Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: complementary and alternative medicine

A stem cell booster from the supplements world: too good to be true?

April 9, 2010 |  5:29 pm

Impressed with how well your (insert any nutritional supplement here) supports your metabolic function, your bone, brain, breast or prostate health, your energy level? The Journal of Translational Medicine -- an open-access publication of the respected British medical publisher BioMedCentral -- this week carries a study involving a natural-products concoction that might kick your nutritional supplement's butt. The study suggests that a product containing a fermented combination of green tea, astralagus, goji berry extracts and the kinds of live cultures found in yogurt significantly boosted circulating levels of the kinds of reparative stem cells produced by bone marrow.

Those stem cells play a key role in the body's effort to heal itself in the wake of tissue injury. But cancer doctors have known for decades they can also be mobilized and harvested, and used to rebuild the immune system of a patient who's undergone aggressive chemo and/or radiation therapy. To do that, either the patient herself or a matched stem-cell donor must undergo a course of medication -- "stimulating factor" -- to increase production of those hematopoietic stem cells and send them out into the bloodstream, where they can be captured.

But that medication is very costly, and its use over time can increase a person's risk of blood clots. Perhaps a cocktail of cheap ingredients found in plants and everyday foods could do the same thing more cheaply and safely? This study suggests there may be at least one that can.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study demonstrating profound mobilization effect with possible clinical significance by a food supplement-based approach," the authors wrote, after demonstrating that 14 days of supplementation with Stem-Kine, by several measures, increased production of hematopoietic stem cells and their appearance in the bloodstream of subjects. 

Too good to be true, as so many accounts of nutritional supplements are? It surely does not inspire confidence that the study was supported in part with a grant from the maker of the supplement, and that the lead author, who designed the experiment, interpreted data and prepared the manuscript, is a shareholder of the company that makes the stuff.

It also doesn't help that the authors acknowledge that "the mechanism" of this mobilization of stem cells "remains unknown" -- or that they don't openly wonder which of this busy cocktail's many ingredients might be active in affecting that mobilization.

But publication by BioMedCentral does confer some respectability on this study. So does the final line of the study: After suggesting that the nutritional supplement-stem cell link might "offer significant benefit in treatment of a wide variety of degenerative diseases," the authors write this: "Given commercial pressures associated with this largely unregulated field, we propose detailed scientific investigations must be made before disease-associated claims are made by the scientific community." 

-- Melissa Healy  

Future doctors support integrated therapies

January 20, 2010 |  7:41 am

Acupuncture It has taken a long time for complementary and alternative medical practices to gain acceptance in traditional Western medicine. But future doctors appear to be much more open to CAM therapies.

A national survey of medical students published today shows three-quarters of the students think conventional Western medicine would benefit by integrating more CAM therapies. CAM includes such treatments as massage, herbal medicine, yoga, acupuncture and meditation and encourages a mind-body approach to healing and prevention of illness. The survey was performed by researchers at UCLA and UC San Diego. They gathered 1,770 surveys from students at 126 medical schools throughout the country.

The survey also found some hesitation, however. Few students said they would recommend or use these treatments in their practice until more scientific evidence is gathered.

"Our research suggests that persuading doctors to integrate CAM will require investment in the types of clinical research that form the backbone of Western medicine," said study author Ryan Abbott of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine.

The study is published online today in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: An acupuncture treatment. Credit: Jung Yeon-He  AFP/Getty Images

Ginkgo biloba as a memory booster? Forget about it.

December 29, 2009 |  1:01 pm

If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to save money, here’s one suggestion: Stop buying ginkgo biloba pills to boost your brainpower.

Ginkgo is a popular – and unregulated – herbal remedy that was thought to prevent the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease and general aging. It is prescribed by some doctors in Europe to preserve memory. On this side of the pond, the pills are touted for their ability to “improve mental sharpness, concentration, memory and cognitive ability,” according to one manufacturer.

There is some basic science to support that notion. According to this Los Angeles Times story from last year:

Ginkgo biloba contains flavonoids, whose antioxidant properties have been shown to combat the chemical damage that accumulates in aging brain cells. One laboratory study also found that ginkgo extract prevents the accumulation of beta-amyloid proteins which cluster into plaque in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

"There are a lot of purported reasons why ginkgo might work," said Richard L. Nahin, a neuroscientist at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, who worked on the study.

But as that story reported, a randomized clinical trial involving more than 3,000 senior citizens found that gingko biloba did nothing to prevent or delay dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Ginkgo Today, the same team of researchers from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and universities across the country reported that ginkgo also failed to reduce or slow cognitive decline in older adults.

About half the subjects – who ranged in age from 72 to 96 – took 120-milligram ginkgo tablets twice a day for an average of more than six years. The rest took an identical-looking placebo. All participants had normal mental function or mild cognitive impairment when the study began.

The rate of annual decline in cognitive function was the same for both groups, according to the new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. The team didn’t find any differences even when looking at specific functions like memory, attention, visuospatial abilities, language, or executive functions. Age, sex, race, education and version of the apolipoprotein E gene (which is linked to risk of Alzheimer’s) also had no impact.

NCCAM, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, has been researching ginkgo for 10 years to see whether the type of clinical trials required for FDA-regulated pharmaceuticals would reveal any benefit. The new findings are in line with several other studies, including a Cochrane review published this year that found “no convincing evidence” that the herb preserves mental function in any way.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: It's time to give up on ginkgo, researchers agree. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

So what's in your nonenergy drink?

December 29, 2009 | 11:10 am

Worn out by the constant over-caffeination of friends, colleagues and, of course, self? You're in luck.

Staff writer Jerry Hirsch reports today on the growing popularity of slow-down, or anti-energy, drinks such as Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda, Slow Cow and Ex Chill. They use ingredients such as kava, chamomile and valerian to create a purported calming effect. Here's the full story.

Kava Now for a closer look at some of the ingredients, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Kava kava -- When it comes to treating anxiety, the herb gets an A. Some studies have found it to be as effective as Valium. Not bad. If you have liver problems, however, it might be best avoided. It's been linked to severe liver toxicity and failure.

Chamomile -- This herb, used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions (not just anxiety and sleep disorders but also eczema, teething pains and hemorrhoids), doesn't actually get any A's in the scientific-evidence department. But, Drink in fairness, there seems to have been few large studies of it, and millions of pre-bedtime tea drinkers are firm believers.

Valerian -- Again, no A's here, but the root has been used as a sedative for about 2,000 years now.

Much depends on the amount, of course. And the drinks' calming effects might have much to do with belief in their calming effects.

But if this new beverage trend piques your curiousity about potentially soothing herbs, the National Library of Medicine includes information about dosages and -- of course -- all the caveats about safety and side effects and interactions. Such caveats are worth reading.

Here's a bit more, for example, about valerian: "Based on animal and human studies, valerian may increase the amount of drowsiness caused by some drugs, although this is an area of controversy. Examples include benzodiazepines such as lorazepam (Ativan) or diazepam (Valium), barbiturates such as phenobarbital, narcotics such as codeine, some antidepressants, and alcohol. Caution is advised while driving or operating machinery. In one human study, a combination of valerian and the beta-blocker drug propranolol (Inderal) reduced concentration levels more than valerian alone. A brief episode of confusion was reported in one patient using valerian with loperamide (Imodium) and St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum  L.)."

Not that anyone would think of combining valerian or other herbs with antidepressants or alcohol.

For more herbs and treatments commonly used to treat anxiety, here's a list from the University of Maryland Medical Center's website.

And check out the insomnia list too.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo (top): A villager in the Pacific island country of Vanuatu prepares kava root for a traditional drink. Credit: Marc Le Chelard / AFP / Getty Images

Photo (bottom): The chief executive of Mary Jane's soda offers a more modern version. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

But does melatonin actually do anything?

December 16, 2009 |  6:05 pm

Melatonin Melatonin may seem to be one of those benignly helpful substances that warrant little concern. The natural version is made in the brain, plays a role in our sleep cycles and is often taken -- by those who put faith in supplements -- to combat jet lag. But that doesn't mean you'd want your kids to take it.

An Ohio couple suspects that workers at a church day care center gave their infant daughter melatonin to make her sleep. They've sued. And they want others to join in their suit. Police are investigating the allegations. Here's the AP story.

But does this sold-over-the-counter supplement work? And could it make a kid sleepy, much less an adult?

This overview of melatonin and its uses, courtesy of the University of Maryland Medical Center, comes down soundly on the "yes" side.

It analyzes the supplement's potential uses in insomnia (of course) and beyond -- osteoporosis, menopause, depression, benzodiazepine withdrawal, various cancers, ADHD and other conditions. The research for most other conditions is preliminary, to say the least.

But a recent study, described here in a WebMD story, suggests that melatonin can be particularly useful in helping children with autism sleep more soundly.

Even so ...

The University of Maryland site has this to say about pediatric usage: "Although studies in children suggest that doses of 1 - 10 mg melatonin have little to no side effects, there is not enough information to clearly say that doses greater than 0.3 mg per day are safe in children under age 15. In fact, doses between 1 - 5 mg may cause seizures in this age group."

And here's what the even more comprehensive explainer over at Medline Plus has to say: "There is limited study of melatonin supplements in children, and safety is not established. Use of melatonin should be discussed with the child's physician and pharmacist prior to starting."

In other words, don't try this at home just yet -- or at a daycare center.

-- Tami Dennis

Credit: Los Angeles Times

Milk thistle shows potential -- documented potential -- in helping cancer patients

December 14, 2009 |  1:04 pm

ThistleGood research on herbs and supplements is hard to come by -- and small wonder. The key ingredients aren't exactly new, being the product of nature rather than hefty research-and-development budgets, and are thus unlikely to yield much in the way of patentable compounds. Without a big payoff, there can be little incentive to explore potential simply because of scientific merit.

But when it happens, such research can yield results. A new study, published online today in the journal Cancer, finds that milk thistle may help reduce the liver inflammation associated with chemotherapy. Many people may nod knowingly -- the herb has been used for centuries to treat liver problems. (More on the plant from the University of Maryland Medical Center. Of note, it can treat deathcap-mushroom poisoning.)

The new study is important because liver inflammation often leads to lowered doses of the life-saving, if grueling, drug regimens faced by cancer patients. The study was conducted in children being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. (More on that disease from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.)

Here's the abstract and a story from MedPage Today. 

And here's additional information on milk thistle from the American Cancer Society, plus a rundown from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Herbs are part of a greater whole when it comes to outside-the-mainstream medical treatments and their potential. For a recent look at alternative medicine in the United States, there's Alternative medicine is becoming mainstream. And for an examination of its place in the current healthcare debate, there's A broader definition of healthcare.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Milk thistle may not be flashy, but it's got potential in the liver-protection department.

Credit: Los Angeles Times

As for colloidal silver, you can't say you weren't warned

September 10, 2009 |  9:05 am

Silver With cold and flu season arriving a bit earlier than usual this year, consumers may be tempted to try colloidal silver. They even may be tempted to try it in large doses. Here's some advice: Don't.

The substance is currently pitched as a flu fighter, among other things. Harumph. Not only is there no proof colloidal silver works in such a fashion, it's not the harmless tonic some would have you think.

We've said this before, of course, but Paul Karason drives the point home better than we ever could. The man turned blue (seriously) after taking large quantities of the substance, simply water laden with silver particles.

Here's the Today/MSNBC story (with photos -- worth seeing).

As for the "I told you so's":

In May: Scam 'cures' for swine flu face crackdown The FDA and FTC target peddlers of colloidal silver and other potentially harmful products. Tamiflu and Relenza are the only approved treatments.

In February: Does colloidal silver boost immunity or overall health? The metal is popular in alternative medicine circles, but claims are unproven and large doses can be harmful.

As that story notes: "Contrary to claims made by some websites, silver in large enough doses can cause side effects. In rare cases, it can collect under the skin and react with sunlight to create a permanent bluish tint, a condition known as argyria. Although unsightly, argyria is not dangerous."

And heck, in 2003: Be leery of the silver bullet

Here's more on colloidal silver products from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It notes that silver has been used medically for centuries, but that, you know, modern medicine has some advantages over it.

-- Tami Dennis

Credit: Los Angeles Times

It's soluble fiber, not wheat bran, for irritable bowel, study says

August 28, 2009 | 10:07 am

To treat irritable bowel syndrome, most physicians recommend that patients consume dietary fiber to help keep the bowels active. But a new controlled trial suggests that the type of fiber consumed is important. Soluble fiber, such as psyllium, reduces symptoms and pain of the disorder, but insoluble fiber such as wheat bran can increase problems, Dutch researchers reported online today in BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal.

Getprev Irritable bowel syndrome, which is characterized by irregular bowel movements, cramps, bloating and other problems, affects as much as 10% of the population and can be severely disabling. Few good treatments are available, in part because physicians seem unsure about its root causes.

In the first study of its kind, Dr. Rene Bijkerk of the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands and colleagues studied 275 patients, ages 18 to 65, with irritable bowel syndrome, commonly known as IBS. A third were given 10 grams of psyllium fiber every day for 12 weeks, a third were given 10 grams of wheat bran, and a third were given 10 grams of rice flour as a placebo.

Patients taking the psyllium fiber received significantly more relief than those taking placebo, and some reported that they had pain-free periods as long as two weeks while taking the fiber. Those taking wheat bran, however, showed no significant improvement, and many of them dropped out of the trial because their symptoms worsened.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II

Image credit: Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Acupuncture boosts effects of painkillers, natural or prescription

August 10, 2009 |  4:30 pm

High-tech images of the brains of chronic pain sufferers have found that the ancient practice of acupuncture fights pain by making key brain cells more sensitive to the pain-dampening effects of opioid chemicals. The study, published online in the August issue of the journal NeuroImage, comes less than a year after the publication of a controversial study that concluded acupuncture was no more effective than sham treatment at reducing pain.

Researchers at the University of Michigan's Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center used a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner to view the brains of 20 women diagnosed with fibromyalgia who reported suffering nerve and muscle pain at least 50% of the time. The PET scans were conducted during each woman's first acupuncture session and, a month later, her eighth.

In the regions of the brain that process and dampen pain signals -- the amygdala, caudate, cingula, thalamus and insula -- the PET scans showed an increase in the receptivity -- and possibly the number -- of brain cells to which opioid substances bind. Study author Richard E. Harris said that suggests that acupuncture appears to make the body more responsive to opioid painkillers.

But the mainstay of traditional Chinese medicine also appears to enhance the body's ability to regulate pain naturally, Harris said. Many of the analgesic chemicals the body produces, including endorphins (the source of what endurance athletes call "the runner's high") and enkephalins (which act to tamp down the sensation of pain), also bind to the opioid receptors. So if acupuncture treatments enhance those chemicals' ability to find a receptor to bind to, these natural painkillers work better as well.

Harris, a molecular and cell biologist at the University of Michigan and a licensed acupuncturist, said the group's findings are consistent with research that has found patients treated with acupuncture before surgery often need less post-operative medication to manage their pain. The acupuncture in these cases may have the effect of sensitizing the brain's opioid receptors to medication, making it work better.

The study may even support the controversial earlier finding that sham acupuncture works as well as real acupuncture to reduce pain, but that the two work in to reduce pain in different ways. In that experiment, patients seemed to gain considerable pain relief merely by a procedure that inserted needles into the body randomly, as oppose to following the paths of energy meridians that guide needle placement in acupuncture.

The random sinking of needles through the skin may prompt the body to increase its production of pain-dampening endorphins and enkephalins, Harris surmised. True acupuncture may work differently: Its painkilling effect may come not from boosting the supply of circulating natural analgesics, but by improving the ability of those chemicals to dock at a brain cell and exert their painkilling effects.

While many patients may turn to acupuncture as an alternative to conventional medication, Harris said his group's study suggests that the two means of pain relief can complement each other.

"I don't see them as mutually exclusive, and in some cases, they may work synergistically," Harris said.

-- Melissa Healy

Use of alternative health practitioners falls

July 30, 2009 |  9:32 am

CAM A national survey reflecting consumers' use of alternative and complementary medicine (CAM) shows that the use of self-care therapies has increased and that the use of CAM healthcare professionals has decreased. Additionally, certain practices are falling out of favor while more science-based treatments remain popular.

The National Institutes of Health survey is the first in 10 years to assess Americans' interest in herbal and homeopathic treatments, energy healing, acupuncture, tai chi and other healing practices. Researchers surveyed more than 75,000 adults in 2007. About 38% of the adults surveyed said they had used some form of CAM for preventative health purposes or to treat a disease or condition.

The survey found CAM makes up just 1.5% of U.S. healthcare expenditures. However, it accounts for 11.2% of total out-of-pocket expenditures. Of the $33.9 billion spent out of pocket on CAM, most of it was for self-care products, such as classes, products and materials. Compared with the last survey of CAM practices in the U.S., in 1997, visits to CAM practitioners have plunged 50%.

"In that survey, costs were driven primarily by the practitioner costs. In our data the expenditures are driven by the self-care costs," said Dr. Richard Nahin, lead investigator of the study. But, he added, the two surveys were conducted using different methodologies.

Interest in therapies like energy-healing and relaxation have declined, while practices that have more scientific validity and that depend on practitioners who are licensed and regulated, such as acupuncture, are more popular.

The data are available on the website for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.


-- Shari Roan

Photo: Lucy Wojskowicz, a holistic health practitioner, gives a Swedish massage with craniosacral therapy to a client. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times.
Chart credit: National Institutes of Health


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