CLOSE
iStock
iStock

New Report Reveals the Dangers of Natural Remedies

iStock
iStock

People tend to assume that so-called natural remedies are safer than prescription drugs, but this often isn't the case. Look at it this way: Cobra venom and dysentery are natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for you. A patient guide published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association enumerates the risks of taking herbal supplements—a subject too often side-stepped by the industry's laissez-faire approach to regulation.

"Differently from 'conventional' medications, these medications are not tested in clinical studies," co-author Graziano Onder told Live Science. "For this reason, clear knowledge on their efficacy and risks is lacking."

The guide includes a long list of possible adverse reactions to supplements, including “allergic reactions, rashes, asthma, headaches, dizziness, agitation, dry mouth, seizures, fatigue, tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.” If that’s not enough, the guide continues, “Severe side effects have also been reported.”

More than half of Americans take at least one supplement every day. But just what is it that we’re swallowing? A report from the office of New York’s Attorney General (AG) released last February says a number of common herbal remedies are missing major ingredients—the herbs—and making up for this lack with fillers and contaminants. The AG issued cease and desist notices to four major retailers, ordering them to remove these “adulterated and/or misleading” products from their shelves.

Three years ago, the FDA conducted DNA barcode testing on 44 different herbal products and found some big problems. More than one third of the products contained no trace of the herbs they professed to be, and many were contaminated. After reading this report, the AG initiated genetic testing on six name-brand supplements sold at Target, GNC, Walmart, and Walgreens.

Sure enough, products labeled "gingko biloba," "St. John’s wort," and "Valerian root" tested negative for, well, gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, and valerian root. And several of the supplements contained allergens like wheat, soy, and peanuts, despite labels declaring them gluten- or soy-free.

“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” supplement safety expert Pieter Cohen told the New York Times. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.” All four retailers removed the problematic products from their shelves.

So what can you do to identify the helpful supplements from the potentially harmful? First, educate yourself. This page from the National Institutes of Health is a great place to start. Second, and we know we sound like a broken record here, but it’s super important: Talk to your doctor before you start or stop any supplement.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
iStock
iStock

Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Food
A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
iStock
iStock

The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios