Lately, we live in a culture that is surprisingly tolerant of “alternative facts”, ethical relativity, and baseless opinions. And if you are trying to sort out which health information is reliable (aside from that of your trusted doctor), that environment is disempowering and just a hard slog to get through. I recommend these two articles by University of Washington instructors Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West to sharpen your powers of discernment:
In your search for genuine health information that will provide support and alternative options, how DO you sort fluff from solid facts and snake oil salespeople from real help? Let me state clearly that I am NOT that kind of doctor, though I have a PhD., so let’s take me as an example of an information source.
First, what is the interest and intention of your information source? Do they make money specifically from you following their advice? Are they selling something? This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s part of your evaluation of the quality of the information. In my case, recommendations that I make come from two motivations: 1. I believe that more and better produce helped my Dad outrun cancer for 20+ years with an excellent quality of life, so I wish that benefit for others, and 2. I have a small farm, and in general I believe small farms provide great food sustainably, so I encourage people to enjoy flavor and nutrient-rich produce as a way to bolster their health. But I don’t recommend aloe vera for acid reflux or blueberries to fight cancer just because I have them to sell occasionally. Do I think everyone should eat more farm-fresh produce? Yes! (The CDC says only 1 in 10 Americans eat enough produce!) Do I benefit directly if you do? Possibly, a little. Enough to steer you wrong? Oh heck no. I gain much more from giving you effective information.
Second, do info providers cite their sources? This indicates a responsible and respectful approach to information. Do several sources agree? Is the information published in a reliable publication. I am not the person who is in the laboratory looking through a microscope at the anthocyanins and lycopene and anti-oxidants and how they affect tumor tissue. But when several people who do that work find value in a nutrient, then I trust it’s worth trying. You will see in my phyto-nutrient library and my library of helpful produce that I have many quotes, links and footnotes for you to go check out yourself.
Not all evidence has to come from a laboratory. There is Traditional Chinese Medicine knowledge and Traditional Indigenous Knowledge from The Americas, Africa or elsewhere that incorporate thousands of years of trial and error, carried out by herbalists and healers who could see over a lifetime the effects (or lack thereof) patients experienced from their herbal, food, or functional medicine. In the ancient cities of Mexico such as Tenochtitlán, healers prescribed plants with the condition that the patient had to report back how it worked, and results were recorded in Codices (that the Spanish later tried to burn as witchcraft.) This is empirical study, science, not lore. Just because empirical knowledge haven’t been replicated and dissected in a western laboratory, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Some herbal cures aren’t verified because there is no foreseeable profit in developing them. Germany’s health system publishes a huge book of verified medicinal herbs, explaining that these aren’t all the possible plant-based cures in the world, but they are the ones that could be verified by their organization’s methods. But often enough, there is some overlap between American herbalists and Chinese or Ayurvedic knowledge, and you can still find agreement.
Friends and family often have personal experiences to share, with the very kindest intentions. For example, your friend says you should definitely eat nopal cactus for diabetes. Sounds weird. How does she know this? Probably her Grandma told her, because Mexican people have been using this for centuries to counter the troubles caused by a diet brought by colonizers. Or I will recommend dandelion greens for kidney/UT support, because I’ve not only read about it from many sources, including, French and Spanish grandmas, but I use these greens myself to do some spring cleaning. Is this proof it will work for you? Of course not. You may have a different metabolism, a different underlying problem to solve, different medications in the mix, and many other variables that can affect the outcome. But sometimes Grandma knows what she’s doing thanks to many generations of use.
The last thing I would check is whether there is a risk of harm from trying something new in your self-care regimen. For example, grapefruit can conflict with some medications. Red grapes and red wine have wonderful nutrients, but if you have diabetes, they aren’t necessarily your friends, at least not consumed frequently or in generous amounts. Licorice is an amazing cure for those sticky, exhausting coughs among other things, but if taken too much or for more than a week or so, it can mess with your electrolytes, cause edemas, all kinds of ugly side effects. This is where it’s a good idea to ask your doctor and/or pharmacist.
My recommendation is that you suspend belief or disbelief until you verify. Use your common sense and critical thinking to sort out the glut of health information we all face. Check your source’s motivation. Check whether they have confirmed the information. Check whether a person with Traditional Knowledge is the real deal. Check if the recommendation fits you or the person giving it. And then take a careful look at potential risks. The internet is a wonderful tool for making sense of food-based, herbal, and other non-western, non-M.D. health information. Then go ahead and personalize your foods, herbs and other supports for your needs. You are in charge. Let’s be open to information that can help, enjoy the optimism boost from finding new options to try, but respectfully, thoughtfully question everybody and everything.