Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

Despite Its Lack Of Evidence, Iridology Has Survived On The Medical Fringe For Over A Century

There are many medical pseudosciences that persist despite a utter lack of either plausibility or evidence for efficacy. Some practices emerged out of their culture of origin, or out of the prevailing ideas of a pre-scientific age, while others were manufactured out of the imagination of perhaps well-meaning but highly misguided individual practitioners. They were just made up – homeopathy, for example, or subluxation theory.

Iridology belongs to this latter category – a system of diagnosis that was invented entirely by Ignatz Peczely, a Hungarian physician who first published his ideas in 1893. The story goes that Peczely as a boy found an owl with a broken leg. At the time he noticed a prominent black stripe in the iris of one eye of the owl. He nursed the bird back to health and then noticed that the black line was gone, replaced by ragged white lines. From this single observation Peczely developed the notion of iridology.

Peczely’s idea was that the iris maps to the rest of the body in some way, and therefore the flecks of color in the iris reflect the state of health of the various body parts. This basic approach to diagnosis or treatment is called the homonculus approach – the idea that one part of the body maps to the rest of the body, including the organ systems. Reflexology, auricular acupuncture, and even straight chiropractic follow this approach.

This is what might have happened next: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Health And Wellness Programs: When Faith Overtakes Reason

There’s a new term that has entered the medical lexicon. The word is wellness. Hospitals and medical offices are incorporating this term into their mission statements, corporate names, business cards, medical conferences and other marketing materials. The Cleveland Clinic Foundation has appointed a Chief Wellness Officer, an intriguing fluffy title that does not clearly denote this individual’s role and function. This is deliberate, as the word wellness is designed to communicate a ‘feel good’ emotion, not a specific medical service.

Just a click or two on Google will lead you into the wellness universe. Here’s a sampling:

  • Institute of Sleep and Wellness
  • Wellness Institute of America
  • Naturopathic Wellness
  • National Wellness Institute
  • Physicians Health and Wellness Center
  • Physicians Wellness Group

There’s even a sponsored ad on Google where one can Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at MD Whistleblower*

A Brief History Of Vaccines, The Anti-Vaccination Movement, And Modern Quackery

A good case of smallpox may rid the system of more scrofulous, tubercular, syphilitic and other poisons than could otherwise be eliminated in a lifetime. Therefore, smallpox is certainly to be preferred to vaccination. The one means elimination of chronic disease, the other the making of it.

Naturopaths do not believe in artificial immunization . . .

—Harry Riley Spitler, Basic Naturopathy: a textbook (American Naturopathic Association, Inc., 1948). Quoted here.

Here’s what a good case of smallpox will do for you:

If you’re lucky enough to beat the reaper (20-60%; 80% or higher in infants) or blindness (up to 30%), those blisters will leave you scarred for life. Oh, and the next time a good smallpox epidemic comes around, your children born since the last one will catch it and contribute their fair share to the death rate. But not you because you’ll be immune, so you’ll have the “preferred” experience of watching your children die well before you do.

Variolation and Vaccination

Except that none of this will happen, because the disease has been eradicated from the world—thanks, of course, to vaccination, which Napoleon reasonably called “the greatest gift to mankind.”

Smallpox was “the most terrible of the ministers of death.” It began at least several thousand years ago and rapidly spread wherever its human carriers traveled, eventually to the entire populated world. In endemic regions, it wiped out 1/4 to 1/3 of children in epidemics that occurred every few years. In epidemics among people who had not previously seen it, such as the natives of the Western Hemisphere during the early years of European explorations, it wiped out as many as 90% of everyone. It brought down armies and empires. Monarchs dropped like flies; it spared no socioeconomic class. Gods were invented in its name. There was never an effective treatment for it once it had begun.

Prior to the advent of vaccination, there was a heroic method that proved useful in reducing the severity of the disease. This was inoculation (‘variolation’): crude matter from a pustule of someone with the disease was etched into the skin of an uninfected person. This resulted in somewhat more indolent clinical cases, with death rates of ‘only’ around 2%, but the disease remained terrible and those so infected could still transmit it to others by means other than inoculation.

Vaccination, as many readers already know, was introduced near the end of the 18th century in England by the physician Edward Jenner. Jenner neither discovered it—it seems to have been discovered by milkmaids (and their close associates) who had noticed that after experiencing a cowpox blister, they never caught smallpox—nor was he the first to use it purposefully or even to write about it. He was the first, however, to conduct and report a series of convincing experiments demonstrating that people previously infected with cowpox could not subsequently be infected with smallpox (by variolation). He also showed that cowpox could be transferred from person to person by inoculation of matter from the cowpox blister, thus offering the first method for widespread use. Jenner is thus given credit not only for having introduced vaccination for smallpox, but for having introduced the concept of vaccination in general, although he would not live to see another example.

The Antivax Movement is Born

Opposition to smallpox vaccination (the name comes from the Latin for “cow”) began almost immediately after Jenner’s reports and remained substantial for more than 100 years. Some opposition was explicitly religious; some was based on disbelief in the method or, later, in the Germ Theory; some objectors claimed that vaccination caused terrible diseases, including smallpox itself; some voiced a political objection to state mandated vaccination programs. An early cartoon suggested that if Jenner had his way, people would start to look like cows:

Two antivax organizations in 19th century Britain were the National Anti-Vaccination League and the Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination. They sought to discredit Jenner’s reports and to argue, in keeping with the popular “hygiene” and “sanitation” movements of the day, that “cleanliness is more likely to prevent smallpox than [is] introducing filthy matter into the body.”

The Holy Trinity of American Quackery

These were, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homeopathy, chiropractic/osteopathy, and naturopathy. Hahnemann himself had approved of his contemporary Jenner’s assertion, believing that it confirmed “like cures like” (ably refuted by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.). Constantine Hering, however, the “Father of American Homeopathy,” was the first homeopath to declare his opposition to vaccination. He called it “always a poisoning” and asserted, “we learn from year to year a more certain and better way of curing small-pox homeopathically.” He nevertheless admitted in 1883, near the time of his death, that this ‘better way’ had not achieved the certainty of prevention by vaccination.

In 1918, Benedict Lust, the “Father of American Naturopathy,” wrote this:

Like the alchemist of old who circulated the false belief that he could transmute the baser metals into gold, in like manner the vivisector claims that he can coin the agony of animals into cures for human disease. He insists on cursing animals that he may bless mankind with such curses.

To understand how revolting these products are, let us just refer to the vaccine matter which is supposed to be an efficient preventive of smallpox. Who would be fool enough to swallow the putrid pus and corruption scraped from the foulest sores of smallpox that has been implanted in the body of a calf? Even if any one would be fool enough to drink so atrocious a substance, its danger might be neutralized by the digestive juices of the intestinal tract. But it is a far greater danger to the organism when inoculated into the blood and tissues direct, where no digestive substances can possibly neutralize its poison.

The natural system for curing disease is based on a return to nature in regulating the diet, breathing, exercising, bathing, and the employment of various forces to eliminate the poisonous products in the system, and so raise the vitality of the patient to a proper standard of health.

Official medicine has in all ages simply attacked the symptoms of the disease without paying any attention to the causes thereof, but natural healing is concerned far more with removing the causes of disease…

In those words we find several of the recurring themes in quackery that were evident in the 19th century and remain so today. We know that naturopaths continued to espouse this view of vaccination at least until 1968, when the quotation at the top of this essay was among the materials they submitted to the Department of HEW in an unsuccessful attempt to be covered by Medicare. They’ve since learned to be somewhat more subtle about the issue, possibly because of the 1968 failure, but their distaste for vaccinations in general persists, as explained here.

An Aside: the “Cause of Disease,” Naturopathy-style

I’m sure you’ve been wondering, so here it is, right from the pen of Harry Riley Spitler, the author of the quotation that began this piece (courtesy of the 1968 HEW report):

The primary cause of disease is reaction to unnatural environment . . . When the body is weighted down by toxins in excess of the amount with which the vital force is able to cope, then enervation… supervenes and there is a lag in the body’s power to expel the “ashes” of metabolism… Enervation leads to the secondary cause of so-called disease — toxemia. Toxemia is the state of auto-intoxication resulting from the accumulation ot poisons in the body – poisons taken in from without in the form of incorrect food, impure water, vitiated air, etc., and which are not thrown off by the body because of its enervated state, and in addition thereto the poisons formed within the body itself by the processes of metabolism. . . The presence of these poisons within the blood stream and tissues causes the vital force to make efforts to eradicate toxemia, and these efforts are what is called “diseased crises.” . . . Disease, therefore, is not a hostile entity to be attacked, but is rather a manifestation of vital force in its efforts to continue to live and to remove anti-vital conditions caused by man’s deliberate, or ignorant, breaking of the laws of health and life … Disease, then, is the result of stagnation and accumulation of filth in the blood stream and in the tissues.

And the cure? Back to Lust:

The Program of Naturopathic Cure

1. ELIMINATION OF EVIL HABITS, or the weeds of life, such as over-eating, alcoholic drinks, drugs, the use of tea, coffee and cocoa that contain poisons, meat-eating, improper hours of living, waste of vital forces, lowered vitality, sexual and social aberrations, worry, etc.

2. CORRECTIVE HABITS. Correct breathing, correct exercise, right mental attitude. Moderation in the pursuit of health and wealth.

3. NEW PRINCIPLES OF LIVING. Proper fasting, selection of food, hydropathy, light and air baths, mud baths, osteopathy, chiropractic, and other forms of mechano-therapy, mineral salts obtained in organic form, electropathy, heliopathy, steam or Turkish baths, sitz baths, etc.

And, of course, enemas.

Natural healing is the most desirable factor in the regeneration of the race.

Wow. It’s all kind of fascistic, no? But I’m digressing.

More on the Holy Trinity

You probably noticed Lust’s approval of chiropractic, another field with a rich tradition of antivax fervor. Some chiropractors have learned to be a bit more subtle; others have not (and not all contemporary chiropractors are opposed to vaccinations). If you’ve perused the 1968 HEW report, you also know that the American naturopathic schools of the mid-20th century were mostly spawned by chiropractors, and that for some time there was little distinction between naturopaths and “mixer” chiropractors. Many “NDs” of that time also had “DC” after their names.

You may also know that contemporary naturopaths love homeopathy. Lust didn’t include it in his NEW PRINCIPLES OF LIVING, probably because of his emphasis on “drugless healing.” Nevertheless, he praised Hahnemann for having shown “the physicians of his day…that just as good results could be brought about by means so gentle that even a delicate child could be treated, without the slightest particle of danger.” It seems to have been left to the next generation of American naturopaths to fully embrace homeopathy, and this was done most conspicuously by a man who himself embodied the Holy Trinity of Quackery: John Bastyr, N.D., D.C. (1912-1995), the “Father of Modern Naturopathic Medicine.”

Bastyr was also described as a

…third-generation homeopath from Dr. Adolph von Lippe. His teacher was Dr. C. P. Bryant (who had been, in 1939, president of the International Hahnemannian Association). C. P. Bryant had been taught by Walter Bushrod James who had been one of Lippe’s closest students. He received doctorate degrees in naturopathy and chiropractic from Northwest Drugless Institute and Seattle Chiropractic College, respectively. He became licensed to practice naturopathic medicine in 1936. He is also credited with being the Father of Modern Naturopathic Medicine. Because of Bastyr’s influence naturopaths have been at the forefront of the rebirth of homeopathy in this country. He made sure that homeopathy shared equal emphasis with nutrition, hydrotherapy and botanical medicine in naturopathic education. Dr. Bastyr considered manipulation the most important therapy in his practice.

So there you have it: the mystical unity of three seemingly incompatible True Causes (Psora, Subluxations, Toxemia), and of three seemingly incompatible True Cures (similia similibus curentur, spinal manipulation, enemas). No wonder that John Bastyr the chiropractor is credited with having been the Saviour of naturopathy and homeopathy in the United States.

Another Aside: Early Vaccinations really were Dangerous

It’s ironic to consider that many of the early objections to smallpox vaccinations were somewhat justified, far more so than are contemporary objections to contemporary vaccinations. Material gathered from cowpox blisters, transferred from human to human, was invariably contaminated. Diseases plausibly attributed to such “arm to arm” vaccinations, in the era before the Germ Theory elucidated such risks in advance, included syphilis, hepatitis, and even smallpox itself, due to contamination from variolations occurring within the same hospitals or clinics. The advent of exclusively animal sources of cowpox didn’t occur until the mid-19th century, and “arm to arm” vaccinations weren’t outlawed in Britain until 1898. Preparations of pure virus—vaccinia—were introduced only in the mid-20th century.

The political objection to mandatory vaccinations also had more clout in the early days, when the concept of “herd immunity” had yet to be introduced.

“All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”

This is from a meeting of the Connecticut Homeopathic Medical Examining Board, March 12, 2003:


The Board reviewed the following procedures for the prevention and treatment of smallpox as submitted by Dr. Mullen:



It is recommended to administer it at a potency of 30 CH twice a day for up to 5 days as a preventive. This remedy is also very useful to combat the ill effects of Allopathic small pox vaccination, as well as to control the disease that happens when a person gets unwillingly infested by the vaccine received from another.


It is recommended to administer this remedy at potencies of up to 9 CH. I believe a good dosage schedule would be once a week for 2 or 3 weeks. It is recommended to administer this remedy at a potency of 6 CH every 8 days. Also useful in recent and distant ill effects of Allopathic vaccination.


An indication for the use of vaccininum would be a patient’s fear of contracting smallpox.


Both Drs. Allen and Vosin enthusiastically endorse this remedy for the prevention of small pox. I would advice to administer it at potencies of 30 CH or 200 CH weekly for 3 or 4 weeks.



It is recommended to administer it at a potency of 30 CH. This remedy is particularly useful in patients whose symptoms are more evident in the lower half of the body. I would recommend daily administration for 5 consecutive days and then re-evaluate the patient.

Mercurius 200 CH every other day alternating with Thuja 200 CH.

I would recommend to use this combination up to 10 consecutive days and then re-evaluate the patient.


It is recommended to administer this remedy at a potency of 9 CH. I would recommend to use it for 5 consecutive days and then re-evaluate the patient. This remedy can stop the disease in its earliest stages, including the development of pustules. The patient may be very sensitive to light, weak in the shoulder area and have shooting pains in zigzag from the lumbar region to the middle of the scapula.


It is recommended to administer it at any potency. I would recommend using it for up to 5 consecutive days, depending on the potency, and then re-evaluate. Variolinum is useful in patients with mild and uncomplicated small pox. Also when pustules are surrounded by a red halo and are often very itchy. Every other day for up to 10 consecutive days and then reevaluate the patient.

Thuja 200 CH

Every other day for up to 10 consecutive days and then re-evaluate the patient.

Wow. What exquisite, quaint, balderdash. Here’s a fun exercise that readers might enjoy: see what contradictions you can find between what you’ve just read and other efforts of the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Hint: start here. Then look at some of the practice acts, such as those for homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractic. Does one hand know what the other is doing?

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Morgellons: When People Mistakenly Believe They Have Parasites

I saw a patient recently for parasites.

I get a sinking feeling when I see that diagnosis on the schedule, as it rarely means a real parasite.  The great Pacific NW is mostly parasite free, so either it is a traveler or someone with delusions of parasitism.

The latter comes in two forms: the classic form and Morgellons. Neither are likely to lead to a meaningful patient-doctor interaction, since it usually means conflict between my assessment of the problem and the patients assessment of the problem.  There is rarely a middle ground upon which to meet. The most memorable case of delusions of parasitism I have seen was a patient who  I saw in clinic who, while we talked, ate a raw garlic clove about every minute.

“Why the garlic?” I asked.

“To keep the parasites at bay,” he told me.

I asked him to describe the parasite.  He told me they floated in the air, fell on his skin, and then burrowed in.  Then he later plucked them out of his nose.

At this point he took out a large bottle that rattled as he shook it.

“I keep them in here,” he said as he screwed off the lid and dumped about 3 cups with of dried boogers on the exam table.

To my credit I neither screamed nor vomited, although for a year I could not eat garlic.  It was during this time I was attacked by a vampire, and joined the ranks of the undead. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Echinacea For Colds: Does It Really Work?

Does echinacea, the popular natural cold remedy, really work?

It depends on what you mean by “work.” Results [recently] reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that echinacea may reduce the length of a week-long cold by 7 to 10 hours and make symptoms a little less onerous. That can’t be characterized as a major effect, so many people may figure that the trouble and expense of echinacea just isn’t worth it (fortunately, side effects from echinacea don’t seem to be much of an issue.)

But others may decide that some benefit is better than none, and these results do fit with others that have left the door slightly ajar for echinacea having some effect as a cold remedy — a modest effect, but an effect, nonetheless.

A summary for patients published by the Annals summed up the situation nicely:

People who take echinacea to treat colds may experience a decrease in the length and severity of their cold symptoms but to such a small degree that they may not care about the difference. Although many studies of echinacea have been performed, researchers still disagree about its benefits in treating the common cold. This study is unlikely to change minds about whether to take this remedy.

Have you tried echinacea as a cold remedy? Has it worked? How do research findings, pro and con, affect your opinion of so-called alternative medicines?

Many of the echinacea studies, especially early on, were sponsored by companies making or selling the product. This study was supported by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

– Peter Wehrwein, Editor, Harvard Health Letter

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »