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Category Archives: Natural Family Living

This is why we get angry

A self-styled “holistic healer” injures several and nearly kills one with arsenic-loaded remedies.  (To be fair, the remedies were indeed all-natural.)

A homeopath and his wife allow their infant to die a slow and tortuous death of infection due to severe eczema, because they believe homeopathy will cure her, despite repeated warnings from doctors.

A woman eschews medical treatment for her breast cancer, opting for The Secret and a quack’s ideas about acidity causing disease.  She dies.

Lots of people believe that alternative treatments will extend their lives or even eliminate their cancer, and some of them give up entirely on conventional medicine.  It’s one thing to decide that the cost of chemo is too high and make an informed choice to live as well as possible.  It’s quite another to rely on alternative treatment to save you, then die anyway.

People go to a chiropractor to get pain relief, but may wind up with a fatal stroke,

Or the chiropractor might tell the person to stop taking her medication for epileptic seizures, resulting in her death.

People take “dietary supplements,” which are practically unregulated by the FDA, and wind up dying, or if they’re lucky, just going into liver failure.

This isn’t to say that conventional medicine is risk-free.  But typically there is a good chance a remedy will actually do something beneficial that will balance out the risk.  With alternative remedies, usually the most you get is placebo effect.  Sure, regular medical practice is not always actually evidence-based, but at least that is the goal.  With alternative practices, there are no standards whatsoever, and perhaps more importantly, there is no mechanism for improvement.  There can’t be when proponents take a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach that rationalizes every failure and lauds every apparent success.

For more examples of the dangers of woo belief, see Whatstheharm.net.

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Quick and Easy Guide to Spotting Altmed Bunk

(Another busy day today!  I look at it as an opportunity to recycle – an oldie but a goodie.)

Immersed in the world of breastfeeding and attachment parenting as I am, I am unfortunately bombarded with loads of alternative medicine hogwash. As I dutifully (and usually futilely) research and dissect the latest advice from someone’s naturopath, or the information they got from their chiropractor, I have noticed certain signs that will cause my bullshit meter to bury the needle. What follows isn’t a detailed discussion of why altmed practices are unscientific, or how to decide if a research study is reliable, or a treatise on the philosophy of science. It’s just a quick and dirty list of features that anti-scientific quackery tends to share.

1. Most of the hits on Google are sites that promote or sell the product in question. Typical site names are phlebotinum.com, phlebotinum-advisory-group.net, drlaceyunderall.net, yournaturalhealth.com, and so on. Many strive to look like health information sites, but if they have only good things to say, and an easy link to purchase the product, you can bet it’s just a commercial site shilling. If you get a high proportion of hits like Webmd, Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, and maybe stuff like CNN or ABC stories, it has a much greater chance of being a real thing.

2. The remedy is promoted as a solution for vague and ubiquitous maladies. Usual suspects are fatigue, insomnia, body aches, headache, mood problems, low sex drive, weight gain, nausea, and constipation. Now these can be real symptoms of real problems. But when you see a product promoted as solving a long laundry list of these issues, it’s time to raise an eyebrow. These symptoms are typically experienced by most people at least some of the time, especially in a culture plagued by poor diet, low rates of exercise, too little sleep, social isolation, and chronic stress.

Most of these symptoms are self-limiting, or can be alleviated by lifestyle change. But most people don’t relish a prescription of “eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and get 8 hours of sleep a night.” Lifestyle changes are difficult to initiate, harder to maintain, and are frankly a total drag. But give us a pill, a cream, or someone waving their hands over us once a week, and we perk right up – seems easy!

3. Self-diagnosis is encouraged. Whether it’s checking off the laundry list of vague symptoms, or buying a test kit you can do at home, do-it-yourself is the name of the game for quacks. And if you did get tests at the doctor’s office, they encourage re-interpretation. Doctor says your thyroid levels are fine? Well check your number against this web site’s “more accurate” scale. Doctor says your hormone levels are healthy? Take a saliva test to find out more!

4. Remedy is promoted by an actress of fading fame. E.g., Jenny McCarthy and Suzanne Somers.

5. Proponents laud how natural the remedy is, and decry the toxins in the environment and/or conventional medicines. Arsenic is as natural as it gets – it’s an element! Hemlock is a plant (make sure you get organically grown). Meanwhile insulin for diabetics is synthetic. Using “natural” as a synonym for “good” doesn’t make sense. (Also look for the keyword “allopathic” to describe conventional medicine.)

6. Relies on testimonials, anecdotal evidence, appeals to authority. Approaches that work don’t need this type of weak support, because they have strong scientific evidence – the kind that attempts to sweep away all the human foibles that can prevent us from seeing what’s really happening, and determine if an intervention has a real effect.

7. Provides citations as though they refer to peer-reviewed scientific journals, but the cited material is actually a book, presentation, or web site of an individual proponent of the remedy. It doesn’t matter how many letters are after your name – just because you say it doesn’t make it reliable. Publication in a respected journal indicates your claims have been examined and probed for mistakes and found robust. Publication on a website means you successfully Googled GoDaddy.

8. Users respond to skeptical inquiry and questioning of the evidence by saying, “I KNOW this works – it worked for me.” When the people trying to sell you on something have no clue about placebo effect, confirmation bias, coincidence, self-limiting conditions, and general methods for removing human perceptual bias, you can dismiss pretty much everything they say.

9. Praises or demonizes according to fad. Acai berries are magically delicious, but VDTs, power lines, electrical transformers, cell phones, Wifi is evil.

10. Invokes the Pentaverate. Promoters wave away criticism as the result of wide-reaching conspiracies involving doctors, pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, and other entities.

11. The remedy is said to have no possible side effects or risks. Generally if something can have an effect, it can have a side effect. If it can change your body in some way, that change might turn out badly for you. Even such benign and universally prescribed practices as exercise and high fiber diets have risks and side effects.

12. Oprah.

Always . . . no . . . never forget to check your references.

Might not have time for a proper post today, but here is a story about some very cool crowd-sourced skepticism.  A group of skeptical refugees from Mothering.com’s forums thought Naomi Aldort,  a Mothering “expert” sounded like a jackass.  She styled herself a psychologist with a PhD, but the advice she gave seemed awful, and more geared to pulling in new phone consultation clients than anything else.  This group of forumites wondered where on Earth she would have gotten a doctorate in psychology, and asked her about it on the Mothering forum.  From there, the story started crumbling into one ad hoc excuse after another, as the skeptics did research on Aldort’s claims.  The story is long, but really interesting – I particularly love that this was a lot of work done by women just for the sake of finding the truth, not as part of their jobs or for profit.  Skepticism and debunking as a group hobby – love it!

(Oh, and I will give a cybertrophy to the first person to ID where I got my post title.)

Scene from an Acupunturist’s Office

Patient: So, I’ve never done this before. Can you tell me how this goes?

Acupuncturist: Well, first I clear an hour for your appointment. We spend a lot of time sitting and discussing your problems, your life, and what you’re looking for in treatment. I try not to talk too much, but just to listen to you.

Then I have you get comfortable and completely relaxed in our treatment room. It is decorated in a serene theme, and has scented candles and soft, tranquil music. You lie down on our padded table and close your eyes.

In my practice, I focus on respecting you as a complete person. I don’t treat you like a broken machine with one part that needs fixing; rather, I concentrate on supporting your total wellness, including mental and emotional health.

I provide caring, supportive human touch in a professional context that is all about you and what feels good for your body.

Oh, and I also stick needles in you.

Patient: Maybe we could just skip that last part?

What is Crunchy?

jekandsuch asks a valid question – what the heck am I talking about when I say “crunchy?”  I think the term comes from the texture of granola, the stereotypical food of hippie types.  When I use it, I’m referring to people who might describe themselves as “crunchy” or “granola,” or who may say they embrace “natural family living.”  There’s no official checklist, but here are some practices common in the crunchy parenting world:

  • Natural childbirth and/or home birth
  • No infant circumcision
  • Breastfeeding according to WHO recommendations and using baby-led weaning
  • Baby-led solids
  • Cloth diapering
  • Reusable menstrual products
  • Fertility Awareness Method for birth control and conception
  • Co-sleeping (bed sharing)
  • Baby wearing (slings etc.)
  • Buying organic and local foods
  • Vegetarianism/Veganism
  • Rejection of “Western medicine” in favor of homeopathy, herbs, naturopathy, chiropractic, etc.
  • Not vaccinating or using an alternative vaccination schedule
  • Homeschooling
  • Gentle Discipline

I consider myself “semi-crunchy.”  Some of my crunchy choices were evidence-driven, some are matters of personal preference.  Some were the result of believing misinformation or getting psyched up about a great philosophy, before finding that applying it in the real world didn’t work for me.  But yes, I gave birth naturally in a free-standing birth center, I’m against infant circumcision, I breastfed exclusively to 6 months and for several years thereafter, cloth diapered, used FAM, wore my babies, and vaccinated my second child on a modified schedule for a while.  I’m currently exploring various discipline and parenting styles, some of which are very “Gentle Discipline” style and some of which are not terribly favored in those circles.

As you can see, many crunchies include both personal-preference or evidence-based practices as well as woo-driven and “alt-med” choices.  It’s frustrating to be a skeptic in these circles, because people tend to assume if you’ve breastfed a 4 year old, you’re on board with homeopathy and chiropractic.  And that frustration is a big driving force behind this blog!

Natural skin care – full of irritants!

The crunchy set tends to eschew mainstream beauty products, often because they have scary-sounding chemicals in them.  And sometimes the chemicals are genuinely of concern.  I remember when scientists first found that phthalates might act as hormone disruptors in the human body.  Even though this was an extrapolation based on animal exposure and high levels, I decided to avoid scented products as much as possible while I was pregnant and nursing, because they could include phthalates without having them listed in the ingredients.  Maybe it was an abundance of caution, but it didn’t cost me much to simply buy unscented hand lotion and refrain from wearing perfume for a while.

There can also be ethical concerns, from animal cruelty to how manufacturing affects the environment, that motivate people to choose natural products over the basic drugstore and department store brands.

But sometimes people choose natural products over mainstream ones for totally bogus reasons, and often the natural product will have more dangerous ingredients likely to cause a reaction.

Perhaps the biggest offender is peppermint oil.  It’s extremely popular in lip products, presumably because we like the breath-freshening potential.  It also pops up in many products meant for oily, acne-prone skin, along with its cohorts eucalyptus, menthol, and camphor.  I can only assume it’s used because it has such a strong psychological connection with freshness.  In reality, peppermint and similar oils are very irritating to skin, and irritation is a big contributor to acne!

Check out this Beautypedia review of Aubrey Organics Natural Herbal Facial Cleanser for Oily Skin:

Claims: Keep your complexion fresh and clean and give your face a lift with this hardworking cleanser ideal for oily or blemish-prone skin.

Review: Natural Herbal Facial Cleanser, for Oily Skin is painful to even write about! This very irritating cleanser exposes skin to soap, witch hazel, alcohol, eucalyptus, camphor, and menthol, among other problematic ingredients. Ouch!

Lemon and other citrus oils are another popular, yet counterproductive addition to many natural products.  They smell wonderful, sure.  And this is another ingredient that has connotations of freshness and being squeaky clean.  But citrus oils are phototoxic and can cause a sunburn-like reaction when they are exposed to light.

On the flip side, most natural living resources decry mineral oil as a toxic, synthetic derivative of petrochemical refining.  Depending on the prevailing fad, they promote plant oils like jojoba, almond, olive, and avocado oils, or the most recent darling, coconut oil.  Now these plant oils can be just fine and do very good things for the skin, but mineral oil has actually been shown to be one of the mildest, most effective moisturizing ingredients, and the least likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reaction.

People just can’t seem to get past the idea that it comes from petroleum.  (And I suppose it’s arguable that there are ethical objections to using petroleum-based products, but I seriously doubt purchase of Revlon lipstick would drive global oil drilling if we weren’t fueling our cars with gasoline.  Mineral oil is a useful byproduct of gas production.)  Witness this rationalization from Green Living Q&A when someone brings up the above-referenced information from cosmeticscop:

There are many more health effects associated with mineral oil, but my reason for not using it personally is that it is a refined petrochemical, it may have unknown toxic contaminants, it is incompatible with my body and the environment, and there are natural alternatives. A nut oil, for example, is simply pressed from the nut. Though separated from the nut meat, it is still in the form in which it exists in nature.

Yes, surely there is less danger of bad reactions if we use nut oils.  No one is allergic to nuts!

When people make decisions based only on such fuzzy ideas as what’s “natural” and what isn’t, it can lead to some really perverse results.  Someone desperate to avoid mineral oil due to speculation that it might contain toxins may enthusiastically embrace a product that will cause chemical burns to their skin if they wear it outdoors.  A shopper who wants to clear up her skin without exposing herself to the evils of sodium laureth sulfate (which is actually a mild cleanser, unlike the similarly-named sodium lauryl sulfate), may scrub with a minty-smelling natural cleanser that winds up irritating her skin, thus increasing oil production and blemishes.

The best thing you can do is investigate the ingredients in a product and determine if they are likely to cause you a problem.  As you may have gathered from my linkage in this post, I’ve found Paula Begoun to be an excellent resource for uncovering the bunk that abounds both in mainstream and crunchy cosmetics.  But even perusing Wikipedia to research ingredients of concern can be helpful.  What isn’t helpful is relying on labels that say “Natural!”