Thursday, March 18, 2010

Allergy woo

I've seen woo regularly covered by The Baltimore Sun and local TV stations, not skeptically, asking, "What's the evidence this works as alleged?" or "Do the claims made about [insert name of woo] even make sense when considered rationally and based on what we know about biology, chemistry, and physics?" Rather the local media tends to credulously report on, or even supports the use of, woo without any critical analysis. 

An article in today's Sun, "Nothing to sneeze at", (titled "Easing your allergies" in the on-line version of the article) is but the most recent example.

In the article, Jill Rosen, writes: 

Doctors say more allergy sufferers are looking for relief beyond traditional medicines and taking fresh looks at natural remedies such as the Neti pot, vitamins and herbs. 

And physicians say these things work--particularly for people with mild or moderate symptoms. 

I have no problems with the use of a Neti pot, even if, as the article indicates, it's been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, a frequent promoter of woo and magical thinking. Saline nose spray? I have no problem with that either, or with the suggestion that allergy sufferers use humidifiers and hot showers to "moisturize dry raw noses."

But then the woo-recommending starts:

The writer interviewed Dr. Joyce Frye, who is described as "an assistant professor of family and community medicine with the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Integrative Medicine", a inter-departmental center that promotes the use of woo, and is a center whose existence at the medical school, which I would expect to be promoting and using science-based medicine--not alternatives to it--should be embarrassed.

The article continues: 

While using these techniques to wash out nasal passages and refresh the nose, doctors also are pointing patients to herbal medications that can help with congestion, watery eyes and sneezing.

While drugs like Zyrtec and Claritin suppress symptoms, herbs work in the opposite way, Frye says.

"The homeopathic concept is that symptoms are the body's best response to restoring itself to health," Frye says. "Rather than suppressing symptoms, we should use small doses of herbs to help stimulate the body's self-corrective impulses to get healthy again."

The thing people need to understand with the herbal remedies, Frye says, is that they work slowly and become more effective over time. Though people in Asia have understood this for thousands of years, the lack of immediate results can frustrate Westerners who expect on-the-spot relief.

"The herbal medicines are so highly diluted that people stuck in the old world of chemistry think there can't be anything in them, and that it's all placebo effect," Frye says. "That's not true."

"People stuck in the old world of chemistry"? I guess Frye is referring to those who are out-of-touch with the new world of pseudoscience and woo. You know, people like chemists, biologists, or doctors who believe in medicine which is based on evidence of efficacy. Yeah, evidence-based science is just so old-fashioned and out-of-date.

There happens to be a damn good reason to reject homeopathy as a treatment for allergies or anything else. It's utter nonsense, quackery.

Although the article and Dr. Frye muddle the distinction, perhaps deliberately, there's a difference between herbal remedies which contain active ingredients, such as the Ginkgo Biloba, Echinachea, and St. John's Wort found on many store shelves and homeopathy.

While the safety and effectiveness of herbal remedies are debatable, the same isn't true of homeopathy. Homeopathy is without a doubt safe (except perhaps if you forgo actual effective treatment and remain sick or get even sicker), but is ineffective as a treatment for anything. And the reason I can say that without qualification is homeopathic remedies are--water.

The principle of dilutions (or "law of minimum dose") states that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. In homeopathy, substances are diluted in a stepwise fashion and shaken vigorously between each dilution. This process, referred to as "potentization," is believed to transmit some form of information or energy from the original substance to the final diluted remedy. Most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain; however, in homeopathy, it is believed that the substance has left its imprint or "essence," which stimulates the body to heal itself (this theory is called the "memory of water"). 

Let me repeat from above for emphasis: "Most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain." Given that undeniable fact, there's no plausible way it could work.

You might wonder, as I have, why homeopathic water only has memory of the diluted substance, and not say, the fish poop, pollutants, or other substances with which the water may have been in contact at some point.

Wonder no more. My understanding is that when the homeopaths prepare their remedies, they psychically impart their "intentions" into the water, so that the water knows what substance it is supposed to remember. Really. And it's this absurd system of non-medicine that both The Sun and the medical school are supporting.

Homeopathy is nonsense without a doubt. As NCCAM admits about homeopathy: "There are challenges in studying homeopathy and controversies regarding the field, largely because a number of its key concepts are not consistent with the current understanding of science, particularly chemistry and physics." 

Why then, you ask, would the University of Maryland School of Medicine be teaching and promoting medical rubbish like homeopathy? Good question, and one I'd be interested in hearing the school answer. No matter what rationale the school may offer, I suspect the answer boils down to money and giving patients what they want, not what they can actually benefit from. And for this they ought to be ashamed.

And as for The Baltimore Sun, what's next, I ask? Will you perhaps be promoting the use of astrology to make investment decisions on your financial page? Or promoting divination as a method of making important decisions like which candidate to vote for, or as a tool for police to use to solve crimes?

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if it counts as woo or not, but the best thing I've found for allergies is local honey.

    What sounds most problematic about this article to me is the confusion between herbal treatments with homeopathy. Disturbing, but keep in mind the writer in question probably didn't know what either of them really meant anyway!