Woo hurts—it really hurts

A frequent argument of (weak) support for alternative medicine is that, well, maybe it doesn’t help much, but it couldn’t hurt.


Aside from the usual arguments that it wastes resources, distracts people from real medical treatments, etc., there are more, real dangers. One of the hallmarks of woo is that treatments are humorously broad. One idea or treatment is often touted for many different illnesses, and even different species. How is it that, despite all my years of training, I’m only an expert on adult human disease, and yet Gary Null, with a cracker jack box Ph.D. not only knows people, but pets, too?

But lets start with a story…

Mr. Atkinson is a (usually) likable guy. I first met him in the hospital when he was admitted with acute alcoholic hepatitis. Aside from being a bit yellow, he looked like a reasonably healthy guy, and thankfully he pulled through. His family gave him great support, and he quit drinking (a habit he had resumed after being laid off).

As is not uncommon in these cases, he dropped off my little corner of the planet for months, and only reappeared when he came to my office drunk. Usually, I don’t tolerate intoxicated patients, but I told him if he wanted to live, he had to seek help.

He entered an intensive inpatient and outpatient program, and has been (apparently) sober for many months.

But his liver is killing him. He has cirrhosis. His belly fills with gallons of fluid which must be drained off every few weeks. Aside from his belly, he is dreadfully thin. He has suffered attacks of severe bleeding. If he doesn’t get a new liver, we probably can’t keep him going too much longer.

So, we have him on a medical regimen to keep toxins from accumulating and making him delirious, and to help prevent recurrent bleeding. He is on medications and fluid restrictions to help slow the accumulation of fluid in his abdomen. With the help of his family, he is doing everything he can to survive long enough for a new liver.

But twice in one week he returned to the hospital feeling week, more swollen, and with a dangerously low sodium level. We suspected that perhaps he had a drinking problem—but not booze. This time, the culprit was water. He said he didn’t really drink much water.

I pulled back the sheet to feel his belly, and next to his pen and legal pad was the book The Joy of Juicing, by Gary Null.

I’ll save you skipping to the end of the story, and reveal that he had been drinking huge volumes of juices based on Null’s advice. This had likely led to his hospitalizations.

He isn’t some New Age wacko—he’s just a guy who wants to feel better and turned to a charismatic woo-peddler for help.

So what’s this magic juice supposed to do anyway? First, let me explain cirrhosis a little bit. Once the liver is damaged, whether by alcohol, viruses, or other diseases, it tries to rebuild itself—largely unsuccessfully. The regenerated liver is knobby and shrunken and cannot perform its basic functions correctly—it is “cirrhotic”. There is no cure for cirrhosis. The damage is already done.

Woo pushers often state that “oxidative damage” is the key to all disease, and “anti-oxidants” the cure. Wouldn’t that be nice. Even if it were true, it would do nothing for cirrhosis—there’s no turning back.

But the average guy can’t be expected to know this. That’s why we have doctors.

According to non-doctor Null though, natural juice is the key (except when he is selling various supplements, or telling you to stop vaccinating, or throw out your cell phone, etc.).

[T]hese foods, with their available enzymes, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals, can be the key to slowing down, and in many cases, reversing premature aging (ed. what the hell does that mean?), and a host of diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

The introduction to his book goes on in that vein (and on and on). Thankfully, he doesn’t need a lengthy citation index because, well, there is no evidence that raw juice does anything other than quench your thirst.

Which brings me back to Mr. A. He’s thirsty, miserable, scared. He buys a book by a smiling guy that seems to offer harmless advice—it’s just juice, what could it hurt?

Between the elevated potassium and depressed sodium levels, it almost killed him.

“Alternative medicine” isn’t just some cute stab at trying “other ways of healing”—it can kill. Does that sound like an exaggeration?

I wish it were.


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