[ed note: Michael Jorrin, who I dubbed “Doc Gumshoe” years ago, is a longtime medical writer (not a doctor) who shares his non-investing thoughts with Stock Gumshoe readers a couple times a month. He selects his own topics, and his words and opinions are, of course, his own — you can see his previous commentaries here.]
Will I regret looking into this? Will the Health Science Institute have a way of tracking who looks at their spiel so that they can drown, deluge, and overwhelm poor Doc Gumshoe with ever longer and more tedious jeremiads? Alternatively, will they send me a sample of a miraculous substance guaranteed to cure whatever ails me, but which is liberally dosed with Amanita phalloides, so as to shut me up for good?
I hope neither. But I need to confess that, despite the tedium and the blather, I slightly enjoy sorting out the guff and finding what just may be occasional Grains of Truth. Because – permit me to stake out my position at the outset – most of this is malarkey, although seductive malarkey. However, it might be worth trying to see if there are some nourishing bits in all the empty calories they’re feeding us.
The premise is familiar. There’s a conspiracy to prevent the public from knowing about natural cures that quickly, safely, effectively, and inexpensively resolve just about every devastating disease known to man, and also deal with all manner of troubling conditions.
Why are these safe, cheap miracle cures being kept deep secrets? Because, of course, if the public knew about them, the pharmaceutical industry would be wrecked, and mainstream medicine would dwindle to a marginal profession. And, of course, the FDA is in league with Big Pharma and with those predatory doctors.
A fundamental support beam in this structure is that a huge number of the drugs we take are beyond dangerous – they’re outright poisonous! Here’s their list of the most dangerous drugs:
THE 7 MOST DANGEROUS PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
#1: Sleeping Pills (Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril)
#2: Cholesterol Drugs (Statins like Baycol)
#3: Blood Pressure Drugs (Beta-Blockers, Calcium Channel Blockers)
#4: Alzheimer’s Drugs (Aricept 23)
#5: Arthritis Drugs (NSAIDs like Celebrex)
#6: Diabetes Drugs (Actos, Avandia, Byetta, Metformin)
#7: Chemotherapy (Tamoxifen)
Their premise, tiresomely familiar to all who pay the least attention to these promotions, is that there is a vast conspiracy involving the evil pharmaceutical industry, mainstream medicine, and government regulators (the FDA, the CDC, etc) to deceive the public into taking these dangerous drugs while concealing the totally safe, highly effective, and inexpensive natural cures that have been developed by the highly ethical alternative researchers and practitioners who are motivated NOT by a base profit motive, but by a highly ethical desire to benefit the public at large.
And why are these evil entities so bent on concealing the miracles from us, while foisting the dangerous poisons on us? Why, it’s that deadly sin of Greed. The miracle cures, since they are All Natural, cannot be patented, and so evil Big Pharma can’t make any money off them. But if these cures were widely and generally known and put to use, all those diseases – heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and many others – would be eliminated. Big Pharma would be Out of Business; doctors would have to file for unemployment, and the doors of the FDA would be shuttered.
Here’s their blurb:
First, let’s look for the elusive Grain of Truth. HSI points to “published information” that FDA approved drugs “cause” 106,000 annual deaths in the US. Their data is a bit outdated; as of 2013 the number of deaths reported in patients taking FDA-approved drugs was 117,752. However, the word “cause” is more than a bit misleading. Here’s how the FDA puts it:
These data describe the outcome of the patient as defined in U.S. reporting regulations (21 CFR 310.305, 314.80, 314.98, 600.80) and Forms FDA 3500 and 3500A (the MedWatch forms). Serious means that one or more of the following outcomes were documented in the report: death, hospitalization, life-threatening, disability, congenital anomaly and/or other serious outcome. Documenting one or more of these outcomes in a report does not necessarily mean that the suspect product(s) named in the report was the cause of these outcomes.
All it means is that some patients taking the drug died, but not necessarily because of the drug. Were they taking the drug as prescribed? At the correct dose? If they began to experience adverse effects, did they report these to their physician, or did they go right on taking the drug? (As my mother did when she developed intense itching while taking an antibiotic for a urinary tract infection – I told her, for heaven’s sake, quit taking the drug, but she, being exceedingly frugal, replied that it was a seven day course, and she was on day five, so she might as well tough it out.) Did they perish due to side effects, or to disease progression? Remember, people taking drugs usually have something wrong that they’re trying to deal with.
This does not belie the fact that drugs have side effects, many of which are serious and even potentially life-threatening. A balanced position would be that we should consider taking a drug only if the likely benefit is greater than the potential risk. For example, if I have hay fever, I am not going to take one of those sleepy-making antihistamines before driving the car for several hours in the night: preventing sneezes is not worth the risk of a car crash. But if I developed a disease that could quickly end my days, I would gladly take a drug even if it had a number of potentially nasty side effects, based on the simple-minded calculation that life is usually better than death. That’s basically the way the regulators think, and I’m pretty sure that most people, if they thought about it for a moment or so, would not agree with the slogan about “7 Deadly Drugs that the Government Wants You to Swallow.”
But what about the claim that products are safe because they are natural?
Would that it were so. Doc Gumshoe can refute that claim in two words, which have already appeared in this post: Amanita phalloides. This is the so-called Death Cap mushroom, very similar in appearance to the white button mushrooms in your grocery store, except that they are one of the most deadly poisons known, right up there with murder mystery staples like prussic acid and strychnine. Many natural substances are highly toxic; raw rhubarb leaves, for example, contain high levels of oxalic acid. You would have to eat a large amount to do yourself in, but during World War II, lots of people in the UK put rhubarb leaves in their salad for their tangy flavor and made themselves quite ill.
The bottom line is that “natural” does not equal “safe.” And this is especially true of natural substances that are made into nutritional or nutraceutical supplements. Immense numbers of natural substances – animal, vegetable, or mineral – contain elements with properties that have effects on our physiologic functions, beyond basic nutrition. This is especially true of stuff that has some kind of medicinal qualities. For example, curare, the poison used by Central and South American native populations on the tips of arrows, was the source of highly valuable neuromuscular blocking agents used widely in anaesthesia. The venom of the Brazilian pit viper was the original source of ACE inhibitors, a valuable and widely-used class of blood pressure drugs. The way the pit viper kills its prey is by injecting this venom that causes the prey’s blood pressure to drop precipitously. Indeed, a great many drugs, including most antibiotics and the entire class of drugs called “biologics,” are derived from natural substances. And if they have side effects, which they mostly do, the side effects are also “natural.”
Doc Gumshoe’s conclusion about that particular claim is that it does not contain even a single grain of truth. The safety of natural products depends on the quantity of whatever physiologically-active substance is in that product that you ingest. I am speaking not only of “natural” miracle cures, but of a lot of stuff on the shelves of your local supermarket. The word “natural” is liberally-sprinkled on all manner of things, implying that the product, whatever it is, is good for you and not tainted by evil additives with suspicious-sounding chemical names. Food manufacturers would much rather put the words “yeast extract” on their labels than “monosodium glutamate,” or “MSG,” even though the products are quite similar. Grain of truth: some people who are sensitive to MSG can consume food products containing yeast extract without harm. However, the underlying reason to use the term “yeast extracts” rather than “MSG” is to make the product sound more natural.
A basic precept is that the poison is in the dose. Too little of a particular substance does nothing at all, too much kills you, but the right amount confers considerable benefit. This applies to the most complex drug as well as to ordinary substances like table salt – a sprinkle is fine, but too much can do real harm.
That means that a highly important part of the work of drug development is determining the optimum dose. This frequently requires multiple clinical trials which seek to identify the sweet spot – maximum efficacy with least possible adverse events. Clinical trials, including dose-finding studies, are time-consuming and expensive, and supplement manufacturers, not being required to provide that type of data to the FDA, tend to give that kind of research short shrift. After all, the law does not permit them to advertise their products as cures for illness or disease – that’s left to “independent experts” like HSI.
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So, what about those “miracle cures” that save us from the FDA-approved “poisons?”
Now, mind you, HSI is not directly selling any of these supplements by means of their internet blast. What they want you (and you and you and YOU!) to do is join their organization, and get your FREE copy of Miracles from the Vault, which reveals the secret miracle cures that free you from the evil machinations of Big Pharma. They boast about cures for seven diseases, as follows: 1) cancer, 2) diabetes, 3) arthritis, 4) Alzheimer’s disease, 5) high blood pressure, 6) elevated cholesterol, and 7) sleep disorders. Mostly, they are unspecific about actually identifying the agents that will perform these miracles. And they also put forward hints about the many other diseases and conditions for which you will find cures in their book. Here’s how they put it:
“This extraordinary resource is jam-packed with cures mainstream medicine doesn’t want you to know about. It contains more than 500 pages in which you will discover:
- How to eliminate excruciating kidney pain for good with this all-in-one stone-crushing cure! (page 13)
- How to get near-instant relief from debilitating migraine headaches! (page 36)
- New hope for anyone who has ever suffered a stroke! (page 141)
- Fighting asthma or COPD? Increase lung capacity up to 90%! (page 181)
- How to erase pain and fatigue by recharging your cells’ batteries! (page 268)
- The “choking” weed that starves cancer tumors by cutting off blood supply! (page 83)
- How to prevent heart attack and stroke with an enzyme that dissolves blood clots in hours! (page 126)
- How to focus your mind and sharpen your memory with Ayurvedic medicine! (page 350)
I did not actually join HSI for fear that once they had my name and particulars I would be a target for their marketing efforts for the rest of my days. There are limits to what I will do in pursuit of Doc Gumshoe revelations. What I did instead is sleuth for those seven miracle cures, in the best Gumshoe tradition. Here are my findings:
#1: The cure for cancer
They call it H-86. It’s basically fermented wheat-germ extract (FGWE), and its anti-cancer activity is based on interfering with glucose metabolism in cancer cell lines, which in HSI parlance is tantamount to starving cancer cells to death. H-86 was developed in Hungary and is manufactured there. It is known as Avemar and sometimes marketed under the trade name Awge. Here’s a brief quote from a paper by Hungarian scientists:
Avemar is a nontoxic wheat germ extract registered as a special nutriment for cancer patients in Hungary. It shows potent anticancer activity on cell lines by deeply interfering with glucose metabolism and affecting expressions of several kinases. In in vivo experimental models, Avemar is also effective by enhancing the activity of the immune system such as stimulating NK cell activity (by reducing MHC I molecule expression), enhancing TNF secretion of the macrophages, increasing ICAM 1 molecule expression on the vascular endothelial cells. All of these lead to apoptosis of tumor cells. (Telekes A., Nutr Cancer 2009)
I have found no reliable data suggesting that Avemar under any of its names should be used alone, as monotherapy, for treating cancer, nor yet any reliable clinical studies reporting anything like “cancer cures.” The most positive data I have seen suggest that Avemar may enhance the efficacy of other anti-cancer therapies. For example, some studies have suggested that in estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer cells, Avemar may increase the effectiveness of tamoxifen, although Memorial-Sloan Kettering warns that it should be used with caution in estrogen-receptor positive cancer patients because it does increase estrogen sensitivity. Add an “ia” to Avemar and you get Ave Maria, or Hail Mary. Is that how they think of it – as a last resort?
It’s more than a bit ironical that HSI’s “miracle cancer-cure” might increase the effectiveness of a drug that HSI lists as “one of the seven most dangerous prescription drugs.”
#2: The cure for diabetes
This one HSI calls DBX-13. Here’s what they say about it:
“In a groundbreaking double-blind study… all participants had uncontrolled blood sugar with counts between 160 and 225 (over 126 is considered diabetic.) Within 90 days of starting DBX-13, each participant’s fasting blood sugar dropped an average of 107 points. And every single participant saw their blood sugar drop into a normal, healthy range.”
Sorry to say (well, not really…) I could find no such study. HSI says that it has 11 magic ingredients that help the body “get rid of” the excess glucose. Sleuthing around led me to a source that claimed to identify the 11 magic ingredients as follows: vitamin C, Biotin, chromium aspartate, garcinia cambogia, gymnena sylvestre, cinnamon bark, bitter lemon, betaine HCl, banaba, fenugreek, and vanadium. That was what a person commenting on a web site copied off the back of a bottle of DBX-13.
However, a published study evaluated a supplement identified as DBX, whose ingredients were caffeine, green tea, yerba mate, and carnitine tartarate, and concluded that, compared with placebo, this supplement boosted resting energy expenditure (REE) significantly. This makes sense, because one of caffeine’s many metabolic effects is to trigger release of acetylcholines, including the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, aka adrenaline, which boosts heart rate, providing more blood circulation to the muscles. Since energy, whether resting or otherwise, is fueled by glucose, one could conclude that the DBX supplement evaluated in this study might reduce glucose levels, perhaps significantly. But there would have to be some insulin secretion for the glucose to be utilized, and impaired insulin secretion and utilization is a hallmark of diabetes. There’s no hint that DBX supplements in any way affect insulin secretion or utilization, so it’s hard to see how these supplements could be a cure for diabetes.
#3: The cure for arthritis
HSI calls this one BMP, which stands for “bone morphogenetic protein,” and they proclaim that it “grows new joints naturally.” As a recent recipient of a new knee joint, made of titanium, I wish I had learned about a miraculous product that would grow a new knee for me without the need for surgery and painful rehab. But I fear that the claim that BMP grows new joints is a trifle exaggerated. What HSI actually claims is that this stuff is a growth factor that boosts the growth of cartilage, and that, along with glucosamine and chondroitin, BMP can ease pain and stiffness in patients with arthritis, meaning osteo-, not rheumatoid arthritis.
As it happens, some bone morphogenetic proteins do stimulate bone growth, and are approved for some spinal lumbar fusion procedures, specifically those that are carried out in titanium cages that surround the spine, and also for some long-bone fusion procedures that do not respond to normal bone union. BMPs are contraindicated for cervical spine fusion, and can cause severe soft tissue swelling, and difficulty in swallowing and breathing. Hardly the cure for arthritis.
#4: The cure for Alzheimer’s disease
A lot of people would consider that anything at all that would cure, or even mitigate Alzheimer’s disease, is worth a try, since after all so far nothing works. The particular agent promoted by HSI for AD is called Lion’s Mane Mushroom, or yamabushitake. It supposedly has a range of beneficial effects, including antioxidant effects, decreasing blood lipids, lowering glucose, wound healing, and improvements in cognition. Here’s a bit from a published study.
A double-blind, parallel-group, placebo-controlled trial was performed on 50- to 80-year-old Japanese men and women diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in order to examine the efficacy of oral administration of Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus), an edible mushroom, for improving cognitive impairment. … At weeks 8, 12 and 16 of the trial, the Yamabushitake group showed significantly increased scores on the cognitive function scale compared with the placebo group. The Yamabushitake group’s scores increased with the duration of intake, but at week 4 after the termination of the 16 weeks intake, the scores decreased significantly. Laboratory tests showed no adverse effect of Yamabushitake. The results obtained in this study suggest that Yamabushitake is effective in improving mild cognitive impairment. (Mori K et al, Phytother Res. 2009)
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease is a far cry from mild cognitive impairment. Lots of drugs, as well as lots of commonplace substances that we eat and drink, have an effect on cognition. I personally favor coffee to perk up my little grey cells. And, conversely, I harbor a dark suspicion regarding the study above, viz, since the subjects were middle-aged and elderly Japanese, they might very well have been ingesting tofu, which is known to result in mild cognitive impairment, so maybe Lion’s Mane Mushroom is an antidote to tofu. Heavens knows we need one!
The particular “dangerous drug” that HSI is fingering in this instance is Aricept 23 (donepezil 23 mg), which does increase bleeding risk, and does temporarily mitigate cognitive decline in some AD patients. Aricept is primarily used in patients with Parkinson’s disease, somewhat improving cognition in those Parkinson’s patients who experience cognitive decline, and improving balance/reducing falls in PD patients.
#5: The cure for high blood pressure
Here, HSI is supposedly promoting nitric oxide (NO) in capsule form. Unfortunately, NO does not come in capsule form. What they’re really promoting is the common supplement L-arginine, an amino acid which is a precursor to NO – they just want to keep that a secret from people who don’t join up.
NO does have the effect of dilating arteries, which would lower blood pressure, and intravenous infusions of L-arginine do lower blood pressure. However, there is no evidence that oral L-arginine capsule supplements lower blood pressure. There is evidence suggesting some benefit from L-arginine supplements in heart failure and peripheral vascular disease, and L-arginine supplements may increase exercise endurance in some older persons who are “untrained,” but do not have this effect in physically-fit older folks.
#6: The cure for elevated cholesterol
HSI actually reveals this one right off the bat. It’s called policosanol. Here’s what HSI says:
“Policosanol is a mixture of compounds extracted from the waxy coatings found on leaves and stems of the sugar cane plant. Now, despite coming from the sugar cane plant, there is no sugar in policosanol, so it doesn’t increase your risk for diabetes like statin drugs. Not only does policosanol lower your “bad” cholesterol, but it increases your “good” cholesterol. In one study, researchers compared the effects of policosanol to statin drug Pravastatin on patients who had elevated cholesterol levels and were considered to be at high risk for coronary disease.
“Patients took 10 mg of either policosanol or the statin drug with their dinners for eight weeks. The group taking statins saw their LDL levels fall by 15.6% and their total cholesterol by 11.8%. But those in the policosanol group beat the statin numbers by 19.1% in LDL levels and by 15.1% in total cholesterol levels. Now that’s what I call a win! And get this: While the HDL levels of the statin test subjects didn’t improve significantly, the policosanol group increased their HDL (good cholesterol) by 18.4%.“
Policosanol was developed and is funded by the Cuban government, and the study quoted above was conducted in Cuba, in the Hospital Salvador Allende. (Castaño G et al. Curr Ther Res 1995) But there’s lots of contrary evidence. Here’s the conclusion from a study done in Germany:
Conclusion: In patients with hypercholesterolemia or combined hyperlipidemia, the sugar cane–derived policosanol in usual and high doses does not demonstrate a reduction in lipid levels beyond placebo. (Berthold HK et al, JAMA 2006.
Similar conclusions, showing no benefit from policosanol, are reported in studies published in JAMA as well as the Journal of Clinical Pharmacological Research and Pharmacotherapy, conducted in the US and in the Netherlands.
#7: The cure for sleep disorders
The villains are drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, and Restoril. HSI proclaims that sleeping pill users have a 530% higher risk of death than folks who can drift off to dreamland without the aid of drugs. HSI doesn’t say so, but this is based on a paper in the British Medical Journal by Daniel Kripke (Kripke D, BMJ 2014), reporting a finding that over a 2.5 year period, a cohort of sleeping pill users had a death rate of 6.1%, compared with 1.2% in non-users. The 530% increase in risk is simple arithmetic, but needlessly alarming. Commenters on the Kripke paper pointed out that many people who take sleeping pills have significant chronic illnesses – they’re taking sleeping pills for a reason.
The magic remedy proposed by HSI is made from magnolia husk, and contains a substance called ziziphus, which supposedly reduces levels of cortisol, a neurotransmitter that keeps us awake and alert. It also, supposedly, reduces irritability and heart palpitations. It is an ancient Chinese herbal remedy called suan zao ren, which nourishes heart yin. For what that’s worth, it’s recommended by Dr Oz.
None of these is a cure for any of the seven named diseases or conditions, and their effectiveness is at best doubtful. However, there are certainly grains of truth in HSI’s claims. E.g., regarding Avemar, it’s possible that it in some way reduces the capacity of cancer cells to take in nourishment, and thus, in combination with agents that attack cancer cells in other ways, may speed cancer cell death. There is no reliable indication that any of the supplements should be used alone, but it’s possible that they may enhance the effectiveness of some of the established agents.
I have no serious objection to suggestions that we try this or that supplement, based on the principle that it probably won’t hurt, and it might help. (Note: this principle has been seriously compromised by the supplement manufacturers that market adulterated or totally bogus supplements, as widely reported and discussed in a previous Doc Gumshoe post.)
My quite serious objection is when a reliable-sounding outfit like HSI tries to steer people with serious diseases away from drugs and therapies which have some demonstrated effectiveness and towards remedies whose effectiveness is doubtful at best. This could result in killing people – not a position Doc Gumshoe endorses.
I am not normally in the camp that seeks to pillory the FDA, but the approval of flibanserin (now to be marketed as Addyi) seems to me a PR move on the FDA’s part to tell the world that they support women’s health. Within minutes, it seems, of the FDA’s approval, Valeant has ponied up a billion dollars to buy Sprout Pharmaceuticals – not because flibanserin is going to be a successful drug, but because they are acquiring a ready-to-go advertising campaign. The problems will appear later. I predict they will be substantial.
Meanwhile, I am gradually accumulating bits and pieces for a blog on that most knotty topic, Alzheimer’s disease. I think there are indeed glimmers of hope.
Best to all, Michael Jorrin (aka Doc Gumshoe).