Miguel Granja Espirito Santo -Does it work, or does it not? What to look for when considering ‘alternative’ therapies.

blogpicbrainTypically, my point of view on the matter of alternative medicine or treatments, is pretty simple. If it has a prefix before medicine, it is not medicine. Medicine, is a science, and as a science it should be susceptible to intense scrutiny and review, open to change, and open for criticism. Many of the prefixed ‘Medicines’ do not pass this standard.

Many people with mental health issues are looking for new treatments, therapies or drugs, and during this search may come across things like hemp oil, colour therapy, aromatherapy, acupuncture and magnetotherapy (not to be confused with magnetic stimulation).

Sadly, not everyone has had the benefit of learning about empiricism, control groups, and placebo effects; nor is everyone aware of pseudo-science ‘wooisms’ that are aimed at tricking you into thinking that it is scientific.

So, when considering some form of alternative treatment ask yourself, and/or the other person trying to sell it to you (yes, they will try to sell it to you) these things:

1:  Ask how it works

This is probably the best question. Ask how it works, and if you get an arm-wavy, exoteric, angelic answer, it is probably something you should avoid. Also be aware of the ‘bait and switch’, where something may work for one tiny aspect, and practitioners will try to extended to everything. One interesting example is Yoga. Many practitioners make claim about the benefits for mind and body, and suggest that doing specific routines can heal your anxiety, or cure your depression.  However, any of the benefits that people have from doing yoga are exercise related and not yoga specific. This rose in a field of daisies  effect can also be seen in media coverage surrounding the Medicine Nobel Prize in 2015, where Artemisinin a traditional Chinese Medicine, was scientifically tested and found to be an effective anti-malaria compound. Despite the original compound being marketed quite differently and not originally considered to have anti-malarial properties, the finding of some effectiveness gave way to a barrage of vindication articles about alternative medicine.

Here’s a list of ‘alternative’ therapies and how they work. Notice that many of the explanations given are either based on some esoteric, mystical explanation, or on pseudo-science that defies logic:

  • Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever. You fight the illness with a diluted version of a substance that can cause your ailment. This is because water retains ‘shape memory’ of previous substances that were diluted in it will act as some form of inoculation. By this logic, we are all drinking poop water.
  • Reiki: Literal arm waving above someone’s body whereby you transfer some form of energy (or remove it?) and you cure someone of their pain or condition.
  • Angelic Reiki: as above, but angels power you up, like a videogame bonus.
  • Aromatherapy: smelling certain smells will treat specific things, and make you feel better.
  • Colour therapy: as above but with colours, possibly auras have something to do with this too, the website is not very clear. You can also buy a colour making machine for a reasonable price at the end of the page.
  • Acupuncture:  So this one is a controversial issue, because there are some good studies that show that it may work for back pain. However, there are no biological mechanisms offered to explain the effects and the studies are rarely double blind. But the original explanation for this treatment is that all sorts of pain, psychological or physical, lead to Qi blockages (life force -you know what it is if you ever watched any Japanese Anime). By placing needles in these specific blockages you break them down and restore the life force flow, thereby feeling better.

2: Are the [insert treatment/therapy] results’ published in any reputable medical/psychological journal?

Many times alternative therapies only refer to old books, or in-house conducted studies. This is highly dubious because they are not peer-reviewed. Peer review is, perhaps, the most important ‘bullshit’ detector that there is in science; if the study or idea does not hold up to the scrutiny of academic peers then it is no good. Peer-review usually works by having experts in the field carefully read the contents of a report and identify any flaws in the experimental design, statistics and interpretation of results. The author will receive numerous comments on their manuscript to which they have to answer to the satisfaction of the reviewers.  This creates an exchange between the author and reviewers which aims to raise the scientific quality of the report. The author of said report may disagree with the comments of the reviewer and reply with added evidence in the manuscript. Or, they could simply just directly address the reviewer’s concerns by doing an extra experiment, or doing the data analysis a different way. A little caveat to this is, if you send a study about colour therapy to Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the peers reviewing it may have a vested interest in publishing the report, even if it does not survive the highest scientific standards. Therefore, extra care should be taken when reading about the results and interpretations.

3: Is the study for the [insert treatment/therapy] double blinded?

This is important! Having a controlled, double blind study, where both the researcher and/or subject are unaware of the experimental condition, is the gold standard of good science. If you cannot find research for the treatment, or the ‘expert’ cannot answer it is probably best just to ‘#forgetaboutit’.

An excellent example of the importance of the double blind design was highlighted in a study [1] published in the journal Nature. In this study it was found that white blood cells release histamine (which is very important for the immune system) when exposed to a very diluted solution of specific antibodies (1X10129 dilution factor, which technically it is not a solution because at this factor there would be no actual molecules of compound left ). This release was observed via microscopy and with staining techniques which change the colour of the cells, and allowed researchers to count those which had reacted to the solution. Sir John Maddox, then editor of the journal, published this article on the condition that Dr. Jacques Benveniste, open their lab for a close examination and allowed the study to be replicated [2]. Part of the team, and surprising everyone, was James Randi a professional magician, and master of all tricks, who was invited to detect any subterfuge. The team sent by Maddox accurately pointed out that, when counting the number of blood cells that supposedly reacted to the homeopathic solution, the experimenters were not appropriately blind to which condition they were counting for [2,3]. In the end of the counting, when they saw that the control group did not have an appropriate count, the experimenter thought ‘this is not right’ and would recount. This lead to an obvious experimental bias where the results that fit with the experimenters’ expectations were more likely to be accepted. Having found this, the investigating team asked the experimenters to repeat the study, using a stricter blind procedure:

One person codes the samples, these are given to another who is unaware of the initial coding and re-codes them again, then another experimenter does the counting.

The above procedure was the one mentioned in the study, but typically one person codes the samples or conditions, and gives to another experimenter who does not know code and s/he does the analysis. After repeating the statistics, no significant differences were found between blood cells which has been exposed to homeopathic solutions and those which had not.  This highlights the importance of the double blind procedure. Human brains are easily tricked into bias, and perceiving  patterns where they do not exist, therefore make sure you look for the double blind design.

Deciphering the science based treatments from those which are not can be tricky, particularly with the continuous arrival of new alternative therapies. However, these 3 questions are probably sufficient for you to start developing your own bullshit detector, and focus on those treatments that actually improve your well-being.

Miguel is a PhD student in Cognitive Neuroscience, and currently is working on Brain responses to body abnormalities. lpxmg4@nottingham.ac.uk

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

References: 

[1] Davenas, E., Beauvais, F., Amara, J., Oberbaum, M., Robinzon, B., Miadonnai, A., … & Sainte-Laudy, J. (1988). Human basophil degranulation triggered by very dilute antiserum against IgE. Nature, 333(6176), 816-818.

[2] Maddox, J. (1988). Waves caused by extreme dilution. Nature, 335, 760-763.

[3]Maddox, J., Randi, J., & Stewart, W. W. (1988). ” High-dilution” experiments a delusion. Nature, 334, 287-290.

 

 

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

3 responses to “Miguel Granja Espirito Santo -Does it work, or does it not? What to look for when considering ‘alternative’ therapies.

  1. In spite of every clinical trial within the worthy medical space, there is not one shred of scientific evidence to link mental distress / difference to any bio/chemical marker.

    Medical treatments serve most willingly in their efficacy to profit Big Pharma and the globalized neo-liberal frame that is both mighty and monstrous in its drive to rob us of any insight into the socio-politico-economic causes of human distress and to degrade the beautiful capacity of the human spirit and physicality to heal themselves naturally and through chosen pathways

    I am wholly open to the important contribution that the neuro-sciences are making to new understandings of the human brain and to our knowledge of its relationship to our mental spiritual and emotional well-being

    Human knowledge is a wonderful resource and I an constantly excited and humbled by its breadth and its diversity and by the ability of people and societies to develop their own understandings, hypotheses and resolutions as an intrinsic component of their personal lived experience.

    All human knowledge requires some respect and consideration, even if we fail to grasp its significance at points along our individual learning journeys

    Thank you Miguel for your thoughts and for your commitment to your work. With open heart and mind, may you continue to learn …

    In kindness

    Dr Julie Gosling

    OPEN FUTURES IRG Lead

    PS: Knowledge Tip Of The Day

    You might like to find out about the early work of the Black Panther occupation of the Lincoln Recovery Centre in the Bronx, where Black activists assisted their communities to liberate themselves from methadone dependency by the use of Reiki and holistic healing. Clear insight here into well-being as a political issue and a hint at why the Black Panther movement was considered subversive by the FBI who engineered to reframe them as ‘terrorists.’ Also helpful I think to understand and move from a rigid colonial understanding of health to a global vision encompassing of wider indigenous wisdoms.

    More knowledge tips available from Making Waves Lived Experience Network!

    • Miguel G. E. Santo

      Dear Julie,
      Thank you for taking your time to read my post and write your reply. However, I will argue the points that you have made within the context of the post I made.

      ‘In spite of every clinical trial within the worthy medical space, there is not one shred of scientific evidence to link mental distress / difference to any bio/chemical marker.’
      Very bold statement, care to reference few pieces of work on this? Also, if this is true it is very good research venue.

      ‘Medical treatments serve most willingly in their efficacy to profit Big Pharma and the globalized neo-liberal frame…’
      The same can be said of holistic, alternative medicine and naturopaths health centres.

      ‘…that is both mighty and monstrous in its drive to rob us of any insight into the socio-politico-economic causes of human distress…’
      ‘Big Pharma’, may have their downsides, but if Big Pharma is the cause of socio-politico-economic causes of human distress, we would be better off 100 years ago, when Big Pharma didn’t exist, than right now.

      ‘…and to degrade the beautiful capacity of the human spirit and physicality to heal themselves naturally and through chosen pathways.’
      I don’t understand this comment, and it can be interpreted many ways.

      ‘I am wholly open to the important contribution that the neuro-sciences are making to new understandings of the human brain and to our knowledge of its relationship to our mental spiritual and emotional well-being.’
      Yay, me too. But I don’t really know what is the difference between spiritual and emotional well-being, can you expand on this topic?

      ‘Human knowledge is a wonderful resource and I an constantly excited and humbled by its breadth and its diversity and by the ability of people and societies to develop their own understandings, hypotheses and resolutions as an intrinsic component of their personal lived experience.’
      Sorry, this is going to be harsh because I feel really strongly about it. This is probably on of the biggest problems in society, and it demonstrates a huge lack in understanding of how science works. Personal experience means nothing until you scientifically prove that it’s worth something. Many personal insights have created great advancements, but all them use them empiricism to demonstrate that it works and how it works. A well known case is that of penicillin. Several physicians provided several personal accounts that it had anti-bacterial properties, but it wasn’t until Fleming and other scientists after him that showed how and why it works, and its’ biological mechanism.
      In the question number 3, I used a very well known example where personal experience infected the scientific method, and gave light to results that created all the homeopathy non-sense that followed.

      ‘All human knowledge requires some respect and consideration, even if we fail to grasp its significance at points along our individual learning journeys’
      No, knowledge does not reserve respect, nor consideration. What it matters is that it survives scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, to demonstrate this point, I can just re-write your sentence like this:
      ‘All [Nazism, eugenics, fascism, racism, or as you refer ‘’the globalized neo-liberal frame’’] requires some respect and consideration, even if we fail to grasp its significance at points along our individual learning journeys’
      Is this still an ok sentence?

      ‘Thank you Miguel for your thoughts and for your commitment to your work. With open heart and mind, may you continue to learn …’
      Thank you for your wishes. I am always open to learn, and open minded to new and different ideas.

      Kind Regards,
      Miguel

  2. IMH blog disclaimer:

    The blog is committed to publishing a diverse range of posts and invites open discussion. All comments are readers and bloggers own views and not directly affiliated with the IMH.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s