level of deceit that is now routine—among scientists, researchers and reporters—all in the name of the public ‘interest’.
Someone finally bothered to ask the question: does breast screening work? The answer is a damning and resounding no, as our cover story this month makes clear. No breast screening programme anywhere is making the slightest impact on cancer mortality.
According to the prestigious Cochrane Collaboration, which carried out one of the most extensive and unbiased reviews of the literature to date, mammograms not only don’t work as a screening tool, but also increase your risk of cancer and unnecessary treatment.
In fact, because of its high likelihood for false-positive readings and for highlighting benign abnormalities, screening may only be increasing the number of patients mutilated through uncalled-for drug treatment or surgery.
Breast cancer screening of the young and healthy largely began in the early 1990s, when a Swedish review concluded that regularly screening reduced mortality by 30 per cent in women aged 50 and over. Yet, in spite of the proviso that this did not apply to women younger than 50, the ‘30-per-cent risk reduction’ was adopted as a mantra by the medical profession to justify screening a number of population groups, including younger women.
And despite all the medical evidence to the contrary, doctors urged all women—even those as young as 30—to have annual mammograms.
However, on examining the Swedish statistics, you’ll see a little statistical quickstep: the 30-per-cent improved survival rate is derived from looking at the “most scientific” screening studies and pooling the results. The studies were of two types: those that looked to see what happened over time in various groups of women; and those that retrospectively analyzed what had already happened in groups of women.
Most of the studies on their own showed no clear benefit. Of four such trials, three showed no statistically significant benefit—not even in women aged 50 and over. Two of these studies involved 80,000 women, yet were dismissed as “too small” by screening proponents.
Since then, there has been little evidence that mammography benefits anyone in any age group, but lots that it does great harm through false-positives and get-in-there-early interventions. One review found that only one in 14 women with a positive mammogram result for breast cancer will, in actuality, have the disease.
A major problem of modern medicine is what I call ‘medicine by conventional wisdom’, based on the assumption of a priori benefit. The idea of spotting cancer as early as possible was such an obviously good idea that, for years, no one thought to question it, much less study it.
Yet the concept, of course, assumes that the technology is perfect, whereas mammograms—which are only suped-up X-rays of soft tissue— are far from being either accurate or benign. The problem is that they reveal a raft of insignificant variants of breast tissue, and then manage to miss the elephant in the room—the malignant tumour. The other problem is that the X-rays themselves, used regularly, cause cancer.
Thankfully, this time the Cochrane scientists finally asked the obvious question—does it work?—that no one else had dared to.
Most of us assume that if we’re lucky enough to exceed our threescore and ten—the Biblical estimate of our lifespan—we do so at the expense of our bodies. We’ve come to expect that the long path to our demise is accompanied by an inevitable decline in our physical health. And perhaps our most terrifying fear is of growing feeble, forgetful and immobile.
The latest evidence—disclosed by WDDTY publisher Bryan Hubbard in this month’s special report—suggests that this perception of old age is largely the result of the interfering hands of modern medicine. The fact is that old people are drowning in unnecessary medication. The over-60s make up just 8 per cent of the population, but they are prescribed more than one-third of all medicines dispensed by doctors. In fact, the average 60-plus person is prescribed at least six drugs, all of which are interacting to unknown effect.
As WDDTY has discovered, the major drugs routinely dispensed as just-in-case medicine for the over-60s—from cholesterol-lowering drugs to aspirin—cause all of the conditions that we’ve come to associate with old age: physical instability; forgetfulness; incontinence; and dementia. At least five major classes of drugs routinely prescribed to seniors cause falls, while many types of drugs cause incontinence. And virtually any drug—even those sold over the counter—is capable of bringing about some sort of cognitive impairment or ‘brain fog’, with all the hallmarks of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
I saw this close to home with our neighbour ‘Sam’, who handled all the gardening and physical labour around his daughter’s house well into his 80s. One of his party tricks was to race around the garden with his small grandson in a large wheelbarrow. When he became a bit forgetful, his doctor prescribed powerful antipsychotics. In short order, he completely lost his memory, became paranoid and difficult, landed in a nursing home, refused his food and, finally, just gave up and died.
Our neighbour’s situation begs the question of which came first: the problem, or the problem caused by the ‘solution’? If seniors given drugs present with symptoms, doctors are quick to reach for the prescription pad to hand out yet more drugs to handle what are simply side-effects from a drug that the senior probably didn’t need in the first place.
This also begs the question of whether the conditions we associate with old age are inherent to the ageing process, or are largely the outcome of our medicalization of the elderly. How much cognitive decline is inevitable, and how much is due to preventative medicine and a misunderstanding of what the body needs as it ages?
A clue comes from examining the oldest people on earth who live in the so-called ‘Blue Zones’. In places like Sardinia, home to more centenarians than anywhere else on the planet, men and women in their tenth and eleventh decades continue to work and remain highly mobile. Their days are full and active, their diet consists of locally grown, fresh, organic food, and they enjoy strong social ties.
We would do well to realize that a prescription drug can never take the place of a purposeful, productive and well-connected life.
January—that month of atonement for many Christmases past—is the time of year that healthfood shops look forward to their best sales of detox products all year. So, it caught our eye when the self-styled quackbusting watchdog, Sense about Science, announced that detox products are useless and unnecessary, and that our bodies are perfectly able to sweep up and throw out the trash without the need of any extra special assistance.
So well-oiled are these systems, claims the appropriately initialled SAS, that the 80,000 chemicals to which we are now routinely exposed in our air, water, food and homes don’t pose any particular toxic threat.
Such a mindset, which is commonly found in medical circles, betrays not only shocking ignorance of the body’s elaborate system of detoxification, but also of what makes for health or illness.
One of the biggest mistakes that Western medicine makes is lumping us all into single categories. It’s the very impulse that insists on labelling disease and treating the label, not the individual. It assumes that we all fall ill in the same way—that all illness stems from the same cause, that all illnesses act alike and there is only one way to cure them.
However, the fact is that our body and its needs are uniquely individual, the sum total of our relationship with our environment. As Dr Leon Eisenberg of the social medicine department at Harvard Medical School once put it in an address to doctors: “Between genotype and phenotype, a lifetime of individual experience has fashioned what began as an envelope of stochastic probabilities into a single personal embodiment: the patient who faces us.”
The individual’s health profile, he was saying, is as individual as his fingerprints. And so too, as our deputy editor Joanna Evans writes in this month’s cover story, is our ability to detoxify. Some of us do it well without help, but an increasing number of people cannot.
Detoxification is extraordinarily complex, but essentially involves enzymes that make the toxic waste sticky enough to adhere to the agents that can safely eliminate them before they cause us harm. It’s like the workers in a nuclear reactor who painstakingly collect and dispose of nuclear waste so that it doesn’t contaminate the surrounding countryside. Unless handled efficiently, any spillage in the process can prove more dangerous than the toxic waste was to begin with.
The extent to which each of us can handle this delicate operation has to do with an extraordinary number of factors: what we were born with, what we eat and where we live, both indoors and out. Yet, nearly half of us lack the genetic code for efficient garbage disposal, and a large proportion of us are so overwhelmed by our toxic environment that our detox systems have virtually shut down. In other cases, we may be eating food that hampers our ability to detoxify.
In other words, our detox status is rather like a fingerprint—unique, and treatable only on a case-by-case basis—but, happily, there’s a host of natural methods proven to work. Detoxification should always be viewed a little like a case of CSI-style forensics—something that inevitably requires a focus from the general towards the particular.