When I started this column nearly three years ago, I believed I would find enough controversial alternative treatments and questionable dietary supplements to keep me happily occupied for 30 or 40 weeks. I was fully expecting to add in health-care topics from the news, descriptions of the most entertaining diseases, and other desperate miscellany fit to fill this space. To my complete surprise, before even coming close to exhausting alternative medicine's supply of kooky, the kooky has exhausted me—this will be the last of "The Antidote." But before I leave my tiny, bald-headed photo to yellow and crack, I'm obliged to repeat what has become my not-so-subtle refrain: When you hear extraordinary claims, you should demand extraordinary proof.
Whether promoting dubious supplements (like shark cartilage), quasi-diagnostic procedures (like reflexology) or borderline treatments (like detoxifying foot baths), a common marketing ploy is to misrepresent the evidence—should any exist. By my measure, most purveyors in these categories have little desire to know the truth of what they offer. The real difference between the fringes of medicine and medicine itself is that the latter requires proof. Those who seek the truth base their opinion on peer-reviewed, controlled clinical trials because they understand that even good researchers can be misled by their own pre-conceived ideas.
Yet the most careful of us, myself included, can be fooled into giving credit where none is due. Because most common ailments are self-limiting, they run a natural course that ends relatively quickly. Even chronic or incurable diseases have good days and bad days. A quirk of human behavior finds us often waiting until symptoms are the most severe before we look to a cure—generally at the bottom of the health-sickness-health cycle. And when we feel better, the glory is given to the remedy. This often results in a sincere and honest—yet misguided—testimonial that ultimately draws another group toward the panacea.
Which brings me to Airborne. I wrote about this fizzy vitamin tablet in late 2005 and, in a case of perfect timing (for me, anyway), the company recently agreed to a $23 million settlement for falsely advertising their product could cure or prevent the common cold. Despite having virtually no data to support their claims, the makers of Airborne made well over $100 million based on nothing more than testimonials and word of mouth. There is probably no better example of selective perception or confirmation bias: The completely normal psychological behavior in which information that supports a belief is recalled, while any that contradicts it is ignored or discounted. For example, you note that you took Airborne before your plane flight and didn't get sick, yet you forget the dozens of prior trips that ended with you equally sound. And if you took Airborne and still got sick, you might say to yourself, "I guess I didn't take it early enough" or "I knew I should've taken more."
Confirmation bias, misperceived coincidences and the well-known placebo effect are all part of a system by which many therapies appear to work—and in some cases, actually do. Therein lies my ethical dilemma: Have these 100 columns of myth-busting destroyed the actual benefits that some have enjoyed? Are these self-deceptions ever warranted? I've wrestled with these questions since beginning "The Antidote" and I am still not certain of the answer. I am sure, however, that today we have a choice to know the truth of a supplement or therapy. In my opinion, those who choose to seek reality are destined to be healthier, wiser and, in most cases, left with significantly more in their wallets.
Enjoying health freedom, as we do in this country, has a cost. The price is allowing nearly unregulated promotion of any new remedy, so long as no overt claim of preventing or treating disease is made. Though marketers may call something "natural," that doesn't mean it's also safe and effective—the fluid expressed from the anal gland of my cat is all natural, organic and has no additives or preservatives, but I still wouldn't put it in my smoothie. Likewise, I encourage you to see past nonsense verbs like "balances," "stimulates" or "supports," and especially approach anything that claims to "detoxify" with suspicion. Most of the time, these words cover the fact that no credible evidence exists to back their statements.
Rather than end on a preachy note—especially after I've trained you to expect bitchy—I'll simply leave you with this: The likelihood that the true cure for all disease will be sold by your hairstylist, massage therapist or brother-in-law is only slightly higher than the odds of convincing me to sell it.