“A bird in the scam” (Emu oil)

DREMU

The emu is a large, flightless bird endemic to Australia. Despite an awkward physique, they are faster than Usain Bolt and the females lay giant, Dr. Seuss-worthy green eggs. They are interesting animals but only merit mention in this forum because of claims that emu oil can cure or mitigate a wide range of maladies, including acne, arthritis, rosacea, hemorrhoids, baldness, bee stings, diabetes, bed sores, multiple sclerosis, and even cancer.

Such broad assertions are invariably evidence of a product’s inefficiency. Authentic medicine has an active ingredient that has been identified, extracted, and inserted into a product that is meant to serve a specific purpose, be it attacking a viral invader, reducing an inflammation, or soothing an aching muscle. The biological change it affects is understood, as is mechanism behind the active ingredient. Moreover, the risks and rewards are known. Advil can be taken for knee pain, Aveeno for eczema, and Antivan for anxiety. There is no magic potion that knocks out all of those, especially not from a product that has never been shown in testing to do any of this. Genuine medicine is the reward for doing sound research, following the Scientific Method, and double blind testing. It is supported by empirical evidence and repeated clinical trials.

No product or procedure can treat the dozen-item lists associated with emu oil and similar quackery. And for many serious diseases, there is no cure, only methods to manage symptoms or control flare ups. The more deadly the condition is, the more likely a scammer is to find a desperate patient to peddle to.

If scientists and doctors were seeing consistent, wide-ranging, and significant curative properties in emu oil, there would be multiple double blind studies and peer-reviewed articles highlighting this. Major breakthrough announcements would be made, Nobel Prizes would be awarded, and there would be a rewriting of medical, biology, and pathology textbooks.

Instead, we get claims from Dr. Axe that emu oil boosts the immune system, which is neither possible nor desirable. A heightened immune system is what plagues sufferers of autoimmune conditions such as lupus, celiac, and multiple sclerosis, which emu oil is supposed to fix. We also have an assertion from Wellness Mama that the oil “supports overall health,” an impossibly vague claim, and is without side effects. That last part may be true, but is also a giveaway that emu oil lacks medical value. Medicine, by nature, is going to impact the body is some way and that carries the risk, however slight or rare, of unpleasant side effects.

Another alt-med giveaway is that emu oil proponents prefer anecdotes over data. On wonderoil.com, there are dozens of testimonials insisting that the oil cured just as many conditions. By contrast, the only reference to double blind studies is a paragraph of ad hoc reasoning as to why there aren’t any such studies affirming the viability of emu oil as medicine.

The most frequent emu oil testimonies rave about its ability to soothe minor wounds, cuts, and burns, and to provide arthritic relief. But these are cyclical pains and persons are more likely to try something different if previous treatments have failed. This means that seeming successes are likely the result of the discomfort running its usual course. Further, seemingly favorable experiences could result from earlier or concurrent use of genuine medicine. Worse, the claim could be fabricated and there would be no way to know.

One anecdote I found focused on headaches, which is another hurt that fluctuates. But as McGill University science professor Joe Schwarcz noted,”There’s no component in emu oil that could be absorbed into the blood vessels and make it to the brain and influence the dilation or constriction of blood vessels.”

This demonstrates the importance of double blind studies, which determine if placebos produce the same results as the medicine being tested. If there was an ingredient and mechanism in emu oil that cured headaches, experiments and testing would locate this ingredient, extract it, determine the proper dosage, and put in pill, powder, or lotion form. If it worked, patients would need to know how much to use. Too little would be ineffective and too much could be dangerous. But since no research has attested to emu oil’s effectiveness as medicine, supplements that contain it lack standardization and the amount per dose varies depending on which brand one buys.

Many of the claims about emu oil rest on its omega-6 and omega-3 content. These are both essential fatty acids, meaning we can only get them from our diets. But according to obstetrician-gynecologist and skeptic leader, Dr. Jen Gunter, we in the  west consume far too much omega-6 and there’s no evidence that emu oil is especially high in omega-3.

Between Australian origins, a comical appearance, and eggs that resemble massive avocados, there are plenty of emu traits to appreciate, but a byproduct that cures gout, gastritis, and gingivitis isn’t one of them.

 

  

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