my piece in Salon, "The Huffington Post is Crazy About Your Health" focuses on the dubious medical advice espoused by many of its bloggers. Here are some more thoughts about the Post and Ms. Huffington.
In her 2006 book, On Being Fearless, Arianna Huffington wrote about two very difficult personal experiences. The first was during a doctor’s visit at Georgetown Medical Center, where the doctor found she had a lump in her breast.:
“I had actually noticed the lump and assumed it was just a harmless cyst. It had happened before. No problem. But now I was hearing the worst, things like ‘biopsy’ and ‘surgery’ and the lump would not ‘aspirate’ and how it had to ‘come out’ right away. "
I felt myself beginning to black out and asked if I could lie down on the examination table while the doctor explained what all this meant. As if through a thick fog, I heard her talking….”
The second was her account of a miscarriage she suffered when she was married to former U.S. Senator Michael Huffington when she was 36 years old, something she wrote about that with a great deal of honesty and emotion as she described how after giving birth, her baby wouldn’t open his eyes.
It’s hard to know if these experiences colored Huffington’s view of physicians and the medical establishment. But it’s clear that she does harbor some skepticism of American health care. In one her posts, she featured a blogger known as Pundit Mom, in which the two discussed the dual role of the working mom. “Indeed, I sometimes think that when the doctors take the baby out, they put the guilt in,” said Pundit Mom. It’s hard to see how Huffington could focus on that kind of comment without having an innate discomfort with doctors.
Huffington’s most fierce comments against modern medicine have been reserved for psychiatry and neuropharmacology. It’s obvious from several of her blog posts since 2005 that she’s suspicious—even cynical—about what doctors prescribe to treat anxiety, depression and a whole host of other psychiatric disorders. That’s particularly true with child psychiatry. Take one of her blog posts, where she riffs on an old camp song:
"Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda" has now become "Hello Druggist, Hello MD." With apologies to Alan Sherman:
Here I am at
Camp Poison Ivy
Camp is very
And they say we'll all have fun if we take our Wellbutrin.
Contrast these comments with those she made about alternative medicine. For example, she certainly speaks with much more fervor about her experiences with things like mercury detox, and her view that we live in a toxic environment. Again, from her 2006 book Fearless:
“Soram Khalsa, MD, is the founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association and a passionate advocate of detoxification as central to delaying the effects of the aging process and reducing the likelihood of chronic degenerative diseases. When I started on Dr. Khalsa’s detoxification program, I was stunned to find out how much mercury I had in my body…as my body started to detoxify, the changes in my mental clarity and energy level were so remarkable that I’ve made his detox program part of my regimen.”
Huffington’s faith in heavy metal detox programs is bothersome. First, the process of heavy-metal detoxification involves using chelation therapy, where a person must be given intravenous drugs. That’s not without potential risks. Nothing in medicine is, but when the effectiveness of a therapy is unclear or unproven, then that risk doesn’t seem worth taking. There have been scattered reports of people dying as a result of undergoing chelation therapy, including children.
In addition, as I mentioned in my piece for Salon, the doctors like Dr. Khalsa demonstrate a patient has levels of heavy metals is by sending a urine sample to special labs for analysis. However, these tests use methods that artificially raise the levels of metals in the urine. It’s known as provocative testing because people are given drugs that raise the levels of metals in their urine. Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician wrote about the pitfalls of provoked testing on his website, Quackwatch.org , described an experiment comparing subjects who had the provoked test to control subjects:
“Several years ago, a well-designed experiment tested workers who had industrial exposure to mercury. The researchers found that provocation with DMSA raised the 24-hour average urine mercury level from 4.3 µg/g before chelation to 7.8 µg/g after chelation . Because most of the extra excretion occurs toward the beginning of the test, it is safe to assume that the provoked levels would have been 2-3 times as high if a 6-hour collection period had been used."
“Practitioners who use the urine toxic metals test typically tell patients that provocation is needed to discover "hidden body stores" of mercury or lead. However, the above experiment proved that provocation raises urine levels as much in exposed workers as in unexposed control subjects and that rise is temporary, should be expected, and is not evidence of ‘hidden stores,’”
The resulting report drives people to spend lots of additional money (in most cases, insurance does not cover either the urine tests or the therapy) treating themselves for a “disease” they don’t have.
All of it makes me wonder much of the same of Arianna Huffington and the Post as I did with Oprah Winfrey. What are our health priorities and what advice do we really need to keep ourselves healthy? Winfrey features the advice of Christiane Northrup (who also blogs for HuffPo), Suzanne Somers and touts cosmetic procedures. Huffington seems to believe that the answer to our problems is insulating ourselves from a “toxic environment.”
In fact, for someone who has regularly accused others of fear-mongering, she isn’t innocent of spreading some herself. Consider her comments from 2006 in a blog called “America’s kids at risk”:
“America's children are at risk not just from the kidnappers, pedophile priests, and horny teens trolling MySpace that fill our headlines and sweeps weeks news broadcasts but from the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the chemicals that fill their homes and schools. And from our own government.”
Ironically, in criticizing “news broadcasts” about bleeding and leading, Huffington commits the same crime herself. "Kidnappers, horny teens and pedophile priests" don’t rank anywhere near the top of the list for what ails our children. Rather, it’s something far less headline grabbing—accidental injuries. The WHO reported that each year, 950,000 kids die from injuries. 90% of those injuries could have been prevented. In the United States, the CDC shows that 12,000 kids lose their lives from preventable accidents and injuries: for children under one, the leading cause of death is suffocation. For children 1-4, it's drowning, and for kids 5-19 its automobile accidents.
In the end, I hope Ms. Huffington and her Post begins taking their responsibility about informing people about their health more seriously. Science, unlike politics, is an ideology, with "facts" available to twist and turn to meet the needs of the side using them. But from day 1, the Post has turned it into just that. It's time instead that they treated science for what it is: a discipline, where you can get the answer (whether you like it or not) by applying a method, one that has stood the test of time.