In a recent article for the Globe and Mail, self-styled health-guru Bryce Wylde has stuck his foot in it again. In an article entitled Eight easy, natural ways to keep the flu at bay (without leaving home) Wylde has proven that the only thing he can do without leaving home is make up dangerous health advice.
What is even more depressing, is that the Globe and Mail, despite its health-reporting heavy-weights Carly Weeks and Andre Picard, has started to cash in its gravitas and reliability for alt-med twattle that does something far worse than misinform, it endangers the public.
In an article that is supposed to help people avoid or fight deadly influenza symptoms, Wylde leaves out the top three interventions that we know work: hand washing, immunization, and avoidance. Instead he offers mostly baseless and sometimes dangerous advice on how to avoid the flu.
Let’s look at the claims Wylde gets close to correct; there are only a few. The best example is his claim of increased prevention through use of probiotics. While there is not definitive evidence, there is enough to show that probiotics may decrease the incidence and duration of cold and flu symptoms, especially in children. We are not sure why it helps, and there is not a lot of evidence for older adults, but that does not stop Wylde from flashing his physiology cred by going on about the immune system of the gut: irrelevant, but nice try.
The same level of evidence exists for sleep. While we have evidence that sleep deprivation can decrease your immune response, there is no way of knowing if it is the actual sleep deprivation or factors that occur alongside this deprivation, like poor nutrition or obesity, that are to blame. Sleep deprivation has not been connected directly to influenza. Everybody could use a little more sleep, so get some, but don’t rely on this to avoid serious illness.
In the next category we have honey. When the evidence came out that cough suppressants were no good for children, the alt-med crowd leapt on the opportunity to drive home this message and almost instantly there were “natural” cough medicines all over the shelves. The evidence shows that honey is better than doing nothing at controlling a cough, but it is about as good as dextromethorphan, the DM in most cough medicines, which is to say not great. There is no reason to not use honey*, save for an allergy, so go ahead, but it will not prevent influenza infection or even reduce the number days you have it, so don’t bet on this to save the day, it will just make it slightly more bearable.
That is it for the good evidence, the rest is mostly conjecture. Garlic has little evidence to suggest it is good for the common cold, let alone deadly influenza. Onions seem to be a favourite traditional remedy to deal with mucous, but no evidence for cough suppression at all. Astragalus root is the same, with insufficient evidence that it helps prevent or treat colds, and no evidence for its treatment of influenza, although someone is testing a component of the root on chicken cells. But those are pretty innocuous, and are only a risk for your wallet. The last two pose such a risk that I think is not worth even trying them.
Netty pots, or saline nasal irrigation, have been studied for their effectiveness for chronic sinusitis and it may help, but there no good evidence that it can prevent or shorten cold symptoms, with no evidence at all for flu. However, there are serious risks associated with this device. Very often, if the pot or bottle is not cleaned properly, it can become contaminated with bacteria that can cause serious infections. In one stunning case in Louisiana, a women died from an amoebic infection in her brain that was introduced by blowing tap water up her nose with a netty pot. “Natural” does not always equal good.
Finally we have Wylde’s first suggestion, the one that made me believe it is just sitting in his kitchen making this up out of thin air. There is absolutely no evidence adding petroleum jelly to the inside of your nose will increase your infection barrier and prevent infection. Your nose is much larger than just the nostril you can stick the swab into, so there will be plenty of area left to harbour virus. The route of entry for influenza is still debated, and one review determined that the air-borne exposure may only be responsible for 50% of infections, with contact from the hands to eyes, nose and mouth being just as important. What is even worse is there is a risk of a condition called exogenous lipoid pneumonia that can occur from chronic inhalation of oils and fats through your nose. Rather than preventing an illness, this intervention may cause one: please don’t do it unless ordered to do so by your doctor.
If this is the level of evidence that the Globe and Mail is going to muster to give you health advice in their new section, then I have serious doubts about its editorial decision making. I hope that the editor of the new section will take a second look and make Wylde keep his ideas to himself.
Note, while I have scoured the databases for much of this info, a lot of it came from a fantastic tool called the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database; it is a constantly updated resource for all of the evidence on natural medicines, and given his claims, I suspect that Wylde does not have a membership – it costs about $11 a month and is independent and well researched.
* unless you are 1 year old or younger. Health Canada advises against giving infants honey due to a small but dangerous risk of botulism. Thank you to Shawn Wilson for pointing this out.