Health Options
Alan Titchenal
& Joannie Dobbs

Sunday, August 14, 2005

How to know it’s too
good to be true

Good health is often taken for granted. Yet the onset of a cold or a backache quickly brings health to the top of the priority list. Advice on remedies is everywhere. You can find a "cure" for everything on the Internet. The shelves of pharmacies and health food stores are lined with products hinting at miracles.

Question: How can you know if something is effective and safe?

Answer: For treatment or prevention of problems such as colds and backaches -- which tend to run their course and clear up -- it is difficult to determine by yourself that a treatment is effective. For example, avoiding the latest virus may have little or nothing to do with a newfound magic potion and much more to do with an experienced immune system that has dealt with this virus before.

Also, a product or practice may provide some benefit through a placebo effect, based on a belief that it protects. The mind affects the body in complex ways that are not fully understood.

Q: If the placebo effect provides benefits, why not use it?

A: Physicians have debated this question since the placebo concept was first recognized. Certainly, mental states such as depression and stress take a toll on the body's ability to resist disease. In turn, these conditions decrease the ability to handle disease and to heal.

But, with the dictum to "first, do no harm," relying on the placebo effect can result in withholding potentially effective treatment. Also, for a placebo to work, we must believe in it, which means we must be deceived. Hence, the ethical dilemma.

Q: How can we avoid being fooled?

A: Use some science. But don't be fooled by the appearance of scientific support found on many commercial Web sites. Most of the world's health and medical research literature is accessible at pubmed.gov. Search for studies on a product by its name or its ingredients. You can at least see if any science supports the use of a product or its ingredients by humans, and if there are any risks.

If you find no support, remain the skeptic. If you find support, proceed with caution. Share your knowledge and skepticism with pharmacists and physicians and get their perspective. Always remember, if it sounds too good to be true, your belief in a product means money to someone else.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S. and Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S. are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa. Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Services and prepares the nutritional analyses marked with an asterisk in this section.

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