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How to Find Health Information that You Can Trust

The World Wide Web has made it easier than ever to learn about health and what you can do to address specific health challenges. Unfortunately, the accuracy of a lot of health information on the web is questionable, since anyone with access to the internet can publish health-related material. So how do you find reliable health information? How do you know who to trust?

To become a discerning health seeker, one of your first priorities should be to learn the fundamentals of human anatomy and physiology. For example, if you learn the basics of how your digestive system works, you probably won't be tempted to waste time, energy, and money on getting regular enemas or taking the latest colon cleanser on the market. Enemas and conventional colon cleansing products may provide short term health benefits, but over the long term, they do more harm than good - this statement doesn't require a randomized control trial to support; it's self-evident, based on the anatomy and physiology of your digestive tract.

The Limitations of Scientific Research

Speaking of randomized control trials, should you ignore health information that isn't footnoted with studies that are published in indexed and peer-reviewed medical journals?

Only you can make this decision for yourself. Personally, I don't need health information to be footnoted with published studies to consider its merit. To judge the value of any new health information that I come across, all I require are logic and my knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. And if I don't know enough about the human anatomy and physiology involved with a particular health issue, I educate myself until I am confident that I have enough knowledge to make a logical assessment of the issue at hand.

My approach to assessing health information is largely the result of experiences that I had in the world of medical research during my undergraduate (University of Toronto, Clinical Sciences Division of the Institute of Medical Sciences) and graduate (National University of Health Sciences) years of schooling.

When I was a research fellow at the National University of Health Sciences, I was intimately involved with a randomized control trial that was designed to evaluate the effect that spinal manipulative therapy had on primary dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation). A randomized control trial (RCT) is a type of scientific investigation that is meant to reduce or eliminate bias; RCTs are considered to be the most reliable form of scientific evidence in modern medical research.

The dysmenorrhea study assigned subjects (all women with primary dysmenorrhea) into one of two groups: the first group received a series of "sham" treatments, while the second group received a series of spinal manipulative treatments. The women received their weekly treatments (without being told which group they were assigned to), and filled out a series of questionnaires to subjectively rate the effectiveness of their treatments.

My involvement with the dysmenorrhea study allowed me to make the following realization:

When dealing with human subjects, even the best designed and conducted randomized control trials fail to account for the ongoing impact that thoughts, emotions, and interaction with other humans have on overall health.

In the dysmenorrhea study, it was obvious to me that a significant determinant of how the women felt about the effectiveness of their treatments was how the attending physicians and research assistants interacted with them. We can all relate to this, can't we? All of us know how reassuring it is to be cared for by a doctor who has a warm bedside manner, just as we know how discouraging or frightening it can be to be handled by an uncaring physician.

All scientific studies that involve human subjects are at the mercy of this huge, uncontrollable variable. Even if a study involves something as simple as giving its subjects one of two pills, the effect of taking any pill will always be influenced by the subject's thoughts and emotions while taking the pill. And the subject's thoughts and emotions will always be influenced by the interactions that are experienced before and during treatment.

Doctors are well aware of the impact that your thoughts and emotions have on your health. They even have a term for it - it's called the placebo effect, which is defined as the healing effect of a "sham" therapy. A study published last week in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that out of 466 faculty physicians at Chicago-area medical schools, 231 of them reported that they had prescribed placebos in clinical practice. Reasons for prescribing placebos included: to calm a patient down, to respond to demands for medication that the physician felt was unnecessary, and just to do something after other treatment options had failed.

I find it ironic that while many physicians are aware of the power of the placebo effect when it comes to treating their patients, they have a tendency to forget about it when it comes to evaluating medical research.

Here's another important realization that I made during my years as a research assistant and fellow:

Medical researchers at colleges and universities are under significant pressure to receive grants to carry out their research, and have the results of their research published in indexed and peer-reviewed medical journals. It's naive to believe that the pressures that researchers face to carry out these objectives don't influence some of their findings, the way their findings are presented, or if their findings are even presented to the public.

To give just one example of how medical research and guidelines may not be as reliable as we would like them to be, let's think back to the summer of 2004, when a panel of expert physicians lowered the “safe” level of LDL cholesterol from 130 to 100, and even recommended that people at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease aim to lower their LDL level to 70. This modification in the medical standard of practice for assessing and addressing blood cholesterol levels caused an estimated eight million Americans to instantly become candidates for cholesterol-related drug therapy.

While this “medical news” was covered by all major media outlets and news wires, only one newspaper, Newsday, reported that most of the physicians who were responsible for establishing the new recommendations had a conflict of interest; almost all had received money – usually in the form of grants or honoraria - from at least ten drug companies. These financial disclosures were not reported by the National Cholesterol Educational Program, which was the source of the new medical treatment guidelines for cholesterol.

Let's get back to the main topic of this article: how do you find information that you can trust to help you with your health? I hope that I have convinced you that the size of the footnote section of health articles does not correlate with how reliable they are. This is not to say that footnotes are useless. There are excellent researchers and research papers in our world, and footnote sections can acquaint us with them.

But on a practical level, when you are searching for answers to your health questions, rather than spend the time that is needed to research each footnote and assess the validity of the original research in question (taking into account the uncontrollable mind-body-connection element), I suggest that you consider doing what I mentioned above: educate yourself on relevant details of human anatomy and physiology until you are confident that you have enough knowledge to make a logical assessment of the health information that you are considering.

As you put into action the steps that make the most sense to you, you must continuously observe your progress, and be open to making adjustments until you experience the health improvement that you desire. Keep trying, keep observing, and keep adjusting when necessary. Because what works for some people may not work perfectly for you. And if you find something that works for you, continue to observe and be open to making adjustments, because what works for you today may not necessarily work for you as you go through different phases of life and healing.

Most importantly, as you search for answers to your health challenges and take measures to try to improve your health, I encourage you to do everything you can to be hopeful. If you commit yourself to the belief that your health challenge(s) cannot be helped, then so it will be. If you embrace the attitude that regardless of how unfortunate your circumstances are, you have power to improve your situation with your thoughts, emotions, and behavior, you may just create what some people call a spontanteous remission, and what others call a miracle.

Please note: Over the course of 2008, please stay tuned to my e-newletter for announcements on articles and videos that will aim to deepen your knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. I am more convinced than ever that every health seeker can benefit from taking a comprehensive course in human anatomy and physiology, and I will do what I can to provide such a course on this site.

 
 

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Comments

I completely agree that more people should have a basic understanding
of their bodies. I have had an amazing number of clients visit my nutritional clinic who had little understanding of the anatomy of the digestive system.

I was surprised at how many people did not even know they had 2 kidneys nor where they were located.

They assume they have problems in certain organs but are often totally wrong because of their knowledge of simple basic human anatomy

Excellent article. My whole family suffers from some form of chronic diseae and I do that its a mental and emotions that keep us going. I truly believe in your opinions and that is what makes me keep returning to your newsletters. Thanks,

Hello Dr. Kim:

I just want to comment on your idea of providing us with an education on the human anatomy. I think this is a wonderful idea. I have been receiving your emails for a number of years now and read your book on a number of occasions and as a result have received an education of how my body functions. I have used this information to improve and heal my situation on a number of health ailments that I have suffered in the past. Ailments such as glaucoma and arthritis in my knees among others things. The human body is a wonderful machine and has the potential of healing itself as long as we give it what it needs. I am looking forward to receiving more information about the human anatomy so that I can improve my quality of life. Thank you so much for all your hard work, both you and your wife, to help us improve our health.