Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Covid-19 Pandemic: Staying Hopeful

I am finding I have less and less to share on this blog. Not because I am any less committed to my own personal health and wellness - I still exercise daily, cook and bake all my food and eat nutritiously, and prioritize sleep and wellness - but sharing health information has become less of a priority for a few reasons.

First, since 2016 it has become clear that the world's terrible lifestyle is not our most imminent threat. Sure, the majority of us will eventually suffer the ill effects of being sedentary, overweight and eating a nutrient poor diet. But the more urgent dangers that have become apparent since the Sociopathic Orange Half Wit that is the current US President came into power are the rise of the alt right and hate mongering, anti-science/anti-vaxx movements, and climate change. I feel like every single day since that vicious, disgusting monster came into power its been just one terrible, tragic news story after another. The current Covid-19 pandemic is absolutely the icing on the cake of the shit show the world has become.

Second, I have recently completed two courses on health psychology/health promotion to update my knowledge base from when I completed my PhD in 2005. What I learned from these courses, along with the additional reading and research I have done on my own paints a pretty grim picture when it comes to health promotion. Education does not work. Simply providing human beings with information about the risks of being sedentary, eating poorly, smoking, drinking, etc. and/or providing information on the benefits of exercise, nutrition, etc., does jack shit. Humans are not rational beings (as evidenced by the recent panic buying of toilet paper). But we are also just mammals and what has happened is, like any other species, we have adapted to our environment. Our brains were designed to keep us alive in an environment when food was scarce and movement was necessary. We now live in an environment where food is plentiful and most movement is unnecessary. Unless our environment changes, there is not much hope for us, and because too many industries are benefiting from the current situation, the odds of large scale change are low.

 It was tough before Covid-19 to be hopeful about the world since even if humans do manage to change our behaviour, it seems like we have already destroyed the planet beyond repair. Now that we are in the midst of a worldwide crises, the outlook certainly can look pretty grim.

While trying to allay the fears of my counselling clients, I am doing my best to manage my own, but I admit it is a struggle. I have had a tension headache for 5 days from clenching my jaw and have not slept well the past 2 nights. I don't even remember the last time I had trouble sleeping!

So I am practicing all the coping strategies I have been sharing with my clients:

1. Make peace with the uncertainty. There is never certainty for any of us no matter what. Try to live with the 'not knowing' and focus on one day at a time.
2. Create emotional distance from the current situation. Think about the present in the context of: "This is the time when...the Covid-19 pandemic threw the world into upheaval..." The objective being that you don't start to believe that things will never get better or that this is a permanent state of affairs.
3. Practice gratitude. Remember all the things you have to be grateful for. Write them down.  Every one of us is being affected in some way by this pandemic but for some, it is truly catastrophic (a loved one has died, a person's livelihood has gone up in smoke and they are penniless, etc.).
4. Try not to ruminate and catastrophize about all the worst case scenarios. It is in no way useful. Remember that humans are incredibly resilient. We have weathered countless catastrophies over the course of our history and we will weather this too!
5. Limit your information consumption. Do not obsessively check media for updates. Even if you only check news 1-2 times a day, you will not likely miss anything. The recommendations in North America will likely be consistent for a long while: stay at home and wash your hands as often as possible!

So stay hopeful folks. Humans may be doomed when it comes to the chronic illness epidemic we created from our shitty lifestyle, but we will get through the Covid-19 pandemic 😉

Monday, March 9, 2020

Honest Medicine: Book Review

When I was sent the request to review Honest Medicine, I did so really because I thought it would make my blood boil and I would enjoy ripping it apart. Thus when the author emailed to thank me directly and wrote a personal note in the book, I maybe did feel a tad lousy. The author, Julia Schopick, is a health blogger who due to personal experience became frustrated with the conventional medical system.

But as you know, I am always completely honest about my opinions on this blog. Fortunately, the book is more benign than I expected. At the very least, it doesn't claim you can cure flesh eating disease with lavender oil or any crazy shit like that.

It is really nothing more than a series of testimonials from doctors and their patients for two alternative treatments, Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) and Low-Dose Naltrexone (LDN). There is also a section on the keto diet for pediatric epilepsy.

The claim is that ALA and LDN can treat and/or 'cure' MS, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, diabetes, (and possibly other autoimmune diseases) as well as liver disease and some cancers.

One of the doctors in the book, Dr. Burt Berkson, is an advocate of using ALA and LDN and supposedly cured a man with late stage pancreatic cancer and a woman with liver disease (both also featured in the book).

Well you probably know what I am going to say next. At least I hope you do by now. Case studies are case studies. They are not randomized controlled studies. I did do my own research and found there have been a few studies on each. Apparently for MS, ALA and LDN can reduce pain and improve quality of life for some individuals. When it comes to cancer, there are only a few documented cases - all patients of Dr. Berkson - and one of whom is the patient included in the book.

Since the research on MS is more extensive, I did more digging. This is what the National MS Society has to say about it:

There has been limited clinical study of low-dose naltrexone (LDN) to treat MS. Most of the studies completed have been small non-randomized controlled trials.  Of the studies completed, many show LDN to be safe and easily tolerated but few show improvements to the disease process itself. Some studies have demonstrated an improvement in quality of life, particularly in pain and fatigue management. Because the evidence to support the effectiveness of LDN in treating MS is lacking, it is not considered a disease modifying therapy. If you are interested in taking LDN, it is important for you to have a discussion with your healthcare provider that includes possible effectiveness, side effects and risks.
Now are there problems with the conventional medical system? Of course, everything has problems. I suspect it is far worse in the US than Canada since we have universal health care here and it is not a 'business' in the same way it is there. Yes pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment companies can be shady and unethical, but I don't believe conspiracy theories. Not everything and everyone that is a part of conventional medicine is dishonest and malicious. And certainly some people and companies involved in alternative medicine are dishonest and malicious.

When it comes to the keto diet for epilepsy, that's been a treatment strategy even in conventional medicine for a long time. I know they offer it here in Toronto at the Hospital for Sick Children for kids with epileptic conditions. So I would not really say it's all that 'alternative'.

So is there some compelling stories suggesting we should explore the therapeutic benefits of ALA and LDN here? Absolutely! Certainly if you have something like MS, or Lupus or diabetes and you want to see if these treatments can ameliorate your condition or quality of life, it might be useful to explore it. Both ALA and LDN treatments are offered here in Canada at functional/alternative health clinics.

Now if I was diagnosed with a treatable cancer, would I dismiss my oncologists suggested protocol and do these treatments instead? Fuck no! And if you would, well knock yourself out. You will probably knock yourself out of living but all the power to you. If I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and the oncologist told me to get ready to kick the bucket, would I try these therapies just to see if they could help? Sure, I guess at that point I would have nothing to lose (though it would also depend on cost since these treatments are not covered by our public health care system).

As I have said before, for me, it is not a matter of whether something is considered conventional or alternative medicine, its about whether it is safe and there is empirical evidence (through randomized controlled research studies) that it is effective. It will be interesting to see what the results of further research are for the therapeutic value of ALA and LDN.