Category Archives: Alternative Medicine

Animals take medicine when they are sick: a few striking cases

Humans are not the only ones to use medicine to treat diseases. There’s even a science dedicated to animal self-medication: zoopharmacognosy, from the roots zoo (“animal”), pharma (“drug”), and gnosis (“knowing”). Who knew?

Humans have been medicating using plants for thousands of years — but we’re not the only ones.

Our understanding of animals using medication has shifted over time. One of the earliest researchers in zoopharmacognosy established criteria for defining when an animal is using medicine.

The plant should not be a regular part of the animal’s diet, have no nutritional value, be consumed in time of the year when parasites are more active, and should only be used by a single animal at a time. These criteria are the most relevant with primates, which actively choose medication when they are sick (presumably, a similar practice was employed by early humans).

In addition to active learning, some animals learn innately (such as through natural selection), such as insects and other invertebrates with tiny brains.  Other types of medicine use in animals are recognized, such as giving medicine to family members and using the same substance as usual but in higher quantities.

Here are some interesting cases of animals that use medicine when they are sick:

Primates

As they are our closest relatives, it is probably isn’t surprising that primates use medicine. At around the same time that Jane Goodall was observing chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 1960s, so was a Japanese anthropologist called Toshisada Nishida. He saw chimpanzees eating aspella leaves, which he found a bit strange as they don’t have any nutritional value for the chimps.

Likewise, at Jane’s Gombe reserve and other locations, chimpanzees were seen swallowing whole leaves. The researchers hypothesized that they were using the leaves as medication. Additional support came many years later in 1996, when the biologist Michael Huffman saw a sick chimp ridden with parasites that chewed on leaves of a noxious plant and recovered by the next day. Other researchers have observed bonobos take leaves that cause itchy skin and layer many of them on their tongues, carefully avoiding touching their skin. They use saliva to stick a whole ball of leaves together that they then swallow whole. The reason that they layer the leaves is so that it becomes a sort of time-release medication that acts over a longer period of time.

A bonobo eating bamboo leaves. It turns to special, rough leaves when parasite-ridden. Image credits: Tambako The Jaguar.

In general, the primates seem to swallow these rough leaves to scrape the parasites out of their intestines and speed up elimination. They wouldn’t normally eat these leaves because they are prickly, noxious, and without nutritional value. A long time ago, a primate ancestor probably happened to grab a leaf when s/he was sick, and felt better afterwards. Then others picked up the behavior from the first discoverer.

Monarch butterflies

Not all animals actively learn to take medicine like primates. In most cases, the animals learn innately and a behavior is promoted through natural selection. The iconic monarch butterfly depends on the milkweed plant as its caterpillars exclusively eat it.

There’s a special type of anti-parasitic milkweed and only infected butterflies lay their eggs on it; healthy butterflies don’t look twice at it. However, by laying their eggs on it, infected butterflies ensure that their offspring are protected from infection. It is hard to say how consciously they are making this decision, but it does seem to be an innate behavior. Perhaps the parasite changes the physiology of the monarch butterfly and how she perceives the vegetation around her changes; she could genetically prefer beneficial plants in her parasite-ridden state. If the medication works then her offspring survive and can pass the behavior on to the next generation. In other words, the use of medicine could undergo natural selection. It doesn’t require a conscious choice of a medicinal compound like a human or primate would do.

Monarch on milkweed. Image credits: USFWS Midwest Region.

Other insects also take medication against parasites like the woolly bear caterpillar, which ingests plants that are toxic to parasites, and fruit flies, which lay their eggs in the alcohol from fermented fruit to keep parasitic wasps away from their offspring.

Birds

Some birds have started stuffing an unlikely material into their nests: cigarette butts. No, they’re not ne’er-do-well parents. On the contrary, they could actually be using the chemicals in the butts as medicine against parasitic mites, protecting their little chicks. It’s not as crazy as it seems as tobacco leaves contain chemicals that repel pests; tobacco juice and nicotine sprays can be used as garden pest control.

A bird with a cigarette. Image credits: Tony Wills.

Researchers studied two bird species that are common in North America, house sparrows and house finches, and measured the amount of cellulose acetate, a synthetic fiber found in cigarette butts, present in their nests. They found that nests with higher levels of this fiber contained fewer parasitic mites. Additionally, the researchers placed unsmoked and smoked cigarette butts in bird nests and found that there were half as many parasites in the nests with smoked cigarettes than non-smoked cigarettes. Smoked cigarettes contain much more nicotine because the smoke has passed through them.

Therefore, the researchers have a hunch that nicotine could be what the birds are using as medicine against a mite infestation in their nests.

Bees

Honey bees often collect resins produced by plants and stick them onto their hive. In particular, they use resins as medication after a fungal infection. After being affected by harmful fungus, such as chalkbrood, the bees collect more resin than they do normally. As a test to see if increased amounts of resins can protect against fungal infections, researchers added resins to experimental bee colonies. The result: colonies with more resin had fewer fungal infections. Therefore, the resin is an effective type of medication.

A fungal disease affecting a bee colony. Although it is hard to tell as the image is from a beekeeping book from 1900, dead larva of different ages can be seen in the cells. Image credits: Internet Archive Book Images.

This case of animal self-medication is particularly interesting because the medicine doesn’t act on a single individual but rather on the whole colony. The whole colony assesses the need for more resin after an infection and allocates workers for the task. The resin is also not individually ingested but has positive effects for everyone. This finding has implications for bee-keeping as beekeepers usually choose tidier bees and not those that cover their hives in annoying, sticky resin. However, by selecting for “cleaner” hives, the overall health of the bees may be reduced as they do not self-medicate after fungal infections.

There are many, many other cases of animals self-medicating. A few other colorful cases are lizards that eat a particular root after being bitten by a venomous snake, baboons with flatworms that cause schistosomiasis eat the leaves from a particular plant to get rid of those nasty parasites, and pregnant elephants in Kenya that eat tree leaves to induce delivery. As you can see, there is a wide spectrum of animals using medicine, and surely, there are more cases that we do not know about yet!

Understanding how animals use medicine can influence how we manage animals like honeybees and model diseases in wildlife populations. Some animals have been known to use plants that combat a lot of human diseases, and some medicine has been created from them that are in use for humans. Learning from animals has influenced traditional medicine and may still help us to find compounds that are powerful against certain diseases.

France to stop reimbursing homeopathic treatments

Under the current system, people can purchase homeopathic products and the government will partially reimburse the cost of the treatment. This is about to change.

Woman looking at homeopathic ‘remedies’. Image credits: Casey West.

The healthcare system in France (as in most of Europe) is very different from that in the US. It’s a universal health care system largely financed by government national health insurance. It’s free and consistently ranks among the best ones in the world, despite the average spending being way below that of the US.

Of course, the system is not perfect. For instance, one thing which medical scientists have long objected to is the reimbursement of homeopathic costs.

France has a long history with homeopathy, this being the most popular alternative treatment. Its prevalence rose steadily since the 1980s, despite the fact that research has consistently shown that there is no reliable evidence to support homeopathic products (read our in-depth explanation of why homeopathy sometimes seems to work here). France also hosts the global leader of homeopathic products, Boiron — a company with yearly revenues in excess of $650 million.

Boiron has strongly protested against this measure but as government representatives point out, the country spends a hefty sum reimbursing homeopathic treatments that just don’t work. According to official figures, French social security in 2018 paid back patients some 126.8 million euros ($142.2 million) for homeopathic treatment — out of a total of 20 billion euros ($22.4 billion) refunded for medicines in total.

That will now stop.

Unlike conventional treatments, which can be fully reimbursed by the government, the reimbursement of homeopathic products is currently limited at 30% of the price. French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said the reimbursement will be gradually phased out, going down to 15% in 2020 and 0% in 2021.

Buzyn, a leading French hematologist and university professor, had no previous experience in politics before joining the government in 2017. She has consistently emphasized the importance of implementing science-based policies, even if the decisions are unpopular — which is the case here.

The decision was met with substantial backlash from a part of the French population, which considered it a breach of their individual freedom. However, Buzyn emphasizes that doctors will still be free to prescribe homeopathic treatments, and people are still free to buy them if they so choose. Still, in order for the government to offer reimbursements, there needs to be some evidence supporting homeopathy — which, at the moment, isn’t the case. In fact, the principles behind homeopathy have long been disproven.

It’s a small but significant step for a country where homeopathy is very prevalent. The government is sending a strong message: homeopathy has time and time again been disproven and shown to be no better than a placebo — so why fund it?

Homeopathy is ineffective against children’s cold and flu

Add another one to the pile: a new review of randomized controlled trials on the common cold, influenza, and pneumonia found no evidence that homeopathy is effective in any way.

Homeopathy doesn’t work, and according to everything we know about science — it can’t work.

If it’s your first time on ZME Science — first of all, welcome — there’s one thing you should know about us: we love science — and like everyone who loves something, we hate it when something else masquerades as that something we love. In this case, we’re talking about pseudoscience.

Sure, you can argue that most (if not all) people believe in something illogical. Most of the time, that doesn’t do any harm — after all, what difference does it make if you read the daily horoscope or not? But some beliefs are more dangerous than others, especially when it comes to medical science. Obviously, medicine isn’t perfect and there’s still a lot of room for improvement but thanks to medical science, we live longer and healthier than all the generations before us. So why, then, would you doubt and reject it?

Homeopathy goes against everything we know about chemistry, biology, and medicine. It’s completely implausible from a theoretical standpoint, and study after study has shown that the practical effects just aren’t there. It might seem like it works (and here’s why), but the data suggests otherwise.

In a new study published in the prestigious Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, a team of researchers looked at how good homeopathy is in dealing with the cold, the flu, and pneumonia.

Common homeopathic ‘treatments’ for these conditions include Arsenicum album (arsenic trioxide), Euphrasia (eyebright plant), and natrum muriaticum (or as most people call it, table salt). A particular flu remedy called Oscillococcinum is derived from duck liver and heart. If that’s not enough to dissuade you, then the preparation mechanism likely will.

Homeopathic substances are heavily diluted in water, often times by a factor of a trillion or even more. Sometimes, they’re diluted so much that not a single molecule of the original substance remains — by everything we know about chemistry, there’s nothing but water left in these substances. Supposedly, this dilution makes substances stronger — which again, goes again everything we know about physics.

The researchers scoured the literature to find any studies comparing oral homeopathy medicinal products with identical placebo or self‐selected conventional treatments. They found eight such studies, and this is where it gets interesting.

Researchers did find eight suitable studies. A few of these studies did suggest some benefits, and at a quick glance, you’d say that it’s good enough — it’s published in a journal, it passed the test of peer-review, so why not? But when researchers looked closer, they found all sorts of problems, ranging from major inconsistencies to a blatant conflict of interest — three of the studies were directly funded by homeopathy manufacturers. In these studies, even the reviewers were dubious of their claims.

“One study showed a reduction in disease severity for the homeopathy group at some time points. The other study showed a reduction in number of respiratory infections over the following year in the treatment groups, although more than a quarter of participants were not accounted for in the results,” the reviewers wrote.

Meanwhile, the more rigorous studies consistently find no benefits to homeopathy. The authors give a stern conclusion:

“There is no convincing evidence homeopathic medicinal products are effective in treating ARTIs in children.”

Intriguingly, advocates of homeopathy often claim that it’s a “true” healing practice, unlike modern medicine, which is “all about the money.” However, these people conveniently disregard the fact that in the US alone, homeopathic and herbal remedies are a multi-billion dollar industry.

When you draw the line, homeopathy doesn’t work, it even can’t work (based on pretty much everything we know about science), and still it makes a lot of money. So why is it still a thing? It’s hard to say, but as always, we encourage you to leave your opinion in the comment section.

Almost 40% of at-home DNA tests are inaccurate, scientists warn

A new study has found that at-home DNA testing kits are wrong 40% of the time.

Via Pixabay/geralt

For those who haven’t heard of them, direct-to-consumer genetic tests are genetic tests available that offer information about one’s ancestors, risks of certain diseases, and other traits, such as eye color. The demand for this kind of genetic tests has increased recently, along with the number of people interested in personalized healthcare. However, at-home DNA tests shouldn’t be taken as diagnostic because they only offer risk information for a small number of conditions.

Companies like 23AndMe and DNA Direct sell genetic tests that allegedly determine descendence or diagnose genetic predispositions in a person’s genetic makeup, but their results are highly questionable.

A new paper written by researchers at diagnostics company Ambry Genetics emphasizes that false positives are one of the greatest weaknesses of these kinds of at-home tests.

Stephanie Mlot from Geek.com made an excellent analogy: one’s genome is like a book about a person, with each gene representing a different chapter, and their DNA sequence serving as the letters that constitute the words. A genetic test performed in a professional lab will be able to read each word in specific chapters, checking if large sections aren’t missing or duplicated. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) tests, however, use a method called SNP array, reading only specific letters but not whole chapters.

“Many of these DTC labs also release raw data to the consumer,” wrote Stephany Tandy-Connor in a blog post. She is a genetic counselor for Ambry Genetics.

After a thorough look, researchers at Ambry Genetics reported that at-home DNA tests have a 40 percent false-positive.

“Our results demonstrated a 40% false positive rate highlighting the importance of confirming DTC raw data alterations in a clinical laboratory that is experienced in complex alteration detection and classification, especially prior to making any medical management recommendations,” added Tandy-Connor.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be aware of your vulnerabilities, but DTC tests might not be the best way to discover them. Tests that provide incomplete genetic data are potentially harmful, and might lead to inappropriate changes in customer’s healthcare, researchers say.

“It is our hope that confirmatory testing and appropriate clinical management by all health-care professionals accompany DTC genetic testing for at-risk patients,” the authors concluded.

Pot twist: Cannabis component helps fight addiction in new study

A new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology has revealed that a non-psychoactive and non-addictive ingredient of the Cannabis sativa plant can help reduce the risk of relapse among cocaine and alcohol addicts. According to lead author Friedbert Weiss, non-psychoactive cannabinoids could have important medical benefits in the fight against substance addiction.

Image via Pixabay/futurefilmworks

Addiction is a powerful, vicious monster that lives inside yourself. The battle is an extremely hard one and it often carries stretches out over years and years — potentially for an entire life. Many abstinent addicts find it even harder to control themselves in drug-related settings or when they experience stress or higher levels of anxiousness. For them, it’s a true struggle to dismiss their impulses when offered an addictive drug like alcohol or cocaine.

Researchers wanted to study the effect of Cannabidiol (CBD) on drug relapse in a rat model. CBD is a non-psychoactive compound of the plant Cannabis sativa (I suppose you already know that’s weed). CBD has been considered as a treatment for neurological and psychiatric disorders, and more recently also as a treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

“The efficacy of the cannabinoid [CBD] to reduce reinstatement in rats with both alcohol and cocaine – and, as previously reported, heroin – histories predicts therapeutic potential for addiction treatment across several classes of abused drugs,” says Weiss.

Scientists applied a gel containing CBD once per day for a week to the skin of lab rats. The rodents had a history of deliberate daily alcohol or cocaine self-administration, leading to addiction-like behavior.

Next, they performed a number of tests to observe the rats’ reaction to stressful and anxiety-provoking situations, as well as behavior tests that measured impulsivity — a psychological trait associated with drug addiction. The research team reported that CBD reduced relapse provoked by stress and drug cues. CBD also reduced anxiety and impulsivity in the rats.

The authors wrote: “CBD attenuated context-induced and stress-induced drug seeking without tolerance, sedative effects, or interference with normal motivated behavior. Following treatment termination, reinstatement remained attenuated up to ≈5 months although plasma and brain CBD levels remained detectable only for 3 days. CBD also reduced experimental anxiety and prevented the development of high impulsivity in rats with an alcohol dependence history.”

Authors hope that insight into the mechanisms by which CBD exerts these effects will be investigated in future research. They believe that the findings are proof of CBD’s potential in relapse prevention, CBD’s major benefits being its actions across several vulnerability states, and long-lasting effects with only brief treatment.

“Drug addicts enter relapse vulnerability states for multiple reasons. Therefore, effects such as these observed with CBD that concurrently ameliorate several of these are likely to be more effective in preventing relapse than treatments targeting only a single state,” Weiss concludes.

Taking fish oil and probiotics during pregnancy may reduce food allergies

Taking a fish oil capsule daily during pregnancy and the first few months of breastfeeding can reduce your baby’s risk of egg allergy by 30%, a new study has found.

Via Pixabay/PublicDomainPictures

Researchers from the department of medicine at Imperial College London say that omega-3, a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fish oil, has positive, anti-inflammatory effects.

According to a 2014 study, the lifetime self-reported prevalence of common food allergies in Europe ranged from 0.1 to 6.0%. In the UK, one in 20 children suffers from food allergies, such as nut, egg, milk or wheat allergies. Food allergies are caused by chaotic functioning of the immune system, that overreacts to some types of foods. Common symptoms of food allergies include rashes, swelling, vomiting, and wheezing.

For the study we’re discussing today, the team looked at data collected from 19 trials of fish oil supplements taken during pregnancy, involving a total of 15,000 participants. They report that the reduction in allergy risk equated to 31 fewer cases of egg allergy per 1,000 children. Afterward, they also analyzed the effect of probiotic supplements taken during pregnancy and discovered a 22% reduction in the risk of eczema development in children up to the age of three.

“Our research suggests probiotic and fish oil supplements may reduce a child’s risk of developing an allergic condition, and these findings need to be considered when guidelines for pregnant women are updated,” says Dr. Robert Boyle, lead author of the research.

The NHS advises that it’s better to eat fish than take fish oil supplements, fish being an excellent source of nutrients that are good for pregnant women‘s health and for their unborn baby’s development. The main reason for this is that eating liver and liver products such as liver pâté, liver sausage or fish liver oil supplements such as cod liver oil may contain too much vitamin A, and that can harm unborn babies. The NHS also recommends that tuna and oily fish consumption should be limited, while some types of fish should be avoided completely, such as shark. Also, don’t eat raw shellfish when pregnant, as it can cause food poisoning.

Avoiding foods such as nuts, dairy, and eggs during pregnancy made no difference to a child’s allergy risk. Also, fruit, vegetables, and vitamins seemed to have no repercussion on allergy risk either, the study published in the journal PLOS Medicine showed.

Researchers at Max Planck developed a new fitness technology called Jymmin makes us less sensitive to pain. Credit: Max Planck Institute For Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Jymmin combines working out with music, makes people feel less pain

Good news for all of us! Whether or not you’re enjoying exercising, scientists have developed new technology that makes working out more enjoyable than ever. The new study also found that it makes us more resistant to pain.

Researchers at Max Planck developed a new fitness technology called Jymmin makes us less sensitive to pain. Credit: Max Planck Institute For Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Researchers at Max Planck developed a new fitness technology called Jymmin that makes us less sensitive to pain. Credit: Max Planck Institute For Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Researchers at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) developed a new way of working out: they altered fitness machines to produce musical sounds during use. Scientists discovered that this novel approach, which they call Jymmin, increases pain threshold and makes people less sensitive to discomfort.

“We found that Jymmin increases the pain threshold. On average, participants were able to tolerate ten percent more pain from just ten minutes of exercise on our Jymmin machines, some of them even up to fifty percent”, said Thomas Fritz, head of research group Music Evoked Brain Plasticity at MPI CBS, in a press statement.

How do these machines work?

Scientists paired music composition software with sensors attached to the fitness machines. While exercising, the sensors captured and then transmitted signals to the software, which played back an accompaniment from each fitness machine. Basically, the researchers modified steppers and abdominal trainers to become our own musical instruments, so you can get really creative while working out.

Researchers discovered that, after Jymmin, participants were able to immerse their arms in ice water of 1°C (33.8°F) for five seconds longer compared to a conventional exercise session.

Scientists believe that the pain resistance experienced by the participants is due to the increased release of endorphins. Apparently, if music composition and physical activity are combined, endorphins are flushed into our systems in a more efficient way.

Researchers divided all 22 participants according to how they rated pain and discovered that participants with the highest pain threshold benefitted the most from this training method. Maybe this happens because these participants already release endorphins more effectively in comparison to those who are more pain sensitive.

“There are several possible applications for Jymmin that can be derived from these findings. Patients simply reach their pain threshold later,” Fritz added.

Jymmin could do wonders in treating chronic or acute pain. It could also be used as support in rehabilitation clinics by enabling more efficient training.

Scientists tested top swimmers in South Korea and the results were remarkable: athletes who warmed up using Jymmin machines were faster than those using conventional methods. In a pilot test, five of six athletes swam faster than in previous runs.

Previous studies showed that Jymmin has many positive effects on our well-being. They revealed that personal mood and motivation improved, and even the music produced while Jymmin was perceived as pleasant.

Scientific reference: Thomas H. Fritz, Daniel L. Bowling, Oliver Contier, Joshua Grant, Lydia Schneider, Annette Lederer, Felicia Höer, Eric Busch, Arno Villringer. Musical Agency during Physical Exercise Decreases PainFrontiers in Psychology, 2018; 8 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02312.

Not so harmless: common herbal remedy might cause liver cancer

Naturopaths and “health gurus” love to tout the benefits of alternative medicine. They take advantage of people’s dislike of medical treatments to promote unproven, “natural” treatments. Most of the time, there’s very little or no science at all behind these treatments but hey, at least they don’t do anything bad, right? Well, a new study found that traditional components of herbal remedies, especially those used in Asia, are widely associated with liver cancer.

In Taiwan, 78 percent of liver tumors are consistent with exposure to traditional herb compounds.

Why would you take unnatural chemical drugs when you could just take natural herbs (spoiler alert: because they work)? You hear that pitch a lot, and many fall for it. Naturopaths advertise their products as a natural and effective way of getting healthy without any side effects, but that’s not really the case. It’s not only that most of these treatments have no science behind them, but sometimes, they do have nasty side effects.

In 2000, Belgian doctors reported 100 women taking a Chinese remedy at a weight-loss clinic in Brussels experienced kidney failure and many of them went on to develop cancers.

“Our findings reinforce the idea that the use of natural herbal medicine may not be without risk,” the Belgian doctors concluded. They also noted that similar cases had been reported in France, Spain, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan.

Now, something even more dangerous has been reported. Extracts taken from plants of the genus Aristolochia, commonly used in a variety of traditional Chinese medicines, may be causing many liver cancers.

Aristolochia eriantha. Image credits: Kurt Stüber.

Aristolochia is a genus of evergreen and deciduous lianas (woody vines) and herbaceous perennials. Extracts are taken from the flowers, root, or stem from over 100 species. However, researchers have known that the plant extracts can be dangerous for quite a while. A 2013 study found that a compound in the plants, known as aristolochic acid, attacks a DNA base, suggesting that it can attack even more parts of the genome.

With this in mind, they wondered if there could be any connection between the aristolochic acid in the herbal remedies and liver cancers. To get an idea of how strong this connection is, they analyzed samples from liver tumors, finding that 76 of 98 liver tumor samples (78 percent) from Taiwan show signs of exposure.

“I was dumbstruck to find the evidence of exposure to aristolochic acid in 78 per cent of cases,” says Steven Rozen at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “This indicates strongly that aristolochic acid was one of the causes of these cancers.”

The exposure rate was 47 percent in China and 13 percent in South Korea. Europe and North America rates ranged from 1 to 5 percent. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the traditional medicine causing it, but it’s a very strong correlation. The plant extracts have also been linked to Balkan nephropathy, a condition that’s been reported in people in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia.

Extracts from some Aristolochia species have already been banned in countries like Taiwan, but many haven’t. Furthermore, you can easily get the banned substances online. Researchers say it’s important to educate the consumers, but that’s not an easy feat when there isn’t any strong regulation in that sense. The FDA has also warned about AA-containing remedies but many such products are still sold with misleading or downright wrong labels. The AA dosage is also unregulated and varies greatly from product to product.

The study reemphasizes the idea that naturopathic remedies are not without risk.

Journal Reference: Alvin W. T. Ng et al. Aristolochic acids and their derivatives are widely implicated in liver cancers in Taiwan and throughout Asia. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aan6446

The most expensive fungus in the world: a dead caterpillar that sells for 50,000 USD a pound

The most expensive fungus in the world isn’t any truffle or Mattake mushroom, it is a dead caterpillar fungus that grows in the Himalayas. They go for 50,000 USD a pound; compare that to the most expensive truffles which sell for up to 8,000 USD a pound. This expensive fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is called yartsa gunbu, which aside from sounding like a character in Star Wars, means “summer grass, winter worm” in Tibetan. They are prized as an aphrodisiac and status symbol.

What is it exactly?

The fungus is a parasite; it infects ghost moth caterpillars. The caterpillars live underground in alpine grass and shrub-lands on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,000 m (9,800 and 16,400 ft). They feed feed on roots underground and are more vulnerable to the fungus when they shed their skin in the late summer. This is also the time when the fungus releases its spores.

Once infected, the caterpillar goes upward and lies perpendicular to the surface. The fungus digests the inside of the larvae and eventually kills it. In the spring, a stalked fruiting body shoots out of the caterpillar’s head and can be visible on the surface of the ground. Altogether, it’s no bigger than a pinkie finger.

A size comparison of the fungus. Image credits: Nicolas Merky.

The collectors

The price of yartsa gunbu has increased exponentially in the past decade. This fungus that is more valuable than gold is collected yearly by poor villagers. Entire villages clear out in the spring as they go to high alpine fields to look for yartsa gunbu for several weeks. A good harvest can triple the yearly income of a Nepali. The average yearly income of villagers in the area is 247 USD so it’s unsurprising that the villagers are latching onto this fungus as an income booster. In some areas, one fungus is worth more than one day work for a manual labourer.

However, it can have negative effects too, such as creating conflicts between villagers. In November 2011, nineteen villagers were convicted of murdering seven farmers after foraging for the fungus.

 

The pickers go high onto mountain meadows to find the fungus. Image credits: Pixabay. 

A hot commodity

 

So why do people demand and pay so much for this fungus? Part of the answer is that it has been part of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. The first mention of it was by a Tibetan doctor in the 15th century, in his text called “Instruction of a Myriad of Medicines”. The fungi were considered to have a very good balance of yin and yang because they were composed of an animal and a vegetable. They are also considered to have aphrodisiacal qualities, and are called the “Viagra of the Himalayas”. However, this claim does not have a scientific basis and has not been proven.

Most importantly, the fungus is now a status symbol. China is the main market for yartsa gunbu and the rich use it to show their influence. For example, they buy it to present to guests. The demand for yartsa gunbu has skyrocketed in the past decade. The reason could be that more people know about it and Chinese now have enough disposable income to spend, whereas previously they haven’t been able to afford it.

Effects on the environment

The harvest could be affecting the environment. Although the fungus has been collected for centuries, it has never been with such gusto as now. Perhaps fewer spores will then infect fewer caterpillars, producing less yartsa gunbu. Overharvesting has already made it an endangered species in China. Then the moth population might explode if they have no other predators. The collectors may also have a negative effect on the environment if they cut down too many trees for fuel or leave their trash around.

Climate change will negatively affect the harvest also by drying out the grasslands. With less food, the moth larvae won’t be able to survive so well and there will be fewer of them. The fungus is cultivated on grains and liquids in China, but no one has been able to cultivate it on caterpillars. If the harvesters want their fungal gold to last in the future they should harvest it sustainably and leave behind some fungi to release their spores.

CDC: Homeopathic “healing bracelet” dramatically increases lead levels in babies’ blood

Tests have confirmed that the bracelet is to blame.

In all honesty though… why would you put this on your baby? Image credits: Kimberly Dubanoski, Manchester Health Department, Connecticut.

The problem came to light in September 2016, when a routine screening of a female infant aged 9 months in Manchester, Connecticut, revealed that she was suffering anemia and had lead blood levels over five times the normal limit. Now, the lead source was finally identified.

CDC officials conducted an environmental assessment of the house the baby was living in. They did find two interior window wells with peeling lead-based paint. However, the baby had no access to the window wells, and her siblings had significantly lower lead levels in their blood (way within normal limits), clearly indicating that a different source was to blame. That’s when the parents told doctors the baby had been intermittently wearing a “homeopathic magnetic hematite healing bracelet.”

The bracelet was worn for “teething related discomfort” and the baby would sometimes chew on it. Since lead poisoning is often caused by oral ingestion of lead containing products, this immediately stood out so the CDC analyzed the bracelet, identifying its spacer beads as the source of toxicity.

The parents say they bought the bracelet at a fair and no warnings or branding was found on it. Doctors Patricia Garcia and Jennifer Haile, lead treatment specialists at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center tried to trace down the produced, but they couldn’t. At this point, it’s unsure how many other such bracelets are on the market and who manufactures them.

Since lead is a potent neurotoxin, it can affect every system in the body. It is especially associated with lowered IQ and numerous behavioral problems. Needless to say, the bracelet couldn’t do anything to help. For dealing with teething pains (which are fairly normal), doctors recommend gentle gum massage, cold teething rings, and cloths.

This serves as yet another reminder to stick to real, evidence based medicine. Not only is homeopathy completely ineffective, but crack medicine can be very dangerous — as was the case here. If the problem hadn’t been identified this early, things could have gotten a lot worse.

Dancing keeps the brain young

Here’s another great reason to move and groove to the beat. Researchers have found that older people that regularly dance reverse the signs of aging in their brains. It not just exercise for the body but also for the brain! It could even help to prevent against diseases like Alzheimer’s.

As we age, mental and physical fitness declines. However, regular exercise helps to slow and even reverse this decline. The benefit of exercise for seniors has already been established. What wasn’t known was if different exercises make any difference.

Twenty-six volunteers with an average age of 68 were selected for the study. They were randomly given a weekly 18-month routine or learning dance routines or endurance and flexibility training. The fitness training included mostly repetitive exercises like cycles and Nordic walking, while the dance group learned new routines every week. The seniors had many different dance routines from different genres such as Jazz, Square, Latin-American, and Line Dance.

Dancing helps seniors to keep their brains sharp and bodies fit. Image credits: Daniel Case.

Both groups had increased the volume of hippocampal areas in the brain. This area of the brain is very important for memory, learning, and balance. It is affected by aging and especially by diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity. In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance,” said Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany.

Only dancing also helped with the senior’s balance. It was challenging for the seniors to remember the dance routines when there was time pressure and without the instructor providing guides. Perhaps having to exercise and train their memory prompted their improvement. This study was quite small, so the results should be confirmed through other studies. Maybe other similar exercises would have the same improvement, such as water aerobics and fitness routines.

Taking their findings into account, the researchers are now designing a fitness routine especially for seniors to boost this positive anti-aging effects: think of it as brain training fitness.

“Right now, we are evaluating a new system called “Jymmin” (jamming and gymnastic). This is a sensor-based system which generates sounds (melodies, rhythm) based on physical activity. We know that dementia patients react strongly when listening to music. We want to combine the promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a feasibility study with dementia patients,” said Dr Kathrin Rehfeld.

So dancing and exercise, in general, is an important part of slowing down the negative parts of aging. It improves mental and physical condition as well as balance. Balance is a very important everyday function and impaired balance can lead to falls, which are a major risk for seniors. Dance is a great mix of training that helps seniors in multiple ways, maybe it also brings a smile to their faces.

Journal reference: Rehfeld, K., Müller, P., Aye, N., Schmicker, M., Dordevic, M., Kaufmann, J., Hökelmann, A. & Müller, N.G. (2017) Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11, 305.

“Bio-energy healing stickers” are a scam. Now, debunked by NASA

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Joop company are donning their pseudoscience hats once again. After the jade vagina eggs, now it’s time for some black magic stickers that are supposed to somehow make you healthy.

“We’ve been geeking out about the healing power of energy recently (see our stories on earthing, and the fascinating research at the HeartMath Institute)—so it’s no surprise that Body Vibes, wearable stickers that rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies, have become a major obsession around goop HQ.”

Get a load of this:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BTcsEa0hyaH/

First of all, that’s a completely unacceptable usage of “geeking out.” The phrasing you’re looking for is “we want to sell you this completely bogus thing that doesn’t do anything.” But this time they went too far — they basically challenged NASA, saying:

“Body Vibes stickers (made with the same conductive carbon material NASA uses to line space suits so they can monitor an astronaut’s vitals during wear) come pre-programmed to an ideal frequency, allowing them to target imbalances.”

As Gizmodo cheekily points out, these are sentences you’d expect to come out if you put Enya’s lyrics in a blender. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for NASA to jump in and claim ‘bullshit.’ A NASA representative said that they simply “do not have any conductive carbon material lining the spacesuits” of astronauts. Bam, strike one for the good guys! Gizmodo were quite fair and asked Body Vibes if they can support their case with actual science, which they haven’t.

Richard Eaton, who is one of the creator of the Body Vibes stickers mysteriously stated that science exists, but he can’t discuss it. Because it’s top secret, you know.

“Without going into a long explanation about the research and development of this technology, it comes down to this; I found a way to tap into the human body’s bio-frequency, which the body is receptive to outside energy signatures,” Eaton told Gizmodo. He added that, conveniently, “Most of the research that has been collected is confidential and is held as company private information.”

Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist at NASA’s human research division, was frank about this.

“Wow,” he told Gizmodo. “What a load of BS this is.” Bam! Strike 2.

Goop has withdrawn that claim from their website but not their endorsement, though they did underline that it is not an “official endorsement.” To make things even better, NASA’s spokesperson told Vanity Fair that no one has been in contact with them regarding this product. That’s strike 3. No science, bogus claims, and not even bothering to ask a proper scientist, the very definition of snake oil. As Shin Lin, a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, points out, the only thing that can work about these stickers is a placebo. But that’s a very expensive placebo indeed — at $120 for a pack of 24 stickers, you’re better of with some of that homeopathy stuff.

This is just another brick in the massive wall that is modern pseudoscience. Every day, we’re bombarded with information from all forms of media and unfortunately, much of it is highly biased or straight out bogus. Most of the time (especially in Goop articles), “keeping an open mind” means “we’re making stuff up” and “alternative treatments” means “doesn’t work.” People love to hate on modern medicine, we love to hate on drugs, we love to hate on extensive and often taxing treatments. But these treatments work. Don’t fall for the “alternative” story line. Don’t fall for pseudoscience.

Meditation and Tai Chi don’t just improve your health and mental state, they seem to improve genetic activity

The health benefits of meditation might seem unexpected, but they’ve been documented by a wealth of studies. Now, a meta-analysis (a study of studies) looked at evidence from 18 trials including 846 participants, finding clear benefits of “mind-body practices,” even more than we thought.

The case for meditation seems to be getting stronger and stronger. Image credits: Pexels.

It’s important to note that “mind-body practice” is an umbrella term used for a large and diverse group of techniques which includes unproven practices such as acupuncture. This study specifically looked at Tai Chi and meditation. Research has already shown that meditation can work as a painkiller, sometimes with stunning efficiency.

Ivana Buric, a psychologist at the Coventry University’s Brain, Belief and Behaviour lab, reports that despite complex results and despite a greatly varying quality of different studies, she found an overall pattern to previous research on meditation and Tai Chi. Basically, they work to reduce the activity of genes related to inflammation. It worked particularly well on genes controlled by a protein called NF-ĸB. NF-ĸB  is found in almost all animal cell types and is involved in cellular responses to stimuli such as stress or pathogens. It plays a key role in dealing with infections, and improper functioning of the protein has been correlated to many conditions, such as cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Since inflammation is one of the body’s first line of defense, it’s not always a bad thing to have — after all, it’s technically a protective response. However, too much of it can cause massive damage in the body — especially in the long term. To make things even worse, as anyone suffering from chronic inflammation can tell you, it hurts really bad.

The bottom line is, no one enjoys living with inflammation. A wide variety of anti-inflammation treatments exist on the market, but meditation and Tai Chi have also emerged as unlikely aids. Of course, this is not a replacement for medical treatment, but a useful, healthy activity to complement it.

Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, worked on several of the studies Buric analyzed. He said that her conclusions are “spot on.” However, he also says that more rigorous research is required to solidify the conclusions. There’s also a need for research to see how such techniques work in a greater context, especially when taking into consideration other aspects such as nutrition or lifestyle.

If you’re wondering which technique you should focus on (yoga, meditation, tai chi), the answer is… it doesn’t really seem to matter — at least not in this sense. All of them work equally fine to improve the genetic activity.

This isn’t the first time unexpected benefits of mind-body practices were revealed. In 2014, researchers found positive cellular improvements of meditation and a year before that, a different team showed that even short yoga sessions can be very stimulating to the brain.

Jurnal Reference: Ivana Buric, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Jong, Christopher Mee, Inti A. Brazil — What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practiceshttps://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670

Medicine.

The CDC warns that “chronic Lyme” is bogus and the treatments are horrifying and deadly

With summer upon us in earnest, ticks are popping up all over the place. Even so, a growing trend has physicians more preoccupied than the risk of contracting Lyme disease — last Friday, a report published by the CDC warns people about the slew of bogus treatments marketed for the condition.

Medicine.

Image credits Andrea Ajale.

It’s a dark day indeed when the CDC has to protect people from dishonest treatments rather than diseases — but that’s exactly what the center had to do last Friday. Writing in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a group of doctors from all over the country, including members from the University of Colorado, the CDC, Yale University, Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco warn that alternative medical treatments for “chronic Lyme disease” are all unproven and very likely harmful — some even deadly.

These doctors recount the experience of five patients who, erroneously or intentionally diagnosed with what’s essentially a made-up condition with no scientific backing, suffered through and from such treatments which in some cases cost them their lives.

Fake Lymes

Now, Lyme disease is a real, well-documented, pretty nasty disease. It’s caused by an infection with Borrelia burgdorferi, a spirochete which uses blacklegged ticks as a vector. Initial symptoms include the appearance of a characteristic “bull’s eye” rash on the skin, fever, headache, and fatigue. If untreated, the infection spreads out through the body causing arthritis, heart inflammation, dysfunctionalities of the nervous system, even brain swelling.

Patients may develop an (actual and recognized) condition called Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome / PTLDS. Such patients will show lingering symptoms after being cured of Lyme’s, and, while it’s exact cause is unknown researchers suspect it comes down to lingering tissue damage and the way out immune system responds to them — not an infection, and not something which can be cured by antibiotics.

So it’s easy to see why nobody would be thrilled of contacting it. Luckily, its symptoms make Lyme disease pretty easy to spot and two to four weeks of antibiotic treatments usually flushes the spirochetes out of your system.

But capitalizing on that fear are people who advocate for chronic Lyme disease or, as I like to call it, male Bos taurus feces. It’s a wide-net grouping of vague, nondescript symptoms, ranging from fatigue and generalized pain to neurological disorders. Most times, the diagnostic is pinned without performing any FDA-approved lab testing, often without any lab testing at all, for that matter. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the patient to be told he’s suffering from chronic Lyme despite negative lab results for a B. burgdorferi infection. Because what’s a bit of evidence worth in the face of your pseudo-scientific conviction and/or willingness to con people out of money?

Take this pill daily — for years

Blacklegged Tick.

This is what a blacklegged (deer) tick looks like.
Image credits Fairfax County / Flickr.

Many patients, who are confused by their symptoms often fall for these treatments out of sheer desperation to find a cure to their suffering. Self-described “Lyme-literate” doctors, a term which isn’t indicative of any kind of training (if you hear your doctor say this it only means he’s particularly qualified to be replaced,) convince these patients they’re the victims of a chronic infection and put them on these “alternative” treatments.

What followed was exactly what you’d expect to happen when somebody treats you for something you don’t have in a way that doesn’t work — years of pointless suffering, avoidable infections, even death.

“Patients and their health care providers need to be aware of the risks associated with treatments for chronic Lyme disease,” the doctors declare.

Here’s a short recount of what the five patients mentioned by the authors went through.

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One woman in her 30s showed fatigue and joint pain. She was given several rounds of oral antibiotics, and her condition got worse. She was then administered IV antibiotics for several weeks following which she developed a severe catheter-associated blood infection. She ultimately died of septic shock.

Another woman, in her 50s, who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), also got a second diagnosis — chronic Lyme. She was prescribed a course of herbal remedies, and when these somehow, miraculously failed to cure the made-up disease, was put on IV antibiotics for seven months. This mammoth dose of drugs wrecked her intestinal flora and she developed C. difficile colitis, an intractable intestinal infection linked with antibiotic use. After two years battling the infection, she succumbed to ALS-associated complications.

One teenager suffering from headaches and back pain was diagnosed with chronic Lyme and put on a few months of oral antibiotics, followed by five months of IV antibiotics. She developed a severe blood infection as result of the treatment and suffered septic shock. She needed several weeks’ care in the ICU to recover.

A woman in her late 40s was put on several rounds of oral and IV antibiotics to treat her fatigue and cognitive difficulties two years after being treated for Lyme’s. She ultimately developed an infection which spread to her spine, destroying her 9th and 10th thoracic vertebrae.

The final patient, a woman in her 60s with an autoimmune disease, mixed connective tissue disease, and degenerative arthritis, was diagnosed with chronic Lyme and took more than 10 years of alternative therapies. During this time she overcame several catheter-associated blood infections, which eventually caused abscesses to form in her spine that required surgery.

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Regardless of whether you think you may suffer from PTLDS or “chronic Lyme”, you should avoid these alternative treatments at all costs, the CDC report reads. And there’s a lot of them out there. While the most widely-prescribed treatment are prolonged courses of antibiotics, in 2015 internet-listed therapies for Lyme disease and chronic Lyme ranged from simple herbal and vitamin supplements to $13,000 “photon” therapy, heat and magnet therapies, treatments to remove heavy metals such as mercury, bismuth treatments (potentially fatal), or infusions of hydrogen peroxide. That’s not all! The more exotic treatments included bee venom-based remedies, drinking a bleach solution, your own urine, or a coffee and herbal enema.

Delicious.

As you’ve seen earlier, antibiotics can cause a lot of harm. Their overuse destroys beneficial microbe communities in the body, power-level drug-resistant bugs in your body, and increase the chance of you getting a life-threatening, fully-resistant infection. But, since there’s such a bounty of these alternative treatments floating around, we can only imagine what the effects of some of them are — hint: definitely not good.

“These cases highlight the severity and scope of adverse effects that can be caused by the use of unproven treatments for chronic Lyme disease,” the authors conclude.

“In addition to the dangers associated with inappropriate antibiotic use, such as selection of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, these treatments can lead to injuries related to unnecessary procedures, bacteremia and resulting metastatic infection, venous thromboses, and missed opportunities to diagnose and treat the actual underlying cause of the patient’s symptoms.”

Yoga might help ease your menstrual pain, new review of study finds

Your menstrual woes might be significantly eased through yoga, a new study find. The authors, who reviewed 15 studies on the matter, report that in all studies participants reported an improvement an improvement of symptoms — especially pain.

Yoga might greatly reduce menstrual pain. Image via Max Pixel.

Dysmenorrhea is the most common menstrual disorder — it’s basically pain during menstruation. Symptoms typically last less than three days, but that’s three days every month, so you’re spending ten percent of your days in pain, which is often associated with back pain, diarrhea, or nausea. We don’t know exactly how many women suffer from dysmenorrhea, with estimates ranging from 20% to 90% of women of reproductive age.

Unfortunately, options for treatment are limited and don’t always help (often times, they are just painkillers), so scientists are looking for other options. There has been some indication that yoga might help with the severity and incidence of painful symptoms, but evidence is generally regarded as insufficient. With that in mind, a team of British researchers set out to explore the existing published data on yoga and menstrual pain.

They ended up with 15 studies which met their criteria and found that in all of them yoga is associated with an improvement. No matter how often and what kind of yoga was practiced, participants reported less pain and an overall better health. Enhanced mood, wellbeing, and a heightened relaxation response were among the improved outcomes reported by women who participated in a yoga intervention — no matter the type.

“The authors of these studies suggest that yoga works on the autonomic stress response and also on how pain is experienced and interpreted, perhaps by stimulating the release of the body’s natural painkillers,” says review author Jennifer Oates, a lecturer in mental health nursing at King’s College London.

At this moment, Oates and her colleagues believe there is enough evidence to warrant giving yoga a try. It may or may not work for you, but if you do decide to try it out, give it more than just an off chance.

“I would recommend attending more than one class before deciding it did or didn’t work,” she says.

Although the 15 studies were quite different from one another (which poses significant limitations to any such review) authors state that it is highly telling that all studies reported some kind of improvement. In the future, researchers want to test which type of yoga works best, and they hope to see more studies in which women undergo yoga sessions “that are a bit more typical of the average busy woman, maybe one or two classes a week” — many of the analyzed studies were not representative in this sense.

So, if you do decide do try some yoga to improve menstrual pain, how should you go about it? As Oates mentioned, it’s important to understand that this is a long-term process rather than something you try out once or twice. It’s also important to stick to yoga throughout the cycle, not just during the period (which might be impossible due to the pain anyway). It’s also recommended to start with something light, a type of yoga which incorporates breathing and relaxation techniques in addition to poses. Shying away from complicated poses, especially in the beginning, is absolutely fine. It’s not a contest on who can do the most position, it’s something that should help you feel better and happier.

More research is definitely still needed, but so far, results are promising. The study concludes:

“Further research on the relationship between yoga practice and menstrual disorders is warranted, but there must be both consistency in the methods, measures, and quality of studies and a shift toward research on yoga practices that are replicable outside of the clinical trial setting.”

The article is available free on The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine website until May 26, 2017.

Guess what? Homeopathy doesn’t work on cows, either

The practice of “animal homeopathy” is disturbingly widespread, although to put it bluntly — it doesn’t work. A new review study conducted by German researchers confirmed that there is absolutely no evidence that homeopathy works on livestock.

Livestock antibiotics

I wish people would just stop trying to milk homeopathy. Image via Pixabay.

We give homeopathy a lot of flak… but it’s pretty well deserved. It’s not just that the principle is scientifically invalid, and that it is a method relying simply on diluting substances until those substances aren’t even there anymore. Study after study has shown that homeopathy doesn’t work, and it often prevents people from using a medical approach which actually works. This is why the World Health Organization warns against using it and the FDA says that it is “not aware of scientific evidence to support homeopathy as effective.” You can search far and wide, but no reputable organization or research institute supports its usage. This is why it seems even more bizarre that people are using it — not only on themselves but also on animals. While this study will likely not convince hardcore homeopathy-quackery fans, it can go a long way towards promoting awareness around the lack of efficiency of homeopathy.

No one really likes antibiotics in livestock, but we use them for a simple and straightforward reason: they work. Risking disease spreading in animal farms is a recipe for disaster, and antibiotics block the spread of diseases or even prevents their development completely. With most farms being extremely crowded and not the most hygienic places in the world, the need for antibiotics is evident.

However, there are also concerns generated by this widespread usage. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that nearly 90% of the total use of antimicrobials in the United States was for non-therapeutic purposes in agricultural production. Globally, 70% of all antibiotics administered are used for livestock, and many of these drugs are misused or simply administered for the purpose of weight gain — not something particularly healthy. To make things even worse, the ever-growing danger of drug-resistant pathogens looms largely in this antibiotic usage, and both farmers and researchers are looking for alternatives. Probiotics, prebiotics, and bacteriophages have all been discussed, but much more work is required before these can become viable methods.

Others, however, have turned to something else.

Ho-moo-opathy

From the perspective of many farmers, homeopathy provides a natural and healthy alternative to antibiotics, so why not use it? After all, they likely hear lots of people telling them it works (either due to ignorance or simply with an intention to sell) and it seems medicinal enough. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t work — and this is exactly why such studies are so important. The study reads:

“‘Antibiotic-free’ or ‘raised without antibiotics’ labelled products are enjoying increased popularity in both Europe and the USA. This development is fuelled by, among others, mis- and overuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine, which has promoted the development of resistant strains of bacteria worldwide (Laxminarayan and others 2013). Correspondingly, many farmers and veterinarians see homeopathy as an alternative for treating diseases in farm animals and thus reducing the consumption of antibiotics.”

They started out by digging up all the studies which mentioned homeopathy usage in animals. From these 4,448 publications, they selected a mere 48 which fit the relevance and overall scientific criteria. Yes, as you may have realized by now, quality studies on animal homeopathy are pretty scarce. Even so, almost all studies were published in questionable homeopathy journals, most likely because non-homeopathy journals wouldn’t publish this type of effort. Fifteen doctoral theses on homeopathy in livestock were available, and some of them featured several clinical trials. All in all, the studies included 52 clinical trials, with a mixed back of backgrounds and a mixed bag of results.

The review couldn’t really assess the efficacy of homeopathy because they found serious flaws in the studies. They found 28 studies which reported some improvement following homeopathy — interestingly, most studies focusing on pigs. Cattle and poultry were less responsive to homeopathy.

Wait… doesn’t this mean that homeopathy works?

Well, the problem when working with pseudoscience is you publish in pseudoscience journals, which means that the scientific standard is often just not there. The studies fell short in terms of reproducibility, rigor, and quality. Small sample size and lack of double-blind conditions were also ubiquitous. For instance, pigs who were given homeopathic solutions likely receive better overall treatment than those who receive nothing at all — so it’s impossible to attribute any improvement to the solutions alone.

Oh, and those are the studies that did find a difference. In almost half of the studies published by homeopathy, in homeopathy journals, found no difference between the method and a placebo.

“The remedy used did not seem to make a big difference,” coauthors Caroline Doehring and Albert Sundrum, both of the University of Kassel in Germany, wrote in their paper. “Looking at all the studies, no study was repeated under comparable conditions.”

Even more, they found significant conflicts of interest for the authors, something which again, should not be tolerated in scientific publishing.

“Often, studies were financially supported, eg, by the producer of the homeopathic or conventional remedy,” Doehring and Sundrum wrote. “In one trial, all of the researchers worked for the supplier of the homeopathic remedy.”

It’s essentially impossible to prove a negative, so you can’t really show that livestock homeopathy is not effective, but they did show the lack of evidence when it comes to the method. The study concludes:

“The current evidence of studies providing evidence in favour of homeopathy lacks reproducibility and therefore cannot claim to have sufficient prognostic validity. No general conclusions can be drawn as to whether a homeopathic remedy shown to be significantly more effective than a control treatment in a specific context is also effective in a different context or under different conditions (as the previous trial describes). It cannot be concluded whether it is better, worse or ineffective.”

Journal Reference: C. Doehring and A. Sundrum — Efficacy of homeopathy in livestock according to peer-reviewed publications from 1981 to 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/vr.103779

A drop of dragon’s blood: using animals’ natural defenses to fight drug resistance

Although it may sound like an ingredient for a witch’s brew, dragon’s blood actually has huge potential for new antibiotics. Komodo dragon’s blood, that is. The giant lizards have a lot of bacteria in their mouths but don’t get sick from it so they must contain some pretty powerful natural antibiotics. Scientists from George Mason University obtained a sample of komodo dragon’s blood and isolated out an antimicrobial substance which holds great promise. They replicated it into a form that can be created in a lab and as it turns out, the new antibiotic is great for killing bacteria and helping to heal wounds. A huge plus is that bacteria aren’t so likely to become resistant to it.

Natural antibiotics

Lizards have a lot of potential for containing natural antibiotics because they survive severe wounding, sometimes even losing limbs, in environments with lots of bacteria without getting infections. Komodo dragons, in particular, have a lot of bacteria in their mouth, but it never makes them sick. The research team, led by Monique L. Van Hoek and Barney M. Bishop, was able to get the zookeepers at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in Florida to obtain four tablespoons of blood from a komodo dragon called Tujah. Tujah’s blood may contain many antibiotics; the researchers are in the process of testing more than 40 other substances from it.

Komodo dragon. Image credits: skeeze.

The researchers created a chemical in the lab that works in the same way as one particular substance found in the komodo dragon’s blood. They named it DRGN-1 — guess why. The substance was created in the lab and is synthetic so luckily it is not necessary to take blood from komodo dragons to get the antibiotic. They tested the new substance on mice that were infected with bacteria or wounded.

Healing quickly

DRGN-1 worked well against bacteria as well as biofilms (microbes that are associated with a surface). Biofilms are usually resistant to antibiotic treatment. In addition, it improved wound healing in both infected and uninfected wounds. The wounds treated with DRGN-1 healed much faster than untreated wounds or wounds treated with another peptide. Not only does it kill bacteria, but it stimulates wound healing cells in the body to speed up healing. It could be useful in wound ointment to help cuts or scrapes heal faster and to kill bacteria.

DRGN-1 could speed up wound healing. Image credits: Andrew Magill.

This new antibiotic is especially important in light of increasing antibacterial resistance. DRGN-1 works because of antimicrobial peptides. They have a lot of potential as an alternative to traditional antibiotics. It could be harder for bacteria to become resistant to them because they act quickly or through complex mechanisms. Amazingly, they work against bacteria, membrane-bound viruses, and fungi. Because of these features, they have a huge potential to treat human infections and other diseases. However, DRGN-1 was only tested on mice so far. It still needs to be tested on humans before it can be produced. Anyhow, this komodo dragon-based medicine could be in use soon.

Journal reference: Chung, M.C.E. 2017. Komodo dragon-inspired synthetic peptide DRGN-1 promotes wound-healing of a mixed biofilm-infected wound, npj Biofilms and Microbiomes.

Increased demand for ‘vaginal seeding’, despite lack of evidence

Doctors are seeing a massive rise in the demands for the so-called vaginal seeding procedure, despite no evidence that this actually helps.

Also called ‘microbirthing’, the process involves taking a swab from the mother’s vagina and rubbing it over the baby’s mouth, eyes, face and skin shortly after a C-section birth. The idea is that exposing the baby to vaginal bacteria would enrich his own gut bacteria, protecting him from developing allergies and obesity in the future.

A newborn infant, seconds after delivery. Amniotic fluid glistens on the child’s skin. Photo by Ernest F.

Initially regarded as nothing more than a quirk, this practice has grown greatly in the past few years, despite professional advice. Dr Aubrey Cunnington from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London says that there is no evidence to support this theory.

“Demand for this process has increased among women attending hospitals in the UK – but this has outstripped professional awareness and guidance. At the moment we’re a long way from having the evidence base to recommend this practice. There is simply no evidence to suggest it has benefits – and it may carry potential risks.”

Furthermore, Cunnington argues that this could even transfer harmful bacteria to the baby via the swab. Of course, in the case of a natural birth the baby would have been exposed to the bacteria anyway, but in the case of a C-section, doctors may not know that vaginal seeding took place. Parents should always let their doctors knew they took the procedure.

“Its important parents tell staff they have performed the procedure, so the healthcare team are aware the baby is at risk of the same infections as a baby born by vaginal delivery,” he says.

Just to clear this out, it may be the case that the practice is actually helpful. Differences in microbiome have proven to be surprisingly important, but we just don’t know if this helps the babies.

“There is now quite a lot of evidence that differences in the microbiome are associated with risk of developing conditions such as allergies and obesity. However people have made a leap of logic that gut bacteria must be the link between caesarean section and risk of these diseases. But we just don’t know this for sure – or whether we can even influence this by transferring bacteria on a swab from mum to baby,” says Dr Cunnington.

Also, it’s not a case of “let’s do it, it can’t hurt” – so there’s no reason to try it just because it might help.

“In some countries, including the UK, we don’t test pregnant women for the bacteria group B streptococcus. This is carried by around one in four pregnant women, and although it poses no risk to the mother it can cause fatal infections in babies. There are also other conditions that cause no symptoms in the mother, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and herpes simplex virus that could be transferred on the swab. One colleague had to intervene when a mother with genital herpes, who had undergone a caesarean section, was about to undertake this process. Swabbing would have potentially transferred the herpes virus to the baby.”

Furthermore, she continues, there are much better ways to ensure the baby’s healthy microbiome.

“Encouraging breast feeding and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics may be more important to a baby’s gut bacteria than worrying about transferring vaginal fluid on a swab.”

Completely useless: Homeopathy no better than placebo, study confirms

While there is a full scientific consensus that homeopathy is a pseudoscience many people still believe in it. As a result, many researchers are still trying to disprove homeopathy and yet another study did just that: it showed that homeopathy is no better than a placebo for 68 different illnesses.

Professor Paul Glasziou, a leading academic in evidence based medicine at Bond University set out to verify 176 trials of homeopathy dealing with 68 different illnesses to see if it actually works or not. The review found “no discernible convincing effects beyond placebo” and concluded “there was no reliable evidence from research in humans that homeopathy was effective for treating the range of health conditions considered”. The results were so convincing that he gave up after 57 systematic reviews: there simply was no evidence of a single case where homeopathy worked.

“As chair of the working party which produced the report I was simply relieved that the arduous journey of sifting and synthesising the evidence was at an end. I had begun the journey with an ‘I don’t know attitude’, curious about whether this unlikely treatment could ever work… but I lost interest after looking at the 57 systematic reviews which contained 176 individual studies and finding no discernible convincing effects beyond placebo.”

Old homeopathic remedy, Hepar sulphide. Photo by Wikidudeman.

Homeopathy is a system to treat people developed in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann based on his doctrine of like cures likeThis is the claim that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people. Homeopathy is often times wrongly presented as science despite heavy evidence that it doesn’t actually do anything. Any positive feelings that follow treatment are simply the placebo effect and normal recovery from illness. Hahnemann believed the underlying causes of disease were phenomena that he termed miasms. Yes, homeopathy is a method developed in the late 18th century that believes diseases are caused by something called miasms – and yet millions of people still believe in its capacity.

Glasziou continues:

“I can well understand why Samuel Hahnemann- the founder of homeopathy- was dissatisfied with the state of 18th century medicine’s practices, such as blood-letting and purging and tried to find a better alternative. But I would guess he would be disappointed by the collective failure of homeopathy to carry on his innovative investigations, but instead continue to pursue a therapeutic dead-end.”

Despite what your personal beliefs and convictions may be, the reality of it is that homeopathy doesn’t work. Hopefully, we can turn this page once and for all and start focusing on treatments that actually have a chance to work.

Acupuncture lessens chronic pain, new study finds

Generally regarded as a pseudoscientific treatment, acupuncture has proven itself quite effective, at least at alleviating pain.

Photo by Xhienne.

Photo by Xhienne.

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine, a key component of traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is commonly used for pain relief, though it is also used for a wide range of other conditions. The practice involves inserting long, thin needles in the patient’s skin in key points. Acupuncture has long been a contested debate, as there is no scientific evidence why it should work.

The conclusions of many trials and numerous systematic reviews of acupuncture are largely inconsistent – and this study will probably cause even more debate.

The evidence suggests that 90% of people who have fibromyalgia (chronic, widespread pain) try some type of alternative medicine; of course, people will go to great lengths to rid themselves of pain. The most common alternatives are massage, hydrotherapy and acupuncture.

The goal of the study was not to assess the general effectiveness of acupuncture, but rather to see if a personalized treatment could be developed. Researchers compared individually tailored acupuncture treatment with sham treatment in 153 adults, all of whom had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. They were randomly assigned to the two groups, both of which included nine weekly sessions, each lasting 20 minutes. Participants continued to take their conventional medicine.

After the treatment, they were asked about their level of pain, depression, and overall health-related quality of life. They were also asked how their condition changed based on the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire, or FIQ for short, at 10 weeks, 6 and 12 months.

“This treatment produced an improvement in the participants’ condition, reflected by a reduction in pain intensity and enhanced functional capacity and quality of life after the intervention and during the follow up period,” they write.

The results after 10 weeks were interesting from the start. Even people who received sham treatment reported a 27% decrease in pain levels, and those subjected to proper acupuncture reported a 41% decrease. The results persisted after a year. Sham acupuncture led to a 6% perceived pain decrease, compared to 20% for the real deal.

The results are encouraging, and developing personalized treatment does seem like the way to go. The results also show that even sham treatments can alleviate pain, probably due to the placebo effect.

“Such an outcome has not been reported by previous studies following the application of standardised treatments: therefore, our results suggest that applying individualised treatment algorithms when starting a course of acupuncture may be important,” they conclude.