Posts Tagged Pseudoscience

Is your vagina depressed?

Are you femme presenting? Do you sometimes wish more people would have more of an opinion on how you have sex? How often you have sex? How you should behave when you don’t want to have sex? How often you should want sex? How your body behaves when you do/don’t have sex? Whether your experience of sex is real? What ‘real’ sex is and who ‘real’ sex happens with?

Well, you’re in luck! Because over the last year and a half the British media have been telling us all about a “study” which says if you’re not having “enough” sex, your vagina (if you have one) will get depressed and “atrophy”.

Woman's head and shoulders from behind, in grayscale. Her head is dropped down.

As far as I can tell, this all started a little over a year ago when The Sun wrote this headline:

SORE POINT Do you have a ‘depressed’ vagina? This could be why sex is SO painful (and it’s nothing to do with an STI)”. The story resurfaced just a few weeks ago when Higher Perspectives said “New Research Says Lack Of Sex Makes Your Vagina Depressed

The Higher Perspectives article begins “We all know that a healthy sex life keeps our immune system humming, lessens pain and relieves stress. It makes for a happier life. But what happens when we don’t have a sex?”. The article goes on to explain that “research” shows that “Sexual abstinence can make our vagina depressed and this can also lead to vaginal atrophy.”

Do they link to this research? Well, no. And having a look on Pubmed shows no sign of any such research in existence. But they said their claims were “backed in science” it so it must be true, right?

Digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that the media – including The Sun, Maxim, The New York Post and Women’s Health Magazine seem to think a diagnosis of vulvodynia is a synonym for vaginal depression. The Sun even claims that vaginal atrophy is “The horrifying thing that can happen to your vagina if you don’t have enough sex” – again, this begs the question of where they get this claim that a lack of sex can cause vaginal atrophy – and again, this news outlet does not link a reliable source to support the claim.

Two stormtrooper lego figures holding hands stood in front of a sunset over water

They do however, mention that Louise Mazanti, a “sex therapist” from London, has just released a book…More on Louise Mazanti later.

Vulvodynia ≠ vaginal depression

The idea that vulvodynia and vaginal depression are equivalent terms, seems to come from an episode of Sex and the City where Charlotte is diagnosed with the condition (the real one, not the media hyperbole one). She remarks that her doctor prescribed her antidepressants and it’s “hilariously” questioned if her vagina is depressed.

Nearly ten years after Sex and the City finished broadcasting, we collectively know so little about vulvodynia that this misnomer seems to have stuck.

And yet vulvodynia is a significant diagnosis that affects a huge proportion of people with vaginas at some point in their lives.a stethoscope and sphygmomanometer on a white surface

Simply put, vulvodynia is chronic pain (lasting 3 months or more) of the vulvar area. Vulvodynia is a tricky condition to treat, as with many chronic pain conditions, and requires collaboration between doctor and patient to find the right treatment.

One treatment option is a tricyclic antidepressant.

This is where the confusion starts – but antidepressants used in this way are prescribed in far lower doses than required for an antidepressant effect. These drugs are actually used because in low doses they act as pain modifiers. The comparison of vulvodynia to depression is completely inaccurate.

Having “enough” sex?

For some people with vulvodynia, penetrative sex is not possible. Suggesting women have more sex to solve all their medical problems, can actually cause harm far more than it helps. We know that our society tends to view penis in vagina sex as the only “real” sex. The consequences of this are significant – sex between two women is dismissed, oral and digital forms of sex are considered “foreplay” and there is a huge pressure placed onto the idea of “virginity”. And for people with the forms of vulvodynia that make penetration very difficult, this idea can have a damaging effect on their mental health. Across our society “women” are expected to “provide” for their “men” and this includes having sex frequently (but not too frequently). It is easy for people with vulval pain to feel dysfunctional and that can be damaging to their mental wellbeing – not helped when a lack of libido is often termed “female sexual dysfunction” but that’s a rant for another day.

two women holding hands in a field

Vaginal atrophy

These latest stories are particularly keen to mention frequency of (penetrative) sex being a preventative for vaginal atrophy (a thinning of the vaginal walls which the NHS website refers to as vaginal dryness). They claim this is founded in science but give no supporting evidence of this. Vaginal atrophy does happen – but it is scientifically understood to be a response to changes in hormone levels, and therefore is most common during and after the menopause. There is very little a person can do to control it and it is not as “horrifying” as The Sun claims – sexual frequency might enhance blood flow to the area to help delay or prevent this but that is not dependent on penis in vagina penetration. Using dilators, dildos, vibrators or manual penetration and stimulation will help just as well.

Louise Mazanti

So, if there’s no obvious “new” study which triggers this year’s media interest in our sexual habits, why else might this be “newsworthy”?

Perhaps it’s all to do with a new book that Louise Mazanti published earlier this year titled “Real Sex: Why Everything you Learned about Sex is Wrong” alongside her husband Mike Lousada.

Mike was an investment banker before his spiritual awakening led him to retrain as a counsellor and “sexologist” while Louise was a Professor in art and design before her own spiritual awakening and retraining in sex therapy. They both see clients in London and give talks and write books together and separately.

Louise is touted as an expert sex therapist in a number of articles discussing vulvodynia. On her webpage about her “expertise” is the claim that “Louise holds a strong energetic field for you to start exploring your own inner truth, and she can guide you into states of expansion that will give you a new direction in life.”. Louise is “trained in energy psychology [and] esoteric wisdom”.

And apparently that’s good enough to be an expert on the medical health of the vagina, or at least that seems to be the opinion of the media who think vaginal depression is a synonym for vulvodynia.

Read more about vulvodynia:

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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Arsenic cures cancer!

Last week The Daily Mail boldly asked “Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug”. It’s worth pointing out here, that even in the subheading bullet points the Mail Online downplayed their excitement a little, de-escalating from arsenic being a potential “miracle cure” to “makes chemotherapy more effective”.

Headline from the Mail Online reading "Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug"

The Mail Online wasn’t the only one to cover this story. Medical News Today headlined “Poison or cure? Arsenic can help treat cancer, study finds” while Science Daily said “Arsenic in combination with an existing drug could combat cancer – An ancient medicine shows new promise” and Harvard Magazine asked “Is Arsenic a Key Ingredient in the Battle Against Cancer?”. So, the Mail Online seem to be in good company in reporting this apparently exciting news.

New use for a traditional medicine?

One thing all of these stories had in common was the detailing of arsenic in traditional Chinese medicine. Harvard Magazine quoted study author Kun Ping Lu: “In Chinese traditional medicine, “Arsenic has been used for thousands of years,” said Lu. “Its oxidized form is the active ingredient” for a concoction the Chinese called “magic bullet,” which was used to treat a specific kind of leukemia, APL”.

Arsenic, in fact, has been claimed to treat a whole range of diseases throughout history – in Ancient Greek times it was used to treat ulcers and in Chinese Traditional Medicine it’s been used for over 2000 years. Arsenic was once added to Indian Ayurvedic herbal remedies and when Paracelsus, an Italian Professor of Medicine from the 1500s was skeptical of the old methods of balancing humours to treat disease, he introduced arsenic as an alternative. Paracelsus, in fact, stumbled across a genuine therapeutic action of arsenic in its ability to treat syphilis – an indication for which arsenic was used well into the 20th Century until antibiotics came along.

an open brown medicine bottle laying on its side containing a white powder and labelled "acid arsenic"

But arsenic has not only been a persistent element in traditional medicine, it has also been used to treat cancer – first, to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia in the 1930s and later to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). Arsenic trioxide (ATO) has been used to treat APL since its approval in 1995.

The study

The study the Mail Online et al. referenced was summarised in Nature Communications earlier this year in an article titled “Arsenic targets Pin1 and cooperates with retinoic acid to inhibit cancer-driving pathways and tumor-initiating cells”. The study is apparently based on three things:

  • A protein called Pin1 is important in cancer
  • Arsenic trioxide (ATO) is a treatment for cancer
  • All-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) inhibits Pin1

A good introduction to any peer-reviewed article will use scientific literature to convince you that the question the researchers have asked is a valid one and set their work within the context of what is known in the field. At first glance, this article is particularly industrious in the effort to convince the reader on the three areas above. They strongly stress that “Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer. Pin1 is hyperactivated in most human cancers and correlates with poor clinical outcome”.

ATO and leukaemia

ATO has been approved for use in a certain kind of leukaemia called acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) for many years and is successfully used in combination with ATRA in patients with APL. There are very few alternative treatments for this form of leukaemia and ATO combined with ATRA has low toxicity.

The underlying mechanism of this treatment is down to the existence of a protein called PML-RARα which causes APL. PML-RARα doesn’t exist in normal conditions however patients with APL have a genetic mutation which produces this fusion of the genes for two individual proteins PML and RARα – this generates the fusion protein, PML-RARα. It doesn’t really matter what PML-RARα does, only that it drives APL and it doesn’t exist outside of disease. Studies have shown that ATO binds to the PML part of this fusion protein and degrades it.

an image taken from one of the study figures showing the chemical structure of Pin1 and the chemical structure of ATO - the two are shown overlapping to indicate where ATO binds in Pin1

The chemical structure of Pin1 is shown with ATO (I) sitting within in apparent binding pocket on the protein. This image is adapted from the paper.

ATO and Pin1

But the authors of this study were interested in the effect of arsenic on a completely different protein – Pin1.

They don’t really explain why they thought arsenic might remove Pin1 in cancer cells. They used a technique to identify ATRA as a drug of interest, but it seems like they only looked at ATO because it’s already used in combination with ATRA.

In their study the authors find that treating cancer cells with arsenic in the lab reduces the levels of Pin1. They also show that ATO and ATRA combined, reduce cancer cell growth and reduce tumour size in mice. And they go some way towards explaining the mechanism behind these interactions and discounting alternative explanations for their findings.

In many ways, it’s a solid paper.

So why am I skeptical?

There are a few reasons, though, to be wary of the findings in this paper and the way it has been presented. Firstly, it’s the particularly hyped up nature of the story – arsenic has been used to treat leukaemia since the mid-1990s, this isn’t really news. But it does make me wonder if there’s a particular reason this article might be so strongly endorsed.

The authors also don’t really explain why they picked arsenic in the first place other than they’re interested in ATRA and Pin1… In fact they’re very, very interested in Pin1.

They argue “that Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer” – which is particularly interesting because as a cancer researcher with a PhD in cancer cell biology, I’ve never even heard of this protein. They reference three papers to support their claim but two of them are from the group’s own lab – the final paper they reference, an article titled “Pin1 in cancer” is from a separate source. This unrelated (and therefore, unbiased to some degree) article argues that Pin1 is hyperactivated in around 10% of all cancers. That number is pretty high, but it is certainly not enough to say that Pin1 is a “critical driver” in “most human cancers”.

So why are the authors so keen on Pin1? The suggestion that it’s a “unique drug target” might give us a clue.

five stacks of silver coins increasing in height from left to right

At the end of the article is the heading “Competing interests” under which is stated “K.P.L. and X.Z.Z. are inventors of Pin1 technology, which was licensed by BIDMC to Pinteon Therapeutics. Both Dr. Lu and Dr. Zhou own equity in, and consult for, Pinteon. Their interests were reviewed and are managed by BIDMC in accordance with its conflict of interest policy. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.”

Pinteon Therapeutics is a “private venture backed biotechnology company focused on the discovery and development of breakthrough therapeutics targeting Pin1” and we can therefore assume that this company will make money from the generation of Pin1 inhibitors that can be used to treat cancer.

Of course, Pin1 inhibition might well make for an interesting cancer target – there’s no disputing that – but its promise might well be overstated both in this article and in the media coverage of the article.

Me? I’m suspending judgement until we see more compelling evidence.

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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 GUTS! Does the GAPS diet cure autism?

The clean eating world is obsessed with guts! Your guts, my guts, your child’s guts…..even your dog’s guts. The recurring theme in clean eating dietary advice and health claims is that an unhealthy gut = disease. If you ‘cleanse’ your gut, either through diet or a course of enemas you will prevent and, more importantly, cure disease. One example of this sort of advice, and the reason I became interested in this particular area of pseudoscience, is the GAPS diet.

I first became aware of the GAPS diet after reading a blog post by ‘The Angry Chef’, where he dismantled some of the nutri-nonsense claims made by Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley (Ayuverdic tongue scrapers, Biodynamic eggs etc. Let’s not even go there today) and mentioned the GAPS diet being behind a lot of their ‘bone broth’ recipes and food philosophy. It piqued my interest so I decided to google it, and to be honest I wish I hadn’t. I went further and further down the ‘gut flora’ rabbit hole and ended up in a pretty scary place full of baseless claims, pseudoscience, anti-vax and bad science.

Text reading "mind the gap" from a train station platform

The GAPS diet

The GAPS diet was invented by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride after her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. She took matters into her own hands having decided that conventional treatments weren’t helping. GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome and follows the premise that a wide variety of health problems (particularly psychological and behavioural) are caused by an imbalance of gut microbes, or ‘gut flora’. Dr McBride claims that an imbalance in your gut will lead you towards disease, she claims that autism and ADD, OCD, schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and many other conditions are all digestive disorders, but offers a ‘cure’ in the form of her diet plan.

The diet plan is complicated and long, it is recommended to be followed for years, rather than your typical ‘fad’ diets which are often crash diets lasting days or weeks, but it isn’t any less restrictive. There are 8 steps to the diet, the first one being the most restrictive. Step one consists of room temperature water, probiotics and bone broth (which must be made from scratch, you can’t use any store bought stocks, they contain all those nasty toxins and stuff). A worrying line in the introduction to the diet refers to side effects when introducing new foods. It states that if you experience black, sticky diarrhoea, pain or any other digestive distress stop eating the new food, leave it a week and try again. It is important to note that black diarrhoea can be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding and a possible medical emergency. It should never be ignored, or left for a week! The introduction to the diet also recommends a ‘sensitivity test’ for new foods. Here you place a small amount of the food onto a patch on your wrist and see if there is any reaction…..seems legit.

After the initial stage you can slowly start to introduce other foods, beginning in stage 2 with eggs, but, they must be raw and they must be organic (yummy salmonella), along with homemade yoghurts and fermented fish. I barely have time to make myself a bowl of cereal in the morning, let alone having constant homemade broth, yoghurts, soups and stews on the go all week! And so the stages go on until stage 7 when you’re on the most permissive GAPS diet where some, unrefined starches are allowed.

a cracked raw egg on a black surface with an egg beater in the background

The GAPS diet is based on that classic nutri-nonsense idea of ‘detoxification’ of the body. The idea that our lifestyles and the food we consume are clogging up our bodies and minds, making us sick and fogging up our thought processes. By ‘flushing us out’, these diets can help our body to heal.

It is widely known that the liver and kidneys already do the ‘detoxifying’ bit. It’s kind of their job, and McBride does acknowledge this, but she thinks we need to give our body a helping hand in the shape of a few gallons of meat water, or by starving ourselves, which she believes helps to redirect our bodies energy to fight off disease….

So that’s the GAPS diet in a nutshell……but not a nutshell…because you can’t eat nuts on GAPS……so, in an avocado skin?…….or a chunk of hollowed out cow’s femur? Anyway! There isn’t much scientific evidence of this kind of restrictive diet being able to cure disease, or complex psychological disorders. In fact, there isn’t any evidence. There are no published studies on the GAPS diet and Dr McBride hasn’t produced any research or published anything backing up her claims. It is a dangerous way to go, advising people who are sick to go on such a restrictive diet, but she does, and there’s more.

McBride also believes and claims the following:

  • Children with autism are born perfectly healthy. Abnormal gut flora develops due to diet, and microbes passed from the mother, and makes them ill.
  • Breastfeeding is essential. If you are physically unable to breast feed your child use donated breast milk or a wet nurse. Bottle fed babies are going to develop abnormal gut flora and develop problems.
  • The contraceptive pill has had a ‘devastating effect on gut flora’, she doesn’t explain why.
  • She recommends smearing live yoghurt around and inside your vagina during your third trimester when pregnant to help ‘prepare the birth canal’ with beneficial bacteria. She also recommends doing the same to the armpits and breasts.
  • Big Pharma!
  • You should avoid vaccinating your child until they are around 4-5 years old, and even then, only if the child has a healthy, balanced gut flora.
  • Black elderberry is one of the most powerful anti-viral remedies known to man.
  • Using volcanic rock dust in organic gardening improves nutrition, and if used on a global scale, it would enable the soil to absorb enough excess atmospheric carbon to stabilize global climate change.

The upper arm of a child with a pink t shirt sleeve and a hand holding a syringe to the arm.

As previously stated, there is no published scientific evidence that any of the claims made by Dr McBride are true. The science is shaky and inaccurate. All the ‘evidence’ I’ve seen of the diet working has been purely anecdotal, from people on various forums singing the diets praises and attributing it to their improved health or the health of their child. Which brings me onto my main issue with this, the issue that made me wish I hadn’t investigated all this in the first place. The diet is directed predominantly at children. Children with complex behavioural and psychological problems, the thought of subjecting a child to this incredibly restrictive diet is worrying to me. You are essentially starving your child (albeit for a short period during stage 1 of the diet plan). Even when you reach stage 7 of the diet plan the diet is still extremely restrictive. A healthy balanced diet needs a bit of everything in moderation. Starving the body of sugar for example (unrefined or otherwise) is not beneficial.

The GAPS diet is an extreme, damaging, and potentially dangerous response to a problem that there is no evidence even exists. As with all clean eating fad diets, it preys on peoples’ fears, and offers a solution that seems too good to be true. Unfortunately, it nearly always is.

 

Karin McClure

Karin has been actively involved in skepticism for 4 years and has been involved with the Merseyside Skeptics for 3 years. She has given talks on the pseudoscience around diets and health at QED
Skepti-camp, Ignite Liverpool and Merseyside Skeptics and has been interested in diet and health for 3 years. Karin is also an artist and has sold her work at events around the country and online, information can be found on her website lunalynes.wordpress.com where she also shares posts about her experiences with mental health, as well as art updates.

 

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The Boy Who Might Be Magnetic (Or, More Likely, Definitely Isn’t)

Reports in multiple sources at the moment, from the Guardian to CBS, have been telling the tale of a young boy in with what’s said to be an unusual talent.

Taking up the story from CBS:

“Six-year-old Ivan Stoiljkovic appears to be able to attract metal to his chest – including silverware, coins and even a frying pan.

His family says Ivan possesses extraordinary strength and even healing powers.”

“It started as a joke,” said his grandmother. “I said, let’s try this and things just stuck to him. The heavier things actually stuck more strongly to him.”

In total, his family says Ivan can carry up to 55 pounds of metal on his torso.

His upper body appears to be more magnetic and his family says his wounds heal very quickly and leave no scars.

Family members told Reuters that Ivan also has “healing hands” with which he alleviates his grandfather’s stomach pains and has soothed the pain of a neighbor who hurt his leg in a tractor accident.”

The story comes complete with a video of Ivan demonstrating his talents:

Avid magnetic-child-watchers may have heard this tale before, and indeed this isn’t the first time a child from Eastern Europe has been heralded as possessing extraordinary magnetic powers. In fact, just this February a seven year old Serbian boy called Bogdan was filmed demonstrating his own extraordinary skills. Read the rest of this entry »

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Scientologists* Are Criminals! (*I Mean The Ones Already In Prison, Obviously)

Scientologists are criminals.

Don’t worry, that’s not a wild assertion made to martyr myself as the next cause célèbre of the libel reform campaign (although that’s not a bad idea – I mean who’d heard of the Simon Singh fella before he pointed out the happily bogus claims of the BCA? That’s right: nobody. And now look at him – front page of the BBC, on every skeptical podcast going, and standingly-ovated every time he leaves the house. I think the only way, therefore, to get big in the world of skepticism is now libel martyrdom. Fuck it – Dereck Acorah eats babies and Rupert Murdoch is a first-class cunt).

Anyway, as I was saying, scientologists ARE criminals. Or, at least, some of them are – according to the cult themselves. In fact, more scientologists are criminals than we previously thought, if the cult is to be believed (which, of course, it probably isn’t – because lots of scientologists are criminals, as I say).

I’ll explain, or rather, I’ll let the Telegraph explain:

Scientology ‘has branch in every English prison’

Scientology has obtained a foothold in every prison in England and Wales, a spokesman for the religion claims, despite official figures which show only three prisoners acknowledge following the religion.

Essentially, the crazy cult (who were convicted of activities listed as ‘fraud in an organised gang’ in France last year) have been targeting prisoners across England and Wales, in an attempt to help them see the error of their ways, go straight, expunge their thetons, audit their woes and generally do all that fun scientological stuff that keeps Tom Cruise bouncing on couches and keeps the creepy, sinister smile on Tommy Davis’ face. You see, their organisation has an entire programme dedicated to the rehabilitation of lags (does anybody other than The Sun use the word lag? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used. Other than, you know, jet lag – but I think that’s a different context. Is someone who gets jailed for hijacking planes is known as a jet lag? I’d like to think so). Read the rest of this entry »

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Dowsing For Danger: Is The ADE651 Still On The Market?

A little while ago, our good friend and past guest speaker Trystan Swale covered the ADE651 – the so-called bomb detector that didn’t, well, detect bombs. The story had been widely reported, with prominent skeptic Bruce Hood working with the BBC to expose the inefficacy of the devices, culminating in the arrest of ATSC CEO Jim McCormick. James Randi, of course, had long since identified the ADE651 as little more than a dowsing device, having slapped the $1million challenge on the table if McCormick were able to prove him wrong – an offer which was, unsurprisingly, refused.

All this is well-known, and can be found in greater detail elsewhere on the web, so I won’t bore you by re-hashing the details. However, there is something I can add to the story – we here at the MSS were recently contacted by a journalist wanting to know a little more about the device, specifically if it’s still on sale. Always happy to oblige, I got to doing a bit of digging, and having found – unsurprisingly – the ATSC’s website down ‘for repair’ (I can only assume it’s the company’s morals that are undergoing repair), I was kindly pointed in the direction of the online trade outlet ecplaza, and specifically the page for the ATSC ADE 651.

Well, what better way to find out if this disgraced and disproven device is still on sale, than to call up the manufacturers directly? Luckily enough, ecplaza lists the phone number for the sales department of WooBombDetectorsRUs as +44 207 681 2036… which is a number out of service. Presumably, the phone lines are also down for repair. Still, on the page there’s this lovely, shiny, inviting orange box titled ‘Inquire Now’… so I did. Presumably, I thought, if the website is down and the CEO under investigation for fraud, then the email enquiries would either bounce back an auto-reply saying ‘this device is no longer on sale’ (or word to that effect), or it would simply disappear into a black hole.

As it turns out, I was wrong Read the rest of this entry »

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