“Feat of clay” (Ionithermie)


There are many forms of alternative medicine, most of them cheaper than ionithermie, since it is primarily available on ocean cruise liners. Wherever one receives the treatment, it is touted as a means of removing cellulite, toning skin, and slimming waistlines.

In these sessions, customers are wrapped in a mix of herbs and seaweed before having a dry brush applied to their skin. Next they shower, then lay on a pad covered with algae-infused clay. The skin to be treated is then covered with this clay, which acts as conductor when a current is applied to it.

Jeff Wagg of Skeptoid queried an ionithermie practitioner about the cellulite claims. She wrote that through galvanism, which is the contracting of muscles being stimulated by an electrical current, clay will be forced into the body. There, the clay makes a beeline for cellulite and commences to zapping it. In truth, the dermis keeps most foreign substances out of the body. Any clay will almost certainly stay on the outside. Further, misusing a genuine scientific word, in this case galvanism, is a typical ploy in alt-med circles.

As for slimming, if you wrap any part of your body tight enough that it sweats for a prolonged period, that particular part will shrink, but revert to its normal size the next day.

Wagg found another practitioner who wrote that ionithermie will “detoxify the body at the cellular level. Over one million treatments are performed annually worldwide and it is offered on more than 100 cruise liners around the world.”

That last sentence is the ad populum fallacy. Perhaps that many customers are receiving the treatment, but what are they getting out of it? And the only detoxing taking place is what the liver and kidneys are doing and this applies whether or not one is enveloped in fine-grain earthy material while floating toward Bora Bora.

The practitioner further proclaimed that, “Just one session and your favorite dress fits perfectly again,” and that the product is “100 percent chemical-free and enriched by the healing powers of natural amber and silver that can make your skin look delicious!”

Thinking it is chemical-free reveals scientific ignorance and the references to amber and silver represent the naturalist fallacy. Anything you put into your body or on your skin is going to contain chemicals, regardless of how natural, organic, silky, or sweet-smelling it is. Often times, the claims of being natural are false since mankind has improved the product in the field or in a laboratory. More importantly, nature merely means occurring in nature and this distinction has no bearing on safety. On a positive note for the practitioners, the “delicious-looking skin” imagery may help them with the cannibal demographic.



“Lotion notion” (Sunscreen dangers)


I have my parenting flaws. For instance, a lack of patriarchal oversight and an overreliance on Velcro sneakers means my children are usually about 8 years old before they can tie their shoes. But none of them have ever been sunburned. We carry sunscreen in our minivan so that we can never forget it and in case we launch an impromptu outdoor adventure. As unpleasant as sunburns are, excess exposure to ultraviolet radiation can also lead to prematurely aging skin and cancer.

However, some reports, most notably one from the Environmental Working Group,  warn that the sunscreens we use for protection may actually be doing harm. Most of the worry centers on the chemical oxybenzone. This mouthful of an ingredient serves as an ultraviolet filter which absorbs the sun’s rays so our skin doesn’t have to.

The challenge in determining a chemical’s dangers or lack thereof was addressed by Popular Science. (Incidentally, it doesn’t matter if science is popular, what matters is if it’s right). The article noted that cyanide will cause an exposed person to expire within 10 minutes, while asbestos could take years to unleash its fatal effects. From the story: “The gap between exposure and the emergence of disease is called latency and it’s just one of many issues that make it tough to determine a chemical’s safety.”

Adding to the challenge is that exposure to a certain chemical doesn’t take place in isolation. Popular Science envisioned an asbestos-removing chain smoker who develops lung cancer. Did the disease result from his habit, his employment, both, or neither? His exposure to toxins at his work and in his cigarette made the man’s risk higher, but did not guarantee cancer any more than a regimen of vitamins, minerals, vegetables, and cross training will ensure freedom from the disease. So trying to figure out the roles that exposure plays requires repeated research.

Dosage also matters. In one study, young rats ingested large amounts of oxybenzone and developed large uteruses (all test subjects were female, otherwise this would have been quite a result). This occurence suggested the lab rats experienced hormonal effects, which in humans can increase cancer risk. However, these findings are not without limitations. The dose was extremely high, no people are rats, and humans don’t consume vast quantities of sunscreen, though my 3-year-old son has tried. J.R. Thorpe at bustle.com noted that scientists have determined that persons would need to pile on inches-deep levels of oxybenzone over their entire body for 36 years to have an exposure equivalent to what was forced on the rodents.

Another study on human cells found that oxybenzone can mimic estrogen and block testosterone, especially in breast cells. Buy this result again comes with a caveat. Cellular studies are often a poor indicator of what will happens inside a person. The body may have mechanisms that counteract the goings-on inside a petri dish.  

There are other worries about a second sunscreen ingredient, retinal palmitate. These concerns stem from a study which shows that, when exposed to UV light, the chemical can produce free radicals, which are tied to cancer development. However, the Skin Cancer Foundation points out this study was also done on lab rats, not human skin. Further, it was never published and thus not peer-reviewed or replicated, and antioxidants inherent in people can tame the effects of free radicals.

Other studies have linked regular sunscreen use to melanoma, but this may be a result of inefficient use, specifically not applying the lotion often enough throughout the day. 

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone wear a water-resistant, broad-spectrum, SPF 30 minimum sunscreen. This is especially vital for children since early sunburns increase the likelihood of skin cancer later in life. No published studies conclusively show that sunscreen is deleterious to human health. To the contrary, research indicates that wearing sunscreen reduces the risk of risk of skin cancer and prematurely aging skin. There is insufficient research to declare oxybenzone unquestionably safe, but if having such concerns, putting on long-sleeve shirts, full-length pants, and the millinery wear of your choice is better than trying an unproven sunscreen alternative.

I especially discourage eschewing sunscreen for coconut oil, a technique touted by alt-med types. Wellness Mama offers precisely this tip in her post, “How to make natural homemade sunscreen,” an oxymoronic suggestion since if you have to make it, it’s not natural. More importantly, the Mayo Clinic states that coconut oil blocks a negligible 20 percent of UV rays and it has an SPF of 7, less than a quarter of the minimum recommendation. The only way to safely use this product is indoors.



“The chemical druthers” (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity)


Over the last year, I have experienced more frequent instances of muscle pain. Over the same time, my wife has had more headaches and my son has battled eczema. While the first two maladies could be seen as regular signs of aging and the third an understood medical condition, some persons would consider all of us to be victims of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. It may even be to blame for my cats shedding so much fur.   

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity purportedly results from modern developments, be they positive ones like treated water, negative one like air pollution, or neutral ones like synthetic clothing. Other possible culprits include cleaning products, paints, perfumes, tobacco smoke, tar, construction materials, gas stoves, pesticides, news print, and felt-tip markers. However, as there is no identifiable organic basis for this sensitivity, it so far has been impossible to test for, diagnose, treat, or even confirm the existence of.

Allergist Theron Randolph first championed the idea of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and he posited that it developed from humans’ inability to evolve a defense to synthetic chemicals. Were this true, however, nearly everyone would be suffering from it.

For those who do think it’s afflicting them, the anguish is real. The reactions range from mild annoyances to crushing disabilities. A highly-truncated list of symptoms would include fatigue, memory loss, muscle and joint aches, shortness of breath, asthma, skin conditions, seizures, blurred vision, sleep disruption, nausea, vertigo and dry mouth. More extensive lists created by those who purport to treat the condition will run for several dozen items. This is a strong indication that, rather than being a diagnosable medical condition, MCS is a catch-all phrase that can be considered the source of any discomfort. Even when a condition doesn’t have a known cause, as is the usually the case with Alzheimer’s or ALS, the conditions and treatment are generally the same for each patient. No one is going to consider a lingering cough to be an Alzheimer’s sign, nor will auditory hallucinations be interpreted as a consequence of ALS.

Further, treatment and end-of-life care for those with these diseases is going to be largely similar, though it will vary some by patient. By contrast, the treatment for MCS will vary by practitioner. Since there is no way to identify MCS or understand what causes it, there could be as many treatment plans as there are planners. As such, the recommendation can be as simple as eating more vegetables, as moderate as emptying the home of perfumes, sprays, and oils, or as extreme as fumigating one’s house and staying indoors with a filtered charcoal mask. Other suggested remedies are colon flushes, dietary supplements, dental amalgam removal, saline nasal rinses, and just about any other whim that hits the provider.

For those preferring a more evidenced-based approach, there have been controlled studies to try and determine a chemical basis for the symptoms associated with MCS. Through such trials, researchers learned that persons diagnosed with MCS were as likely to react to placebos as to the actual chemical. MCS is reported to occur at doses so low they are imperceptible to the senses. But when exposed to these negligible amounts in studies, subjects experienced no triggering of symptoms, nor a change in their vital signs.

Contrast this to amateur diagnoses of MCS, in which almost anything in the immediate environment can qualify as a trigger, and what it can trigger can likewise be voluminous. MCS has no consistent characteristics, uniform cause, or measurable feature. 

Dr. Stephen Barrett at Quackwatch, while careful to emphasize that the patients are genuinely suffering, thinks signs point to the afflicted experiencing “a psychosomatic disorder in which they develop multiple symptoms in response to stress. Many of these patients suffer from somatization disorder, an emotional problem characterized by persistent symptoms that cannot be fully explained by any known medical condition, yet are severe enough to require medical treatment or cause alterations in lifestyle. Some are paranoids who are prone to believe that their problems have outside causes. Others suffer from depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia, or other anxiety states that induce bodily reactions to stress.”

As such, those convinced they are suffering from MCS are highly susceptible to post hoc reasoning, subjective validation, and self-diagnosis. They should seek care from the likes of Barrett, who will compassionately lead them through what they need to hear, as opposed to riding on a perpetual carousel of a regimen that involves removing bodily fluids and gas stoves, overloading on vitamins, yoga, and intravenous infusions, avoiding pesticides, carpets, and gasoline, and opening windows while paradoxically avoiding the ubiquitous polluted air.

“Tea’d off” (Kombucha)


There is an appeal in making something yourself. When I concoct a pizza from scratch, I save money and it comes with a feeling of accomplishment that is unavailable from swinging by Papa John’s. This satisfaction would be even more pronounced if I grew the tomatoes myself and turned them into sauce. Similarly, I hear fishermen wax about the feeling of self-reliance that comes from catching, cleaning, and frying one’s own meal.

Those who produce a homemade tea called kombucha also get this pride, but unlike anglers or home chefs, some of these folks claim to cure diabetes or arrest the aging process. Kombucha is touted as an Old Wives Tale panacea and is one of many such products, though it is a somewhat unusual variety, coming in beverage form.

Proponents credit kombucha with being able to relieve many symptoms or illnesses, a typical trait in the world of anecdote-heavy folk remedies. What it is supposed to cure will depend on what is ailing the person, as the placebo effect, post hoc reasoning, and the fluctuating nature of many illnesses do what double blind studies cannot, i.e., testify to the drink’s efficacy. The consequences are mild if the self-administering patient thinks kombucha will take care of sniffles, hives, or hair loss, but they are potentially fatal if one expects it to resolve hypertension, HIV, or cancer.

Often described as time-honored or an old family recipe, it therefore appeals to those vulnerable to the antiquity and naturalistic fallacies. With regard to the former, the tea is often associated with Ukraine and is said to go back hundreds or thousands of years. There is some creativity here, as its supposed place of origins eschews the usual locales of ancient medical wisdom like China, India, Egypt, and Native American tribes.

Regardless of its real or imagined medicinal properties, kombucha is sweetened black tea fermented by a yeast-bacteria blend. This mixture forms what resembles a quarter-inch thick rubbery mat. These can be ordered online, though this messes with that whole back to nature vibe. The makeup of the mats varies depending on the climate where it’s made, as well as which bacteria and yeast are available.  

Skeptic leaders Scott Gavura and Edzard Ernst looked separately in kombucha claims and neither could find any clinical trials that showed the drink to have an identifiable health benefit. None of its active ingredients would suggest any medicinal effects beyond the negligible impact that small amounts of alcohol and caffeine might have.

However, given its lack of uniformity and regulation, the tea may carry risk. Gavura cited the case of an alcoholic who developed jaundice after two weeks of kombucha imbibing, and other users have contracted hepatitis, lactic acidosis, acute renal failure, and other nasties. It is especially crucial that those with a compromised immune system avoid the product, even though Wellness Mama touts the tea as an immune booster.

She also highlights the possibly true but irrelevant fact that kombucha “has been around for centuries in many different cultures.” Despite this appeal to antiquity, she also manages an appeal to novelty, an impressive pseudoscientific double. She writes, “Once a very obscure drink, kombucha is now a popular beverage that is available at most health food stores and many local grocery stores.”

Her more specific claims range from trivial to potentially deadly. For example, she says it will increase energy, an arbitrary distinction that means little if the promise is not realized. At the other end of the spectrum is her insistence that it will detoxify the liver. The liver’s function IS to detoxify, so if it needs detoxed, you should be in an ER, not a tea shop.

I will credit Wellness Mama with saying kombucha is not a panacea and she owns up to the lack of double blind studies, though tries to dismiss that by pointing out the lack of double blind studies on flossing. It would be kind of hard for a study subject to not know if they were flossing, so such a trial is implausible. By pointing out that flossing and kombucha both lack double blind testing, Wellness Mama commits the false equivalence fallacy, where one asserts two elements are equal because they have a common trait. We know from studies involving sets of identical twins that flossing and brushing removes more plaque and prevents more tartar than does brushing alone. But the more important point is that nothing about flossing studies or lack thereof attests to what kombucha can do.

Wellness Mama tosses out some of the alternative medicine standbys, for example saying the tea detoxifies, without explaining which toxins are being extracted or by what process kombucha manages this. A second hackneyed claim is that the tea boosts the drinker’s immunity. Boosting the immune system is not only impossible (except in extreme cases like stage 4 cancer or HIV positivity), it is not even desirable. Overactive immune systems are the cause of autoimmune disorders like lupus, myositis, and Chron’s disease.  

Another alt-med darling promoting kombucha is Dr. Axe. He remains unencumbered by the modest restraint Wellness Mama offers, extoling kombucha as an “immortal health elixir originating in the Far East 2,000 years ago. Kombucha is a beverage with tremendous health benefits extending to your heart, your brain, and especially your gut.” And you’ll be amazed with what it does to your sense of hyperbole.

He parrots Mama’s detoxing and immune-boosting lines, but completes the alt-med triumvirate by calling the tea “anti-inflammatory.” This is another buzzword that, when employed by alt-med proponents, is almost certainly being misused or oversimplified.

This is what the dietician blog Abbey’s Kitchen had to say on the matter: “Inflammation is a complicated condition that cannot be solved or worsened with one single food. If someone is trying to sell you a supplement or diet as anti-inflammatory, or shame you for enjoying an inflammatory hot dog at the ball game, you can be sure it’s a real stretch. If you stick to a balanced diet rich in fruits and veggies, kick the smoking, drinking, and drugs, and exercise regularly, you’ll be in pretty great shape.”

Axe’s most nebulous claim is that kombucha will improve the drinker’s mental state. Hmm, well maybe if it’s mixed with scotch.


“Ambulance deriver” (Essential oils in emergency care)


I have regularly decried the use of unproven medical treatments, especially by institutions that should know better. But as disturbing as the likes of hospital Reiki are, there is some solace in their being kept in the wing for Supplementary, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine (SCAM). As far as I know, there is no ER that will treat a ruptured kidney or compound fracture with applied kinesiology or therapeutic touch. But we are now one step closer to those nightmares with the introduction of essential oils in ambulances.

The guilty party is Tri-State Ambulance of La Crosse, Wis., which uses the lubricants to try and treat minor pain, nausea, and anxiety. Skeptic leader Dr. Steven Novella called this “a fundamental failure of medical education.” Worse, this is not an outlier, but is representative of the infiltration of unproven and unworkable products and procedures into health care. This takes place even at elite institutions, such as Yale, Duke, Georgetown, and the Mayo Clinic.

This creates parasitic relationships in which bogus treatments get undeserved status because of their association with honored names and legitimate medicine. Meanwhile, genuine treatments get referenced in the same pamphlets and home pages that praise acupuncture, iridology, and Joy Touch.

Novella wrote that treatments should be based on “clear and valid procedures for reliably answering basic questions about safety, efficacy, and fundamental issues of biology and mechanism of action.”

Compare that with WNPR’s description of aromatherapy in Tri-State’s emergency vehicles: “A few drops of essential oils are placed on a cotton ball, which is taped to the patient’s chest. Tri-State Medical Director Chris Eberlein said the smell is not overwhelming, but it does create a better environment for healing.”

“Better environment for healing” is a medically vacuous phrase used to cover for a lack of efficiency. Words like this are rampant in alternative medicine, where vague descriptors, undefined terms, and unspecified benefits are touted in lieu of double blind studies and use of the Scientific Method.

Continuing his defense of unproven treatments, Eberlein said ambulances can often be unpleasant environments for those along for the unexpected ride. That could be, although that’s probably due more to the patient’s condition than surroundings. But the level of comfort is unrelated to whether jasmine juice will tame an arthritic attack.

In the WNPR piece, Eberlein recalled that paramedics gave fentanyl to patients who ended up not needing prescription medication. Overreliance on narcotics for pain relief is a legitimate issue. But it is a non sequitur to say paramedics should therefore give their patients treatments not backed by the metadata of double blind testing. Give them Advil, for crying out loud.

Along those lines, there is some good news regarding the ambulance company’s policy. It will still give narcotics to those who need it, so essential oils will not be used to soothe substantial pain. As dangerous as alt-med can be, it’s much worse when used in isolation. Treating cancer with targeted immunotherapy and wheatgrass is no big deal, whereas using solely the latter would likely be fatal.

The service is using six oils, with no explanation for how these were selected or offering any evidence for their efficiency. Indeed, essential oils enthusiasts rely heavily on anecdotes and post hoc reasoning. This results in spectacles such as a dozen users citing a dozen different oils to combat insomnia.

When studies are highlighted, they are often of those done in vitro. However, Novella wrote that these are usually distinct from studies that will have practical use: “These studies rarely translate to a clinical application. When you directly expose cells in a culture to a compound, what happens in that setting may say nothing about what happens when the same substance is taken by a living organism. Little or none of the compound may get absorbed or find its way to the target tissue.”

Despite my railings, it is possible some oils could someday show medical promise. Most of them are derived from plants, which are the source for about half the medicines used today. As one example, certain willow bark ingredients can eventually become aspirin. At some point, someone discovered that willow bark had recuperative properties and this could be considered the first step in the Scientific Method: Observation. Through double blind studies, testing for falsifiability, attempting to replicate, and so on, scientists eventually located the active ingredient in willow bark, extracted it, determined the safe dose, and inserted it into a pill, lotion, or syrup.

So if someone online or in your circle of friends reports that lavender works for their rosacea, it just may do that. But that’s why following up with the testing described in the previous paragraph is paramount. If it does work, such double blind studies will validate that and they would also help researchers determine the effective amount and prevent overdose.

Foraging through a forest in quest of some willow bark to chomp on in hopes of treating a headache would likely still be somewhat effective. But there are better methods and medicines available. Those methods and medicines are also available to Tri-State Ambulance, which is why they should be offering Excedrin instead of eucalyptus.



“Fool injected” (Anti-vax argument)


One of the keys to developing critical thinking skills is to understand the importance of addressing a point and not the person making it. Focusing on irrelevant factors like the speaker’s color, gender, ethnicity, politics, economic status, or background will leave one vulnerable to committing an ad hominem, specifically a genetic fallacy.

A few years ago, I came across a graph that purported to demonstrate that measles was well on its way out before the vaccine to combat it was introduced. It showed that the death rate from measles had dramatically declined before persons began being immunized for it. The conclusion was that the vaccine was inconsequential to the disease’s demise. To dismiss this as the ramble of an anti-vax loon would have been to commit an ad hominem. To address the point from a critical thinking perspective, I needed to examine the claim for truthfulness, then see if the whole picture was being painted, and also consider other angles.

When I did so, I learned that the anti-vaxxer’s point was accurate, but incomplete. While the death rate for measles was going down before the advent of the vaccine, the morbidity rate was not. Measles is an endemic disease, so populations can build resistance to it, but it can also be deadly when introduced to a new group. This, when combined with measles’ highly contagious nature and the susceptibility of preschoolers to it, explains why incidences of the disease spiked and descended several times, at approximately four-year intervals.

But there has been no such spike, or even a tiny bump, since the vaccine was introduced in 1964. In fact, there were 364 measles deaths in 1963, and none by 2004, a reduction of 100 percent. The anti-vaxxer’s chart showed how many persons were dying from measles, but not how many persons were contracting it. Advances in health care had enabled more persons to live with the disease, but only the vaccine eliminated it.   

Earlier this year, I again made myself examine an anti-vaxxer claim rather than dismissing it. For years, I had pointed out there was more formaldehyde in a pear than in any vaccine. But one day, I read an anti-vax blog that asked, “When was the last time you injected a pear?” The point was that the way a substance enters the body makes a difference and the blogger even noted that one could safely drink cobra venom.

And he’s correct. Swallowing the snake juice would be different from having fangs inject it into you. If one were so inclined to try the former, the gastrointestinal tract would break down the venom, similar to how the body digests proteins in food. Also, if one drank venom, it would never enter the bloodstream in active form. By contrast, when a snake bites someone, the victim has nothing beneath its skin or in its muscles to counteract the venom. Since it’s not broken down, the venom swims to the lymph glands and into the bloodstream, where it attacks the nervous system and heart, perhaps fatally.

But while anti-vaxxers are correct on these points, they again fail to understand that this has no bearing on a vaccine’s efficiency or safety. While a snakebite and a vaccine both involve injected substances, using this to compare the two is a false equivalency because one saves lives and the other ends them.   

Like the measles deaths graph, if I had dismissed the pear point because it came from someone I viewed as an anti-vax, pro-disease crank, I would have failed my critical thinking test for the day. Consider this an endorsement for avoiding echo chambers and contemplating various viewpoints. Sometimes the opposing view will be right; other times, it will be wrong, but will cause you to examine the issue and learn something you hadn’t realized. In this case, what I learned was the difference in how the body handles injections and ingestions, and the impact this has on a vaccine’s efficacy.  

The key is how much of a substance gets into the bloodstream because once it’s there, the body will process it the same, regardless of how it arrived. With snake venom, there are too many toxins for the body to handle and the poison makes its way to vital organs. While vaccines have ingredients that would be dangerous in high doses, these are in tiny amounts and toxicity is determined by dose, not ingredient. Further, venom contains active neurotoxins and vaccines do not.

Anti-vaxxers may argue that vaccines bypass the immune system, but again, they are being selective with the facts. Vaccines will bypass the body’s first line of defense, but they are designed to do so and won’t work otherwise. Vaccines contain antigens, which are dead or damaged viruses that are active enough to provoke an immune response, but too impotent to be harmful. This forces the body to develop antibodies against the real virus and thereby become immune to it. If the antigens were destroyed right away, they would never serve their purpose. Besides, antigens are not straggling interlopers, but rather they work their way out of the body like other foreign substances.

Since anti-vaxxers focus on injections, I wonder if their movement would have gained its sinister steam if it didn’t have scary needles to fall back on. What if vaccines were in chewable tablet or powder form and yielded a sweet taste as opposed to a sore arm? According to the Vaxplanations blog, the reason such an approach cannot be pursued is because oral forms of most vaccines would be incapable of getting past the gastrointestinal tract. Stomach acid, enzymes, and gut bacteria would render them useless. There are a few exceptions, such as the oral vaccines for rotavirus and polio, which work because both diseases are caused by gut pathogens.


“A bird in the scam” (Emu oil)


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.