Top 10 “Alternative Medicine” Stories of 2016

Top 10 Alternate Medicine Stories of 2016

The end of a year offers us a chance to reflect on, and make listicles of pop culture moments that have impacted our lives: albums, movies, even celebrity deaths. We would be remiss as science communicators if we didn’t make a few lists of our own. Voila, my dearest reader, I present to you my top ten list of the alternate medicine stories of 2016.

I wanted to make this article funny, really I did. But, the consequences of using unproven “alternative” medical treatments are real. At the least, real treatment may be delayed for a troubling condition, or you’ll just be out-of-pocket the cash it takes to procure these miracle snake oils. While the horrific reports of maiming and deaths that occurred in 2016 in the name of “alternate medicine” were anything but funny, they were tempered with a few ‘wins’ for science.

I’m ready to put a postage stamp on 2016 and send this “post truth” (HOW IS THIS A THING?) year packing!

10. AMBER TEETHING NECKLACES & HOMEOPATHIC TEETHING GELS: Amber teething necklaces make my list at #10 for being the perfect storm of magical thinking. Every crank’s favorite magic token- a semi-precious stone or crystal- combined with some pseudoscience, the supposed ability of amber to absorb “warmth” and release ‘succinic acid’ to a baby’s gums in a high enough concentration to ease the pain of teething. Additionally, the transfer of electrons is of particular interest to believers of “woo”- they believe the human immune systems function optimally and inflammation is suppressed when there is an adequate supply of electrons. It has been known for centuries that amber can acquire a static electric charge when rubbed with wool. Infant deaths from choking, suffocation, and strangulation have all been reported. Additionally, FDA is investigating 10 infant deaths and over 400 cases of seizures, fever, and vomiting that may be connected to the use of homeopathic teething treatments. These treatments include the ingredient belladonna, which, if not diluted down to “none” can cause the above symptoms.

9. ESSENTIAL OILS: Make my list at #9 for destroying the environment and for being poisonous to babies and pets. The rule of thumb in toxicology is ‘the dose makes the poison,’ so all essential oils are potentially harmful. Four out of every five toxic exposures to oils occur in children. Oils like camphor, clove, lavender, eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree, and wintergreen oils can cause hallucinations, seizures, chemical burns, breathing problems, liver failure and brain swelling. Not only are these oils potentially harmful, and don’t actually treat anything, but the demand for rare, indigenous plants is causing habitat destruction. For example, only around 200 critically endangered Arabian leopards remain in the wild and their habitat is being threatened by frankincense hunters serving the essential oils industry.

8. CUPPING: Thinking of trying a pseudoscientific “alternative therapy,” like the cupping therapy made popular by Olympic athletes in 2016? Know your risks! This practice is typically performed unsupervised, usually by people without any medical background. There are no certifications or regulatory bodies overseeing this treatment. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that cupping has any health benefits, what-so-ever, and the available research actually suggests that cupping can be harmful, especially in people who are thin or obese. Cupping can result in capillary expansion, excessive fluid accumulation in tissues, blood vessel rupture, bruising, skin burns, infection, and blood borne disease transmission.

7. FAKE CANCER CURES: The timing of detection and treatment is a critical determining factor for successful cancer treatment. Delaying conventional treatment while searching for an alternative cancer cure is a fatal mistake. The FDA lists over 187 fake cancer cures that are actively being marketed to victims. It’s not just the United States. Australia is also seeing epidemic levels of fake cancer cures, and 1000s of unnecessary deaths have been estimated this year. Recently, in one of my social media groups a woman reported applying bloodroot salve to her cervix to treat cervical dysplasia at home. As you might think, she was in excruciating pain, and needed to seek medical care, but sadly turned to social media instead! I have not read an update about this unfortunate woman (with extremely poor decision making skills) yet, but wish her the best!

You cannot cure cancer with vitamin B17.

6. INFANT CHIROPRACTIC: *Les Sighs*. There is no evidence of any benefit or even an assurance that chiropractic care for infants is even reasonably safe. Proponents believe that spinal adjustments can help alleviate non-musculoskeletal conditions such as colic, asthma, recurrent ear infections, cancer (I can’t even) and prevent general illness by “removing the nerve interference” causing these conditions. Thankfully, reported paralysis and strokes are rare BUT WHY would anyone take that risk? Not only that, but chiropractors tend to give all sorts of medical advice attempting to act as primary care doctors, where they do everything from negatively influence parent’s decisions about vaccinating their children, to delaying real care and treatments, and often ordering x-rays, exposing children to radiation for NO medical REASON.

5. VITAMIN K SHOT REFUSAL: There is a new way to worship the “all natural” that also tends to target new mother’s deepest anxieties: Vitamin K shot refusal for newborn babies. This dangerous trend is piggy-backing on the anti-vaccine sentiment gripping the nation. All babies are born vitamin K-deficient, putting them at risk for uncontrolled bleeding, until they start eating solid food. Vitamin K deficiency bleeding can have catastrophic consequences, resulting in; gross motor skill deficits; long-term neurological, cognitive or developmental problems; organ failure; or death. Approximately 0.25% to 1.7% of newborns that don’t receive vitamin K at birth will experience “early” vitamin K deficiency bleeding. But, late vitamin K deficiency bleeding (between 2 and 24 weeks old) affects an estimated 4 to 10 of every 100,000 babies who don’t receive vitamin K at birth and is, in a way, much more dangerous, because it happens after mom and baby have gone home from the hospital, it is “silent,” internal, and much more likely to be diagnosed after irreversible damage has occurred. About one in five babies who develop late vitamin K deficiency bleeding die, and two of every five who survive have long-term brain damage.

4. ORGANIC TAMPONS: Women have a MILLION things to worry about when it comes to their vaginas, and 2016 sought to add one more. A wave of celebrity fueled “chemophobia” (an irrational fear of chemicals), brought us the catchy “Vajingle” and 7th Generation’s Organic Tampons. Tampons are already highly regulated as medical devices by FDA (surprise, the government REALLY IS IN OUR VAGINAS!), and organic varieties are not better or safer, and they have not been proven to contain fewer chemicals than conventional brands. (For the last time, just because something is purportedly organic, does not mean that it is grown without pesticides!) I also discovered this random crowdfunding campaign that claims to make feminine hygiene products that “release negative ions which eliminate odor-causing bacteria, relax the body during pain and promote positive mood.” On top of these outrageous health claims, the campaign goes one step further- defining anions as “naturally occurring negative ions that are released in high quantities in places like forests, beaches, and waterfalls.” Organic feminine hygiene products make my list at #7, because not only are the health claims that are being made spurious, but also because organic cotton is awful for the environment in terms of its carbon footprint.

3. TRICLOSAN: Antibiotics are, of course, an invaluable part of standard medical practice. However, triclosan and similar antibacterial compounds were seized on by manufacturers of non-regulated health and beauty products, everything from toothpaste, to hand sanitizers to facewash, with these products marketed as being more effective at controlling germs than plain soap. Luckily for consumers, FDA demanded safety and effectiveness data to back up those claims that manufactures were unable to provide, leading FDA to ban their use. Terrific news for consumers, as some data suggest that long-term exposure to triclosan and related antibacterials—may pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.

2. BOB SEARS CHARGED WITH NEGLIGENCE: “Dr.” Bob Sears promotes an alternate vaccine schedule (there is no such thing), has influenced thousands of parents not to vaccinate at all through his fear-mongering, which has been traced back to notable communicable disease outbreaks (measles at Disneyland), and he ALSO tries to convince parents that getting the measles isn’t all that bad. 2016 however, disagrees. New evidence sheds light on a complication of measles occurs many years after contracting the illness and is 100% fatal. 100%. FATAL. Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) was previously thought to only occur in 1/10,000 cases of measles, but this gem of way to die, by brain inflammation, was recently discovered to actually affect 1 out of every 600 babies that contract measles. I was soooooo thankful to finally see ‘Dr.’ Bob Sears charged with negligence. Although, these charges relate to his other highly objectionable medical practices, I am hopeful that his anti-vaccine atrocities will catch up with him as well.

1. HOMEOPATHIC LABELING: Saving the BEST for last in my countdown, 2016 saw the Federal Trade Commission cracking down on homeopathic “drugs.” Americans spend BILLIONS a year on homeopathic potions even though “curing like with like” using ultra-highly diluted substances defies the basic principles of chemistry, biology, and physics. The new FTC rules will now require homeopathic packaging to effectively communicate two key ideas, that: “There is no scientific evidence that this product works” and “This product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.” Ok, I lied- we end on a sad note after all — the FTCs own study on homeopathy and advertising (page 21) shows that up to 45% of consumers think that homeopathic products are FDA approved—even after looking at a package with a disclaimer that says they aren’t.

The “alternate medicine” stories that made headlines in 2016 range from tragic to hopeful for the future. This list is only a small selection: tell us some of the headlines that caught your attention!!

Organic Tampons: 7 Reasons They Are No Better Than Conventional.

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Chemophobia sweeps over the feminine hygiene aisle as new fears are being marketed up close and *ahem* personal to women by the multi-billion dollar organic industry. 

Women have a MILLION things to worry about when it comes to their vaginas.

  • Will it go back after I have this baby?
  • Does it smell weird?
  • Does it look funny?
  • Can you see camel toe through these yoga pants?
  • Are blood clots the size of chicken nuggets normal?
  • Is my daughter worrying about the “panty challenge” on Instagram… and by god, I will kill her.

Were you worried about putting CHEMICALS where BABIES COME FROM? No?

Well, now you can be! “Chemophobia” or an irrational fear of chemicals is being stoked by the organic industry in a slick, celebrity-studded marketing campaign aiming to get up-close and personal with us, and I do mean personal.

Maya Rudolph (she’s an “every” girl, just like you and me of course!) croons in her low, somewhat off-key comedic-voice about how the feminine care should be free of perfumes, unnecessary chemicals and chlorine processing for nearly two minutes and by the time she is done, you are filled with self-doubt and new fears about our most intimate lady parts.

Why would anyone want to make you worry about putting chemicals in your vagina? The organic industry would.

It is BIG business. U.S. organic sales set a new record in 2015 of $43.3 billion in sales.

For example, in 2012, The Honest Company, a company that started out with natural baby products but has since expanded, made $150 million in revenues last year.

Industry insiders are predicting revenues in excess of $250 million for this year, with an overall valuation of $1 billion dollars

The feminine hygiene industry in the U.S. alone is $3 billion/year. This is a good chunk to add to this growing industry.

Let’s take a look at some of the organic tampons marketing claims and the science behind them.

#1. Organic tampons are healthier and safer than non-organic: Not really.

Most of the marketing claims I found say that organic pads and tampons are “healthier and safer for your body.”

Do you know who worries about things you stick in your vagina more than you ever could? The FDA. That’s right. Tampons are actually a class II medical device– heavily regulated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

Just like something you stick inside your body right next to sensitive mucus membranes and where you grow your babies should be. Regular tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products do not use toxic chemicals.

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The government actually IS in our vaginas. FDA regulations cover every aspect from selection of tampon size and absorbency, to tampon insertion methods to how tampons should be worn and the wear-time, to tampon removal and disposal.

Clinical testing for all tampons must provide proof that meets rigorous criteria for:

  • irritation,
  • allergy,
  • effects on vaginal microflora,
  • abrasions,
  • ulceration,
  • laceration and
  • residual fiber retention.

#2. Organic tampons are made without chlorine bleach: same for conventional ones.

I found some variation of this marketing claim on every website I visited:

“Made without bleach, pesticide-treated cotton, fragrances, deodorants, rayon, or synthetic superabsorbents — everything you need, nothing you don’t!”

Is this claim based in science or is it more fiction?

First lets tackle chlorine bleach and rayon, because they are really one and the same issue. We worry about bleach in our home cleaning products, coffee filters, and face tissues.

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So why not in our feminine hygiene products? In the 1980s, after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency we discovered many environmental contaminants. Dioxin was one of them.

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report stating that dioxins are known to cause cancer in animals, and probably cause cancer in people.

Dioxin is the byproduct of the process from converting wood pulp into a synthetic fiber called Rayon, which is also used for fabric.

Tampons are usually made of cotton and rayon. Up until the late 1990’s, bleaching the wood pulp resulted in traces of dioxin in tampons, but that method has since been replaced with a chlorine-free bleaching process for all tampons.

In general, the dioxin hazard has been reduced because of the new, non-chlorine bleaching methods, but it can still be detected in low levels tampons — even those made of 100% cotton.

This is due to the previous decades of pollution; dioxin can be found in the air, water, and ground.

Therefore, small amounts of dioxin may be present in the cotton or wood pulp raw materials used to make tampons, regardless of whether they are organic or not.

The FDA requires all tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels in their finished products.

#3. Organic tampons are made without synthetic supeabsoerbents: Same for conventional tampons!

What about synthetic superabsorbents? That sounds legit, right?! In the 1980s some superabsorbent tampons were associated with “toxic shock syndrome,” a systemic blood infection.

However, the CDC and FDA moved quickly to protect our health after this complication was discovered and the superabsorbent materials have been banned in ALL tampons since then.

#4. Organic tampons are fragnance-free: You can find conventional fragrance-free tampons as well!

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The fragrances used in tampons do meet the strict safety standards set by the International Fragrance Association, and are tested extensively for irritation.

However, some people may have extremely sensitive skin and want to avoid fragrances and deodorants altogether. There are plenty unscented conventional choices available by all major brands.

#5. Organic tampons are pesticide-free: False! Organic uses pesticides, sometimes even more toxic than the ones used in conventional crops.

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And what about pesticide levels in cotton? Cotton is neither a fruit nor a vegetable, it is a seed crop; like sunflowers, soybeans, or safflower.

However, cotton is regulated as a food crop by the FDA: The Food & Drug Administration states in its Code of Federal Regulations: Title 21: Food and Drugs, Part 172 that “cottonseed products may be used for human consumption.”

As such, it is a subject to the same rigorous government oversight as food crops, even if it is to be used for textile purposes.

If you don’t trust our own FDA to test accurately for harmful residues, then perhaps use can trust the German Bremmer Cotton Exchange, which carries out extensive testing of cottons from all over the world according to the Eco-Tex 100 Standards (a global standards organization headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland).

They have found that US cotton is among the cleanest in the world, no matter how it is produced, with pesticide levels nearly undetectable.

Over 60 chemicals, both “naturally derived” AND synthetic, are allowed in “organic” production methods. Some natural pesticides can be even more dangerous that synthetic ones, neem oil, used in organic cotton farming is a great example.

In a study funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Council of Canada, six different insecticides were analyzed: four were synthetic and two organic; the organic ones turned out to be more toxic than their synthetic counterparts.

#6. Organic tampons are made with GOTS Certified Organic Cotton: This is worse for the environment.

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Many of the brands I found use “100% GOTS Certified Organic Cotton.”

Sounds like it is good for the environment, right? Wrong.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is one of the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. It defines high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria as well. Organic cotton must be non-GMO.

Like many non-gmo crops, non-GMO cotton suffers from a “resources” problem, it uses too much of them and yields a much smaller amount of cotton. The yield for non-GMO cotton crops is roughly 50% less than conventional cotton (for area of land.) This means you need double the land to produce the same amount of cotton.

  • The requirement for more land and more resources means that organic cotton has a much larger “ecological footprint” than conventional cotton.
  • On top of that, organic cotton is necessarily sprayed insecticide application for organic cotton (usually externally applied Bt protein,) and these additional applications require more tractor passes, which contributes to the large carbon footprint of organic cotton.
  • Lastly, organic cotton growers can’t use synthetic herbicides (or GMO Round-Up Ready seeds). Cotton is a very sensitive and slow growing crop that will produce NO yield if weeds are allowed to grow near the trees. Organic weed control methods are entirely dependent on tillage, tractor passes and rotary hoes. Tillage and cultivation is necessary two to three times per week. This means more fuel emissions, wear and tear on equipment, with a higher carbon footprint.

GMO cotton varieties produce 25–50% more yield worldwide, compared to the cotton varieties grown 40 years ago. The use of genetically improved (Bt trait) cotton strains has allowed some countries to reduce their cotton insecticide use by up to 90%! They are drought resistant; therefore they need less irrigation and use less water.

The bottom line is these miracle, good for the environment, GMO cotton varieties cannot be used to produce “100% GOTS certified organic cotton.”

#7. Organic tampons include no phtalates or BPA — these don’t cause issues in conventional tampons either.

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The last of the claims I found center around the applicator itself. For example “Made without phthalates, the innovative compact plastic tampon applicator is made from 90%+ bio-based materials” and “BPA-Free plastic applicators”

Both BPA and phthalates are “endocrine disruptors.” Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects.

A wide variety of products are used by women in the genital area and, therefore, come into contact with the genital mucosa. The largest category is those used for cleanliness and odor control, such as soaps and body washes, douches, premoistened wipes and towelettes, dusting powder and deodorant sprays.

The next largest are those that absorb fluids, such as products used for menstrual protection (tampons, pads and panty liners) and incontinence protection. Lubricants and moisturizers, and aesthetic products (hair removal products and dyes), and fungal treatments are also fairly common.

Studies have looked at the urine of women who use these products, and found that the only substantial increase in the level of phthalates (not whether this level relates to any disorder or condition what-so-ever) is related to douching, NOT to feminine hygiene product use.

Organic pads and tampons: They are no better for you or the environment.

So, should you buy organic tampons and organic feminine hygiene products? In many states, feminine hygiene products are already taxed as “luxury items” in most states, and going green “down there” can double those costs:

  • A 10-pack of Honest Company regular pads costs $6, whereas a 16-pack of Always goes for just over $3.
  • For $7, you could get 16 Honest Company organic tampons or 34 from Kotex.

Going organic is no better for you or the environment. But the marketing is as brilliant as the vajingle is catchy.

Now join the conversation at Fitness Reloaded and leave a comment and let us know: Are you buying organic cotton tampons? Why/why not?


Bahlai et al., Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLoS ONE 5(6): e11250. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011250

Branch F. et al., Vaginal douching and racial/ethnic disparities in phthalates exposures among reproductive-aged women: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001–2004. Environ Health. 2015 Jul 15;14:57. doi: 10.1186/s12940–015–0043–6.