FAITH HEALING: WHAT DO WE KNOW?

According to the dictionary,  faith healing is the belief that religious faith can bring about healing—either through prayers or rituals that, according to adherents, evoke a divine presence and power toward correcting disease or disability. It can involve prayer, a visit to a shrine, or simply a strong belief in a supreme being. Although found in many religions, it is perhaps best known in connection with Christianity and the New Testament. Spiritual healing, however, makes no attempt to seek divine intervention, relying more on alternative medicine, sometimes combined with a distrust of or lack of confidence in standard medical care.

The placebo effect (the influence of the brain on physical symptoms) allows faith healing to gain traction in the general community, especially when reinforced by the dynamic personalities of religious leaders or cultists who perform the laying on of hands. This provides the important physical element which enhances the power of the placebo effect. The physical contact between the healer and the sufferer in a group setting provides a powerful psychological incentive for the latter to show an immediate salutary response. The need to acknowledge immediate improvement or cure is further supported by the social pressure to avoid the embarrassment that would accompany the denial of any response. Of course, audiences cannot fail to be impressed by such dramatic responses, a factor that likely entices future recruits.

Although many such leaders are undoubtedly sincerely motivated to aid the sick and disabled, the elements of financial greed and fame are frequently inextricably associated. Stemming from obvious desperation, individuals suffering from the most severe and dread diseases such as cancer, are especially vulnerable to the superficial appeal of such claims. The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that, although a small percentage of people with cancer have been known to experience remissions unexplained by the scientific community, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can actually cure physical ailments. Death, disability, and other unwanted outcomes have occurred when faith healing was elected instead of medical care for serious injuries or illnesses.”

The best and most accurate analysis of faith healing I have encountered can be found in William Nolen’s book, titled “Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle.”[1] Dr. Nolen, a busy surgeon, expended enormous time and effort to detect evidence of physical healing that was accomplished by faith healers, religious or otherwise. His effort offers a rare and objective vignette into an obscure world.

Surprisingly, Nolen approaches the subject with an open mind, and goes to great lengths to interview several such healers, observe the procedures, and follow up on the results with recipients when possible. He concluded that such healers were either charlatans or religious zealots believing they were endowed with supernatural powers. The degree to which monetary reward influenced their ministrations was beyond the scope of his investigation, but it must have been significant.

First, he notes that in the case of organic diseases, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, deforming arthritis, strokes, and other forms of paralysis, there is no evidence that any cures have ever occurred. All of us in medical practice are aware of an occasional, but rare, case of cancer that goes into spontaneous remission or even disappears totally in the absence of treatment, but Nolen was unable to document any such examples that could have been attributed to healers. Conversely, he encountered many cases of functional, or psychosomatic, conditions that did show improvement, including tension-type or migraine headaches, irritable colon syndrome, back pain without of physical deformity, and others. These examples would be amenable to standard medical care, especially in an understanding and caring environment. Unfortunately, most physicians have inadequate time or inclination to devote adequate resources to these types of problems.

Finally, Nolen discusses conditions that have both physical and functional components, such as some forms of arthritis, duodenal ulcer disease, and high blood pressure, among others. In these examples, associated pains, subjective weakness, and anxiety can be markedly alleviated by the power of suggestion alone, abetted by an intensive interview with the caregiver, and supplemented further by the administration of a medication. All this can be explained by the placebo effect.

Despite the fact that most patients are now better able to supplement information about their ailments from the internet, I believe that those suffering from functional illnesses will continue to seek sources outside mainstream medicine for care and attention. It is equally inevitable and understandable that many who suffer from cancer and other deadly conditions will also seek unconventional avenues out of desperation, grasping at any possibility after having been told that conventional medicine has nothing further to offer. Rather than wasting money on worthless remedies, we would fare better by channeling these funds into organizations devoted to fighting these diseases at a societal level, such as the American Cancer Society.

 Because of potential dangers of faith healing, we should seek general measures to avoid this trap. A few things might help lower faith healing’s toll on our society: In his popular website, Quackwatch, Dr. Stephen Barrett recommends the following steps::

  • Laws to protect children from medical neglect in the name of healing should be passed and enforced. In states that allow religious exemptions from medical neglect, these exemptions should be revoked. The practice of evangelistic faith healing on minors should be illegal.
  • Faith healing should no longer be deductible as a medical expense.
  • Reporters should be encouraged to do follow-up studies of people acclaimed to have been “healed.”
  • “Healers” who use trickery to raise large sums of money should be prosecuted for grand larceny.

     I would also add one final recommendation: We need to provide and promote educational materials about critical thinking and skepticism. Magazines such as Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic and websites such as Quackwatch and Science Based Medicine are good sources. I have also provided pertinent material in my book entitled “Snake Oil is Alive and Well. The Clash between Myths and Reality. Reflections of a Physician”, Brighton Press, Chandler, Arizona, available on websites such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

   In conclusion, I would place no faith in “faith healing”!



[1] Nolen WA, Healing: A doctor in Search of a Miracle, Fawcett Crest, New York, N.Y., 1974.

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DO CRANBERRIES DESERVE TOP BILLING OVER TURKEY AT THANKSGIVING?

    According to a recent analysis, cranberries and their juice may substantially reduce the risk for urinary tract infections. Pooled quantitative data from nine trials, including 1175 individuals, showed that cranberry consumption could reduce the risk for these infections by 38% overall and by 51% in women[1].

    “Cranberry-containing products tend to be more effective in women with recurrent urinary tract infections, children, cranberry juice drinkers, and people using cranberry-containing products more than twice daily,” say Chien-Chang Lee (National Taiwan University Hospital) and colleagues.

     In the 9 studies that assessed cumulative incidence of such infections, final analysis showed that, as well as reducing the risk for infections in the population as a whole, cranberry consumption also helped prevention in women with recurrent infections, reducing their risk by 47%. In most of the studies, participants took the products for 6 months.

     Men generally don’t suffer from such problems, except in old age. By contrast, 40-50% of women will experience at least one episode during their lifetime, of which 20-30% will become recurrent.

     The review disclosed that cranberry juice was more effective than cranberry capsules or tablets. This could be due to better hydration in those taking juice, or that there might be an unidentified substance within cranberry juice that is not found in cranberry capsules. Capsules may be more appropriate, however, for diabetics in order to avoid excess sugar or calories.

     Although the mechanism by which cranberry consumption can prevent such infections is unclear, proanthocyanidin (PAC), found in cranberries, has been found to prevent the adherence of the bacteria, Escherichia coli, to the urinary tract lining. Or it may simply result from acidification, and/or increased volume, of urine resulting from such juice, providing a less favorable environment for bacterial growth.

    The authors concluded : “The results of the present meta-analysis support that consumption of cranberry-containing products may protect against infections in certain populations. However, because of the substantial heterogeneity across trials, this conclusion should be interpreted with great caution.” They also call for more dose-response studies to determine optimal dosing. One such study is currently underway.

    But the probable benefits of cranberries don’t end here: The National Institutes of Health is funding research on cranberry’s effects on heart disease, various infections and other conditions, and other researchers are investigating its potential against cancer, stroke and viruses.

So far, research has found:

       The proanthocyanidine in cranberries prevents plaque formation on teeth; mouthwashes containing it are being developed to prevent periodontal disease.

   In some people, regular cranberry juice consumption for months can kill the H. pylori bacteria, which can cause stomach cancer and ulcers.

            Preliminary research also shows:

  Drinking cranberry juice daily may increase levels of HDL, or good cholesterol and reduce levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol.

    Cranberries may prevent some tumors from growing rapidly or starting in the first place. For instance, extracts of chemicals in cranberries prevent breast cancer cells from multiplying in a test tube; whether that would work in women is unknown.

    The bottom line? Since cranberry juice is nutritious and safe, why not drink two or more glasses a day, especially if you are a woman at risk for urinary infections (and maybe breast cancer)? So try to include cranberries and sauce in meals extending beyond Thanksgiving! There is no harm in this strategy, even before more definitive information is available.

    I assure the reader I have no conflicting financial interest in the cranberry industry!

    For further advice on good and bad products, check out my book, “Snake Oil is Alive and Well: The Clash Between Myths and Reality. Reflections of a Physician”.

    Morton Tavel, MD  



[1] Wang C, Fang C, Chen N, et al. Cranberry-containing products for prevention of urinary tract infections in susceptible populations. Arch intern med. 2012 172:988-996.

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LOSING WEIGHT WITHOUT DIETING: THE HOLY GRAIL?

  Have you ever dreamed that diet and exercise for weight reduction could be easily bypassed by sprinkling a magic potion on your usual—tasty and caloric—diet? Or perhaps by simply spreading an oily substance on your skin? Sound too good to be true? Well that’s what the Federal Trade Commission thought when they recently punished the following companies for advertising and selling such outlandish products.

   So what were these scams and what can we learn?

1) Sensa, a weight loss powder sprinkled on food. Following disclosure of misleading claims and endorsements, the company was fined $26,000,000 and the ruling further stipulates that the company my not make further weight-loss claims unless they produce two well-controlled human clinical trials.

2)  L’Occitane, which was selling its Almond Beautiful Shape and Shaping Delight skin creams, both claimed to slim the body—without, of course—producing scientific confirmation! This company was fined a mere $450,000, and the settlement stipulates that the company may no longer claim that any of these phony skin products will produce weight reduction.

3) HCT Diet Direct. This company sold liquid drops containing a diluted hormone allegedly derived from the human placenta, claimed to help with weight reduction. The judgment included a fine of $3,200,000 and prevention of further claims without acceptable scientific human studies.

4) LeanSpa and three related companies were fined over $7,000,000 for deceptive promotion of acai berry and “colon cleanse” weight-loss supplements. The judgment also included similar additional conditions.

     Compounding the consumers’ woes, these products regularly seduce buyers by providing reassuring statements that go something like this: “if you are not completely satisfied, you can easily obtain a full refund.” But more often than not, the buyer finds such refunds are not only difficult to receive, but they are often confronted by hard-to-cancel recurring monthly shipments. 

       But these stories are merely symptomatic of a much larger problem, i.e., a whole universe of useless health products promoted falsely and without proof. Most claims are sufficiently vague to escape federal penalties as described above. But these products incur huge financial losses—and sometimes even illness and death—to an unsuspecting and credulous public. Often appearing on credible media sites and in stores and pharmacies, they seem to take on an aura of legitimacy, which is far from justified.

    My advice? Avoid all weight reduction products that fail to include dietary restrictions. Even if you are considering any health product, look for the following disclaimer that goes something like this (often in small print): “This product has not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” This commonly appearing statement provides the closest thing to a guarantee that you’re getting ripped off with a useless product!