Friday, May 15, 2015

America Self-medicating

As the Internet and social media become more widespread and influential, the problem of self-medicating seems to be growing.  The situation can range anywhere from a harmless habit to a waste of money to a dangerous health practice.

As we read scary stories about cancer and look for ways to minimize the risk, many Americans turn to over-the-counter vitamin and mineral supplements, but a new study points out the dangers of believing what we read from uninformed sources or those with a financial incentive.  A meta-analysis done by the University of Colorado reviewed “two decades worth of research -- 12 trials that involved more than 300,000 people -- and found a number of supplements actually made a person much more likely to develop certain types of cancer.” These are not rare and unusual supplements but common ones like high doses of beta carotene, selenium, vitamin E and folic acid.

In addition WebMD warns, “many supplements may interfere with your cancer treatment, so never take anything without discussing it with your cancer doctor and treatment team.”  They go on to recommend antioxidants including “vitamins A, C, and E, and selenium!  A 2010 article from ConsumerReports lists 12 dangerous supplements and also contains a table of possible side effects of some of the more common ones.  You also may be getting more than you expected from these supplements.  “In the past two years, according to the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers have voluntarily recalled more than 80 bodybuilding supplements that contained synthetic steroids or steroid-like substances, 50 sexual-enhancement products that contained sildenafil (Viagra) or other erectile-dysfunction drugs, and 40 weight-loss supplements containing sibutramine (Meridia) and other drugs.”

As we try to rationally absorb all of this information about the dangers, articles like this one from Britain appear, telling us that a “groundbreaking two-year study discovered a combination of B vitamins and omega-3 found in oily fish prevented brain shrinkage, a hallmark of the devastating condition that develops in 550 people a day in the UK.”  Then this other website tells about five super vitamins to help fight dementia.  This list includes vitamin E and folic acid (see above).

What do people end up doing?  It appears from the fact that almost half the population takes at least one of over 65,000 supplements on the market, that they self-diagnose and self-medicate.  Encouraged by people likeDr. Oz, they constantly look forward to the next miracle product and volunteer to become their own laboratory mouse or guinea pig.  As one woman told me, “I don’t care what they say, I think my gluten-free diet makes me feel better.”  How much of this is placebo or wishful thinking?  No one knows.

This love affair with supplements and other alternative treatments is science rejected in the name of a new religion – isn't religion the belief in the absence of proof? – while deniers are ignored or reviled and sometimes treated like heretics.  Such faith-based, rather than fact-based, decision making can only be interpreted as a religion.

This would not be a problem if it were not for two things.  First, behavior has consequences - some to this stuff is just a waste of money, but some is really dangerous.  Second, the fanaticism of this new faith tends to drive out, or at least overshadow real medical science with the promise of real cures.  

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