I recently attended (and live-tweeted) an integrative medicine conference called “Get Your Life Back NOW!” held in Orlando, FL on November 3-4, 2017. There were actually three separate but related events that weekend: a conference for medical professionals, a conference for the general public, and a $350-per-plate gala called Doctors Who Rock in honor of the “game changers of the global integrative health movement” like Dr. Andrew Wakefield1, Dr. Joseph Mercola, and Dr. Lee Cowden.
I signed up for the conference targeted to the general public because I wanted to see what the speakers told them (and sold them). My decision not to attend as a medical professional meant forfeiting my access to the vendor tables, which were off-limits to the general public for “legal reasons,” presumably because they were promoting treatments not approved by the FDA. But even without visiting the vendors, I have to say, the conference surpassed all of my expectations.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term “integrative medicine,” the basic concept, according to Duke Integrative Medicine, is that it combines elements of conventional Western medicine with various forms of alternative medicine in order to create:
“an approach to care that puts the patient at the center and addresses the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences that affect a person’s health. Employing a personalized strategy that considers the patient’s unique conditions, needs and circumstances, it uses the most appropriate interventions from an array of scientific disciplines to heal illness and disease and help people regain and maintain optimum health.”
In principle, that sounds like a great idea. But I have a few objections. First, it’s dishonest to co-opt things like nutrition, sleep, and exercise and label them as anything besides plain-old medicine. While many of us struggle to adequately address these issues in the amount of time your insurance company feels is appropriate, the vast majority of conventional Western physicians believe that getting adequate sleep, eating nutritious foods, and engaging in some form of exercise are beneficial. And if you read treatment guidelines for a variety of chronic diseases, you’ll find that they are first line treatments, even in mainstream medicine. Calling these things “integrative” is like saying that keeping “your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel” is “integrative driving.”
Second, medicine is already “integrative.” Mainstream medicine has been integrating things for, well, forever. There’s usually some resistance at first, as there’s a lot of inertia to overcome. But eventually, treatments that help more than they hurt tend to make it into our toolboxes. I won’t bore you with the entirety of medical history, but here are a few examples:
- We learned that citrus fruits prevent scurvy (and now know that this is due to the vitamin C they contain).
- We learned that something in willow bark can provide pain relief (and now use a similar molecule, aspirin, to treat pain and prevent strokes).
- We learned that a toxin produced by a specific mold can kill bacteria (and now use this molecule and its derivatives to treat bacterial diseases in people).
- We learned that a chemical found in the seed pods from the opium plant can provide sedation and relief from pain (and now use morphine and related molecules with both good and ill effects).
Along the way, we’ve also learned that some of the things we did weren’t worth doing. We learned that teething doesn’t cause seizures or death (or much of anything, really), and gum lancing fell by the wayside. We don’t do a lot of bloodletting anymore. We now know that meridians don’t exist, that acupuncture is placebo, and that homeopathy is fake medicine based on a implausible and thoroughly disproven hypothesis. The fact that we admit our mistakes and correct them is what allows for scientific progress. In the words of Carl Sagan,
“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know, that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.”
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with integrating various treatment modalities, it’s crucial to be cautious about what gets integrated. And herein lies my biggest objection to integrative medicine: many of the “treatments” that are utilized are ineffective, unsafe, or both. While the general idea may seem appealing, the key is knowing which treatments to adopt and which ones to abandon. Fortunately, science provides a framework for testing our hypotheses and helping us to determine the safest and most effective ways to treat our patients. And unfortunately, many integrative medicine practitioners2 seem to struggle with this concept.
Surprisingly, the speakers at “Get Your Life Back NOW!” didn’t seem very interested in “integrating.” Aside from the generally good advice to eat nutritious foods, get adequate sleep, and exercise, the vast majority of their claims contradicted what science has taught us, rather than adding to it. A couple of the speakers did allow that they would seek care from a conventional physician for a severe and acute injury or illness. (Broken bones were mentioned as an example.) But, for the most part, the speakers didn’t seem all that supportive of conventional medicine.
Norm Shealy, MD, PhD3, who previously practiced as a neurosurgeon and now lists among his current appointments “President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Energy Medicine, Holos University Graduate Seminary,” was one of the more vocal critics of mainstream medicine. Despite the fact that advances in obstetrical care have reduced the maternal mortality rate by 98% in the last 80 years (not to mention the survival rates of their babies), Shealy claimed that “there’s not a lot modern medicine can do for an unhealthy pregnancy.” He went on to say that “there is not a drug in the world for a chronic disease that I would consider. Not one.” (Not even insulin?) And in case anyone missed his message, he clarified: “I’d bite your hand off if you tried to give me a statin. I consider them as dangerous as chlorinated and fluoridated water.”
Within the alternative medicine world, we commonly see claims that a wide array of symptoms or diseases result from the same “one true cause.” For example, although many chiropractors have branched out in to a variety of treatment modalities, their profession was founded on the hypothesis that misalignment of the spinal column was the root cause for disease. Similar oversimplified “one true cause” hypotheses are convenient for the practitioner, because they allow for the treatment of a wide variety of symptoms or illnesses using the same technique. And Get Your Life Back NOW! had no shortage of “one true causes.”
Doug Kaufmann, a TV host and author with a bit of medical training as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam, asserted that the majority of our illnesses—dementia, sinusitis, lung cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others—are caused by fungus. But while fungal infections may complicate some of these diseases, the notion that fungus causes all of them is simply incorrect. Of course, I shouldn’t be expected to understand, because as Kaufmann pointed out, “medical doctors don’t study fungi.” And “with the exception of the forty doctors here today,” medical doctors simply don’t understand how many of our problems are caused by fungi. Kaufmann summarized his misguided hypothesis in his tag line: “Fungus Until Proven Otherwise.”
Another speaker attributed a the majority of our problems to bad vibes (literally). Stephen Sinatra, MD, a cardiologist by training, claimed that “the whole essence of life is really vibration…when people are sick, their vibration goes down.” But “if we can increase the energy of our cellular framework…our lives will thrive…Vibration is the key to life.”
According to Sinatra, our vibrations are decreased by the “toxic soup” of Wi-Fi, cell phones, sugar, beer, vaccines, entitlement, and falsehood (among a variety of other tangible and intangible factors). Veal, in particular, is a food to avoid, because the angry vibrations in the flesh of animals raised inhumanely can be passed on to those who consume them. Sinatra asserted that we can increase our vibrations by eating “high vibrational foods,” many of which you can find in his online store. And he attributed the epidemic of type 2 diabetes directly to the advent of rubber-soled shoes, which insulate us from Mother Earth’s vital 3.83 Hz vibrations, a frequency that “thins our blood so it’s like red wine, not ketchup.” Because ketchup blood is a real thing.
“How do you describe a Renaissance man? Genius, scholar, inventor, humanitarian, innovator, healer, teacher, entrepreneur, historian–these are just a few of the terms that describe Dr. Jerry Tennant whose remarkable life, dedicated to healing and innovation, has changed the paradigm of western medicine.”
Tennant described how our bodies are composed of several independent electrical circuits, with our muscles acting as “stacks of batteries.” In this model, electricity is supplied to each of our organs by these circuits, and the thyroid gland controls the voltage to each cell. Each of these “battery packs” is wired through specific teeth, and infection in those teeth can cause a “short circuit” and decrease the function of the associated organs.
According to Tennant, this explains why the “frequency of an essential oil on the toe” gets to the brain at the speed of light. (Don’t ask me how he measured that.) The manifestations of voltage changes may be physical or behavioral, as in the case of adolescents who have behavioral problems due to wisdom tooth extraction. The teeth enable one’s emotions to directly affect organ function and health because “emotions are stored in magnetic fields. Magnetic fields like to reside in crystals. Teeth are the body’s crystals.”
Tennant closed with a video demonstrating how he diagnoses voltage deficiencies by using a pendulum suspended above a patient’s meridians. But relax. Should you find your own voltages to be deficient, you can treat yourself at home using his patented $2,750 Synergy BioModulator.
Those readers with an elementary understanding of physiology may have realized that this model isn’t entirely consistent with the mainstream thinking about how the body works. Dr. Tennant is apparently aware of this as well, which is why he started his talk with a disclaimer: “I want to make it clear that I am not speaking with my Texas MD license. I am speaking with my Arizona MD(H) license.” Apparently, the Texas medical board frowns on physicians promoting unproven and biologically implausible treatments.
Chiropractor David Jernigan spoke about “Curing the ‘Incurable’: Lyme Disease and Beyond,” a title he chose because “most doctors are hesitant to use the word ‘cure.’” Jernigan founded the Hansa Center for Optimum Health and has “personally developed over 30 novel natural medicines to date” including “Bio-Resonance Scanning™, NeuroCardial Synchronization™, and NeuroPhotonic Therapy™.” He mentioned that he is often asked why patients should “see a doctor of chiropractic medicine for an infectious illness.” To be honest, I had the same question. Jernigan explained that chiropractors are “licensed to heal,” and that his scope of practice includes the treatment of a wide array of diseases.
One of his primary focuses, though, is Lyme disease. Jernigan claimed that while the CDC says there are approximately 300,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year in the United States, “top doctors” think there are more. He went on to say that he thinks even this estimate is low, and that the real number is “more than 3 million,” while admitting, “I don’t have anything to justify that.”
Perhaps the reason for this massive “underdiagnosis” is a difference in how the disease is defined. Jack Miller, a “certified traditional naturopath” (not to be confused with a doctor of naturopathy)4 and founder of Natural Health Sciences of Arizona, who also spoke about Lyme disease, encouraged the audience not to have too narrow of a focus: “The thing to remember about Lyme disease is that it isn’t just Lyme. People are obsessed with Borrelia bergdorferi.” Which is the organism that causes Lyme disease. The only organism that causes Lyme disease. Expanding the definition of a disease to include all people with vague symptoms like chronic fatigue would certainly increase the number of diagnoses. And, if you happen to be in the business of selling fake treatments for Lyme disease (like both Jernigan and Miller), then significantly increasing your patient population would be good for business.
One of the better-known speakers, Dr. Joseph Mercola, is infamous for promoting a vast array of pseudoscientific treatments on his website. Like many of you, I’ve clicked on a number of his links that found their way into my Facebook feed. But even with this perspective, I was not adequately prepared for what came next.
Mercola opened by requesting that everyone in the audience place our phones in airplane mode, which was problematic for me because I was live-tweeting the conference. While I did not intend to comply, I was curious as to the reason for this request. But it became clear as he began speaking about the numerous health problems that he claimed electromagnetic fields (EMF) can cause: Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, arrhythmias, autism, cancer, depression, and infertility, to name a few. Mercola pointed out that “1 GHz radiation has increased a billion billion times in the past 100 years.” He didn’t provide any evidence for this assertion, but I’m willing to allow it. However, we could say the same about any number of things that are infinitely more common today than they were a century ago: solar panels, goldendoodles, or pumpkin spice lattes, for example. The fact that something exists now that didn’t exist before doesn’t mean it’s killing us.
If you happen to be concerned about the alleged health hazards presented by EMF, Mercola offered several ways to mitigate the risk. He suggested placing your cell phone in airplane mode before putting it in your pocket, running ethernet cables to all of your computers and eliminating Wi-Fi altogether, shutting off the breaker to your bedroom at night, and sleeping—as he does—in a Faraday cage canopy bed made from silver mesh fabric. (Or, if you happen to be traveling, in a silver-mesh sleeping bag.) If you don’t have one already, they will be available soon on Mercola’s website. And if he happens to be correct, it would be money well spent, because “EMF will take you out early. Guaranteed. 100%.”
At one point, in an attempt to engage the audience, Mercola asked, “Who would be interested in a free stem cell transplant if it didn’t cause cancer?” I almost choked on my coffee. Stem cell transplants can be a great option for people with certain types of cancer or immune deficiencies. But they also carry with them some pretty significant risks, only one of which is cancer. A stem cell transplant, even a free one, is not a treatment to be taken lightly. But for some reason, perhaps because they were as delusional as Mercola, the majority of the audience raised their hands.
Mercola clarified that what he was referring to was not a stem cell transplant, per se, but rather a five-day water fast, which does pretty much the same thing. (Except that it doesn’t.) Mercola advocated these five-day fasts for everyone on a regular basis—with no disclaimers or recommendations to discuss with your physician—during which one should eat nothing, drink only water, and occasionally lick some Himalayan salt.
How important is fasting? According to Mercola, it’s way up there: “Sleep is probably the most important thing next to fasting and not being exposed to EMF.” That’s right, getting adequate sleep takes a backseat to: 1) not eating, and 2) avoiding the dangers of whatever device you happen to be using to read this post.
For anyone tempted to take Mercola’s advice without a heaping handful of Himalayan salt, I would advise some caution. After his talk, a member of the audience asked how she could provide power to her CPAP machine at night if the bedroom breaker is shut off. Mercola recommended trying “orofascial myofunctional therapy to reshape the palate and airway.” The audience member clarified, “What if it’s central sleep apnea, not obstructive?,” to which Mercola replied, “It will still work.” Which, of course, it would not, because central sleep apnea is a problem with the brain’s regulation of breathing, and not an airway obstruction issue. I truly hope that woman was smart enough to ignore Mercola’s advice.
Whatever the cause of our illnesses–fungi, Wi-Fi, bad vibes, or low voltages–a common thread was that the speakers offered hope that patients can’t find in the traditional medical system. Many of them focused on the body’s innate ability to heal itself. And, to be fair, our bodies are really good at that. Every day, we encounter countless numbers of microbes, each of which is programmed to survive and reproduce at any cost. Our immune systems are exceptionally good at killing the dangerous ones and keeping the others in check. If we weren’t good at healing ourselves, our ancestors would have died out long before they were intelligent enough to know they had ever existed.
But that doesn’t mean that our bodies can solve all of our problems. It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at a graveyard to realize that. Long before glyphosate, EMF, or rubber-soled shoes, people were dying—occasionally at terrifying rates. And we are living longer today than we have in the past. I would attribute our increased life expectancy to things like vaccines, antibiotics, and public sanitation. But many of the speakers discounted the impact of modern medicine (their own advice excluded, of course). Dr. Sinatra told the audience, “Doctors aren’t going to heal you. Only you can heal yourself.” And Dr. Shealy set some pretty high expectations for those that follow his advice: “If you do all of these things, I expect the average life expectancy to be 140.”
Another common theme was the use of fear as a persuasion tool. This seemed particularly foreign to me because, as a pediatrician, I spend a large portion of my professional life reassuring parents and children about a variety of concerns. So when Dr. Wakefield took the stage briefly to warn us all that “the next mass extinction is upon us,” it felt like a scare tactic. Probably because it was a scare tactic. His doomsday prophecy was based on a ridiculous extrapolation of historical autism rates with the conclusion that autism “will soon affect one half of all children.5” Wakefield’s assertion that half of all children will soon be autistic is baseless, but his “mass extinction” warning also suggests that people with autistic spectrum disorder cannot reproduce—which is simply untrue, and frankly, quite offensive.
Wakefield also blamed the mumps vaccine for this impending mass extinction, not because it causes autism, but because we sometimes see outbreaks of mumps in adults after their vaccine-induced immunity wanes. While it is true that the mumps virus can cause infertility, Wakefield doesn’t seem to consider the idea of adding a booster dose of the MMR vaccine during adolescence or early adulthood, perhaps because he has built his career around demonizing this particular vaccine. But given that mumps outbreaks are relatively infrequent, and that the overwhelming majority of men who get mumps as adults remain fertile, it’s quite a leap to think that this will be what ends our run here on Planet Earth.
Naturopath Steve Hines did his best to scare us all as well. Hines asserted that root canals in certain teeth are a common cause of breast cancer. He wasn’t sure exactly which ones they were, but it was definitely true. And when asked by an audience member how important it was to get rid of fillings and root canals, he replied, “Very important, if you want to live a long time and not get cancer or dementia.”
Without question, the award for Most Terrifying Title goes to Jenny Hrbacek, RN for her presentation, “Cancer Free! Are You Sure? Beating Cancer with Advanced Testing.” Hrbacek is a nurse who “did her own research” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and now believes that she knows more than the consensus of oncologists and cancer researchers with millennia of combined experience.
When she started her talk, she claimed that “99% of early-detect cancers” can be cured by diet and lifestyle modifications. That number seemed high to me until I understood what she meant by “early-detect cancers.” Hrbacek’s philosophy was that “the idea of waiting for lumps and bumps is old,” and that we should be far more aggressive in looking for cancer in people with absolutely no symptoms. She recommended so many inappropriate screening tests that I had difficulty keeping up taking notes.
One of the screening tests Hrbacek recommended was the ONCOblot test, although the lab’s own website recommends states that this isn’t an approved use: “A large-scale clinical trial to demonstrate the efficacy of ONCOblot® as a cancer screening test has not been completed. Cancer screening is not an approved utility of the ONCOblot® Test.”
The theme of inappropriately recommending diagnostic tests as screening tests continued throughout Hrbacek’s talk, revealing her significant lack of understanding about laboratory testing. Without going into too much detail, it’s critically important to use tests as they were designed. Doing otherwise can result in high numbers of false positive results (in this case, telling a patient they have cancer when they actually don’t), undue emotional trauma, unnecessary medical treatments, and excessive financial costs.
If I ordered enough tests on myself, my daughter, or my dog, I’d be certain to find some result that was both abnormal and meaningless, and that’s exactly why I don’t order tests without a compelling indication. The reason oncologists don’t recommend using these tests for screening is because they know better, not because they enjoy watching tumors grow.
Because a large portion of Hrbacek’s “early-detect cancer” patients don’t actually have cancer, it’s not hard to believe that they can be “cured” with diet and exercise. So if you’re interested in finding out that you almost definitely do have cancer, even if you don’t, you can buy Hrbacek’s book, enroll in her $549 online course, or schedule a personal consult for $150/hour (which I assume is somehow different from someone practicing medicine without a license).
Some of the speakers seemed to have fallen prey to the very fear they promote. The organizer of the conference was Lee Cowden, MD, MD(H), who somehow made his way from practicing cardiology to treating children with autism and people with cancer. Well, at least until he was placed on probation (twice) by the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners for providing dubious medical care. His Texas medical license has now been “cancelled by request,” but he retains an active license with the Arizona Board of Homeopathic and Integrated Medicine Examiners.
Cowden spoke about “How to Recover a Child from Autism,” which, refusing to subscribing to any particular “one true cause” hypothesis, Cowden apparently thinks is caused by pretty much everything, including something called “skull-jam.”
You may have noticed that his first “cause” of autism was mercury toxicity. (Are we still doing this?) But he did state that it’s more likely for children to be exposed to mercury from their mother’s dental fillings than from vaccines, since thimerosal was removed from all vaccines on the childhood schedule over 15 years ago, despite the fact that there was never any evidence to believe it was harmful. However, Cowden still believes that “thimerosal is in all flu vaccines and they wouldn’t work without it.” It isn’t; I gave six flu vaccines today, none of which contained thimerosal. And they work just fine, because thimerosal is a preservative to prevent bacterial contamination, not a crucial part of the vaccine.
Like many in the anti-vaccine movement, Cowden has shifted at least a portion of his attention to aluminum, which is also a component of vaccines. But Cowden pointed out that vaccines aren’t the only source of aluminum. He asked if anyone in the audience knew the other major exposure children have to aluminum. He ignored my answer (“Breastmilk.”) and answered his own question: “Chemtrails.”
Cowden claimed to have “cured” a girl from autism using homeopathy and lasers–a technique he developed and named “Laser Energy Detoxification.” He was confident that the girl’s autism was caused by prenatal ultrasound. I’m not sure how he knew this, because he also stated that a fetus could develop autism if a stressed-out father lies in bed next to a pregnant mother. You know, because our energy fields extend 8-9 feet. Maybe her dad just had a rough day at work.
For parents who have children with autism, Cowden offered a list of solutions. Of course, he didn’t bother to provide evidence for any of them. And he failed to mention anything remotely similar to applied behavior analysis therapy, an evidence-based approach to actually helping children with autism spectrum disorder.
Regrettably, and presumably because he organized the conference, Cowden was scheduled to speak twice. (I’m assuming it’s because he had two lectures to prepare that his PowerPoint slides were so dreadful.) His second lecture was about cancer, and it was equally bad. First, he ran through a brief history of “integrative cancer care,” during which he discussed 125 years of physicians “treating” cancer with things like homeopathy, diet, vitamin C, magnets, and even love.
Nowhere in his list of “Most Effective Cancer Care” will you find things like surgical resection, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted cancer therapies. And at one point, he actually advised, “Don’t listen to your oncologist who tells you ‘there is no hope for your condition.’”
As you might imagine, Cowden’s list of alleged cancer causes was long, and quite similar to his list of things that cause autism. He emphasized the contribution of glyphosate, and to his credit, was one of few who didn’t refer to the herbicide as “glycophosphate.” Despite the fact the glyphosate breaks down rapidly in water, he claimed that none of our water–not even rain water–is safe because it has all been contaminated by runoff from commercial farms. This caused a great deal of distress for the woman sitting behind me, who had recently purchased several acres of land so that she and her husband could grow their own food, only to hear that even the rain is toxic. I honestly can’t imagine living in fear of this many things, and I truly pity anyone who goes through life with this perspective.
It was painfully obvious at this conference that the speakers lacked even a basic understanding of science. And when I say “science,” I don’t mean memorized facts, but rather the process that we can use to determine which things are true and which are false.
Angelique Hart, MD spoke about the benefits of “Exercising with Oxygen.” While I certainly agree that exercising without oxygen would be an exceedingly bad idea, the concept seemed self-evident enough that it shouldn’t require more than perhaps a single slide. But Hart’s talk was actually about LiveO2, a program that involves riding an exercise bike while Hart varies the level of oxygen provided through a mask and infuses intravenous hydrogen peroxide or vitamin C. During these sessions, the patient is initially deprived of oxygen (17%, compared to 21% in the atmosphere) and then given concentrations as high as 90%, with the idea that depriving cells of oxygen somehow makes them better at taking it in later. But while absence might make the heart grow fonder, that’s just not how it works with oxygen transfer.
Hart said her patients sweat out toxins like “Lyme’s” [sic], mold, and chemo; she knows this because she can smell it. And she backed up her personal observations with personal anecdotes. She described a bilingual patient who had a traumatic brain injury and lost some of her language skills. The patient recovered her ability to speak English while working with speech therapists in the rehab hospital, but it wasn’t until her LiveO2 treatments with Hart (who, incidentally, spoke Spanish with her during the sessions) that her Spanish language skills began to improve. Hart also recounted a case involving a man who had been in a wheelchair due to low exercise tolerance and then improved with her exercise program. The patient eventually stopped going to the sessions, and his exercise tolerance declined. One might recognize the need for a control group assigned to a non-proprietary exercise program with atmospherically-typical levels of oxygen, and one would be correct. But there’s little money to be made there.
Steve Hines, a “naturopathic endocrinologist,” was also quite bad at study design. That may stem from the fact that Hines received his “Doctor of Naturopathy” “degree” from Herbal Healer Academy, a distance learning program with a $25 registration fee, an unbelievably bad website (really, you should check it out), and apparently no requirement for actual patient care:
Hines described how, as a child, he had spent a lot of time outdoors and frequently found ticks on himself. Although he didn’t have symptoms at the time, he was reminded of this exposure when he later developed chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. He diagnosed himself with Lyme disease using a microscope—a technique known to give frequent false positive results—and began experimenting with possible treatments. He tried various “botanicals,” and whenever he started feeling better, he stopped treating himself to let the “Lyme” regrow so he could continue his experiments. Finally, “when I couldn’t get my Lyme to grow anymore, I started using other people as test tubes.” (Presumably without the approval of a research ethics committee.)
Today, without the benefit of formal medical training, Hines runs Hope Wellness Center in San Angelo, Texas, where he offers colon cleanses, “Bio Electro Magnetic Energy Regulation” (whatever that is), and “Ionic Foot Detox.” And for patients who need “aggressive therapies, Hope Wellness Center…can provide treatment from an affiliated wellness center located in Ciudad Acuña Mexico that offers therapies from around the world for Cancer, Parkinson, Cardio Vascular Disease. Lyme and other debilitating illnesses.” [sic]
In addition to poorly executed science, there were a lot of “facts” tossed out at the conference that left me wondering if the speakers were being intentionally dishonest, or if they were just really, really wrong. Chief among these offenders was Zach Bush, MD, who runs the M Clinic and “Intrinsic Health” center in Charlottesville, VA and sells the RESTORE line of supplements.
Bush, who seems to have some difficulty understanding basic concepts of genetics and mathematics, informed the audience that “genetically speaking, humans are pathetically simple.” His rationale for this was that humans have 20,000 genes, while fungi have 2 trillion. I’ll admit my initial ignorance; although 2 trillion seemed high, I didn’t really know how many genes fungi have. But it wasn’t hard to look up. Gene sequencing reveals that fungal genomes are similar in size to our own, at around 10,000-25,000 genes. But what are eight orders of magnitude among friends? Actual numbers aside, Bush further argued that “if microorganisms were the enemy, we’d be dead.” Which of course, many of our species are, having been unable to overcome infections from a dazzling array of microorganisms.
He then told us how amazing it is that the DNA repair enzyme “travels near the speed of light.” Unfortunately, this is even less true. DNA polymerases responsible for DNA repair travel along DNA strands at approximately 10-20 nucleotides per second, each of which is approximately 0.6 nanometers in length. Being as generous as I can, that comes out to 12 nanometers/second. And in that same second, a photon of light travels 300 million meters, or 25,000,000,000,000,000 times farther than the DNA repair enzyme.
Further revealing his ignorance about genetics, Bush informed us that while “scientists call 99% of DNA ‘junk,’” that simply can’t be correct because “there’s no waste in nature.” Bush asserts that what geneticists refer to as “junk DNA” actually codes for microRNA, small strands of RNA that regulate how our genes are expressed. While microRNA does actually exist, and the roles it plays are fascinating, it makes up a relatively small percentage of our genetic code, about 1-5%.
But then, Bush ruined what could have been an interesting talk when he said that microRNA can be transmitted by breathing. He claimed that you can literally go to the gym, do nothing except breathe in the microRNA that others exhale, and benefit because your cells think they worked out. And, in case that wasn’t enough of a stretch, he described how consuming microRNA from “bored” corn grown in a field with “tens of thousands of corn plants” makes us afraid of diversity and directly contributes to racism and mass shootings.
Just when I started to doubt my ability to remain in the conference room for another six hours, Michelle LaMasa-Schrader, PhD stepped onto the stage to discuss “Emotional Freedom Tools: Mind-Body Skills to Build Resilience” (although the title of the talk she actually gave was different). I thought that she might say something I could agree with—perhaps something about mindfulness mediation or the importance of emotional support during difficult times. I really did want to find something positive. But then she started talking.
LaMasa-Schrader has a PhD in “Mind-Body Medicine” from Saybrook University, a regionally-accredited online graduate education institution where she is now on faculty. She practices something called “Recall Healing,” the goal of which is to connect one’s current disease to past trauma. This “trauma” could have happened earlier in the patient’s life, during fetal development, at the moment of conception, or even in an ancestor’s life. Yes, in LaMasa-Schrader’s opinion, bad memories can be “implanted on ova or semen” and passed down through several generations.
She presented as evidence her own nephew, who was diagnosed with a “brain tumor the size of a baseball.” LaMasa-Schrader worked with her nephew and his parents to sort through his genealogy and his experiences during fetal development and birth to find and address the “true cause.” And when a neurosurgeon resected the tumor, it was found to be benign, as many large pediatric brain tumors are.
LaMasa-Schrader also claimed that women who have elective abortions frequently go on to develop breast cancer because of the guilt and regret they experience. Which, of course, is complete rubbish. But if you’d like to hear more, she’ll be happy to teach you all about it in one of her Recall Healing workshops for only $450-675.
Some of the speakers at the conference attempted to woo the audience (pun intended) by using a lot of sciencey-sounding words, like Dr. Connealy, who displayed a slide about biochemical pathways to apoptosis that would make even a room full of microbiologists groan. Or Dr. Steve Haltiwanger, who bragged to the audience that he has “over half a million medical articles” on his computer. Perhaps he does, but there’s no way in hell he’s read them all. Assuming 40 years of active study without a single day off, he’d need to read 34 articles per day, and these aren’t short articles.
If you’re wondering why anyone believes these people, you’re not alone. I’ve asked myself this question many times, and one of my goals in attending this conference was to gain some insight about this point (because I’m certainly not getting any continuing education credit). And now, with this additional perspective, I think there are a variety of factors:
- Our medical system, as it is currently set up, makes it difficult or impossible for doctors to spend enough time with complex patients. Insurance payments essentially dictate how long doctors have to spend with patients, and it’s sometimes hard to address all of our patients’ concerns. This isn’t an issue for many alternative or integrative practitioners, who frequently accept only cash payments.
- Poor bedside manner was brought up more than once by audience members as a reason they turned away from conventional medicine, and that’s something that every healthcare provider should work continually to improve.
- By simply existing outside “the machine,” alternative medicine practitioners have an implicit advantage. The speakers frequently criticized the healthcare industry and “Big Pharma” for being greedy, money-hungry, faceless corporations. But while there are plenty of problems with our healthcare system and the pharmaceutical industry, it’s important to remember that every speaker at the conference was selling something.
- Those of us in conventional medicine are limited by a number of other factors as well: a responsibility to do our part to control healthcare costs, ethical concerns about the use of placebo “treatments” or providing false hope, and the encumbrance of treating only diseases that our patients actually have, for example.
- In reality, not every answer is simple, and some patients are looking for simple answers—like the woman that commented after the first day, “Now it all makes perfect sense. I’ve had five root canals. I can’t thank you enough.”
- Sometimes, we don’t have an answer. As far as we’ve come in our medical knowledge, there are plenty of things we still don’t fully understand. Not every symptom can be diagnosed, and many times we must resort to ruling out what we can and then managing symptoms. And unfortunately, we don’t have effective treatments for every symptom.
I’ve also been asked why I care what these people are doing if they aren’t hurting anyone. The problem is that they are hurting people–lots of people. As entertaining as some of the more absurd ideas can be, let us not forget the darker side. We have spent thousands of years developing an understanding of how our bodies work, what can go wrong with them, and how to fix them. This progress is undermined by those who promote pseudoscience.
While I am confident that many alternative medicine practitioners (including some who are positively delusional) truly believe that they are helping their patients, there are some out there that knowingly take advantage of people who are sick, hurting, and hopeless. They market themselves using fear, diagnose diseases that their patients don’t have, demonize science-based treatments, and claim to possess secret knowledge of the only cure. There’s something cult-like about the whole ordeal. And sadly, as with many cults, there are victims who are no longer able to share their stories.
They are why I care.