• "The world is flat. If some is good, more is better. Natural is safe."
  • Famous examples of misguided logic
    Part three of a five part series
  • By Herbert Webb, MD
  • Dr. Herbert Webb is a pulmonologist in private practice in San Pedro, CA, and an illustrious graduate of the program at Harbor-UCLA. He is Medical Director of the San Pedro Hospital Pulmonary Medicine Department and their Pulmonary Rehabilitation program. He wrote this article for their Better Breathers' Club newsletter. With their gracious permission, we share it with you.
  • Let me start by saying that I am definitely not an expert on herbals. My perspective is that of a skeptical, professional, conservative, mainstream pulmonary physician, and my watchwords are "Prove it to me that it is safe and effective before I put it into my body or recommend it for you." I approach this task hoping to accommodate an attitude that herbals can be complimentary rather than an alternative to conventional medications.
  • We know both Western-type drugs and herbal medications exert chemical effects on the body, some therapeutic, some potentially dangerous. We also know that lots of people out there are medicating themselves with herbal remedies, probably more than will admit it to their doctors, lest they be given "that look". Most of my patients dislike taking medications, so given that both Eastern herbals and Western pharmaceuticals are indeed drugs, why are people so eager to take herbals and megavitamins?
  • In part one, I discussed a couple of ideas. First, the idea of dosing yourself with an easy to obtain and easy to take pill is appealing. We Americans have a strong urge for self-control and controlling our own destiny. No doctors, long waits in waiting rooms, pharmacies, etc. ---just straight to the health food store. Also, the emphasis on prevention in a pill is enticing, especially when the alternative takes effort, requires a diet, exercise or stress reduction. For others, "old is good" --- it was good enough for Grandma, so it's good enough for me!
  • I think it's fair to assume that patients who treat themselves with herbal medications are hoping to relieve a specific condition, lengthen their lives, and improve their quality of life. The eagerness to try new herbal drugs probably comes from the fallacy that "natural is safe". Of course, there isn't any more reason to think that natural is safe than that "synthetic is not safe", but it's funny how enticing that "natural" label can be.
  • THE BETA CAROTENE FIASCO
  • Here are a couple examples of applying misguided logic to medical issues. First comes the beta carotene fiasco of the late 1980's and early 1990's. A widely publicized study was based on surveys showing that people with high dietary intake of bioflavinoids (found in leafy greens, orange, red and yellow fruits and vegetables) lived better and longer, so the concept was that antioxidants protected us from cancer and heart disease. Great news! Beta carotene is a bioflavinoid. And so, the logic leap was made. Certainly taking a lot of beta carotene would be helpful. Well, the supplements industry just happened to have huge manufacturing capabilities for this one agent, and the medical profession went right along and widely recommended beta carotene.
  • In 1996, a large double-blind intervention study revealed no effect on cardiac disease or malignancy. This was surprising, so a second placebo controlled study in Finnish smokers was undertaken, with even more disturbing results. The Finnish study showed beta carotene increased the incidence of lung cancer by 18%. A third double-blind study in smokers re-confirmed the lung cancer increase, as well as increased cardiac death and increased mortality compared to placebo.
  • The current unsurprising recommendation is that nobody should take supplementary beta carotene. What happened? Beta carotene is one of about 600 bioflavinoids in our diets. It was a crude oversimplification by the medical profession to assume that taking one of these bioflavinoids in large amounts would be as beneficial as a balanced healthy diet high in antioxidants.
  • "IF A LITTLE BIT IS GOOD, A LOT IS BETTER."
  • (Wrong!!)
  • Here's another misguided logic leap, the Vitamin A issue. Vitamin A is an essential vitamin found in highly pigmented vegetables. Vitamins A, D and E are fat soluble vitamins, so they can be stored in your tissues if taken in excess. Excesses of water soluble vitamins, like Vitamin C and B, are simply urinated out of the body. In any case, in underdeveloped countries, Vitamin A deficiency leads to blindness. On the other hand, hypervitaminosis A (too much Vitamin A), which is induced by more than 50,000 U per day for 3 months, causes mouth sores, dry scaly skin, hair loss, increased brain pressure, lethargy and death by liver toxicity.
  • Similarly, great excesses of fat-soluble Vitamin D can cause kidney failure and death. Even excessive iron intake is dangerous. Vitamin B6 in just slightly more than recommended amounts can cause peripheral sensory neuropathy --- this means that hands and feet become numb and don't function well.
  • Thanks Dr. Webb! We look forward to Part 4. Positive Study Results on Herbal Drugs, and Separating Objective from Anecdotal Evidence, next month.
  • We hope that you liked this article as much as we did. Part 4 will be in next month's Second Wind.

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