Idiot Cure

Shobit Dhar

M. Sarath could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the verdict of the biopsy conducted on a growth in his ribs five months ago. How could a healthy 40 something like him be struck by cancer?

So when a friend recommended an alternative medicine practitioner based in Mumbai, he jumped at the suggestion. This healer often advertised on the so- called wellness channels on television. But after a few months of experimenting with promises of a miracle cure, he was back at Bangalore’s HCG Hospital. By then, the disease had spread through the body.

“Timely medical intervention in the form of surgery followed by chemotherapy could have shrunk the tumor,’ points out Dr Pramod Chinder, consultant ortho-oncologist at HCG Hospital. Sarath’s life expectancy today is four to five years. If he had responded well to surgery, he may have lived for another 20.

TV remedies for everything, from hair fall and hepatitis to conjunctivitis and cancer, are accessible to millions of viewers 24×7. According to 2009 figures these wellness channels do business to the tune of around Rs. 60 crore annually. They are viewed by around 10 million. Most of these channels air health programmes that propagate alternative healing practices that promise “complete recovery with zero side effects”.

It is scary how some of these ‘gurus’ promise cures for even infectious diseases such as dengue and chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension,’ says Dr Sandeep Buddhiraja, director, institute of internal medicine, Max Healthcare.

Allopaths complain that patients often abandon treatment halfway to try out natural remedies. “We get patients who suffer from gastritis even as they are undergoing chemotherapy. When we probe, we find that they have been taking ayurvedic medicine as well. These medicines contain mercuric salts, which can cause gastritis n certain cases,’ says Dr MS Belliappa, consultant radio-oncologist at the HCG Hospital.

TV doctors manage to put up a fairly convincing act. There are programmes where they use detailed diagrams and flow charts to explain why this juice or that powder or yoga on an empty stomach can help cure a disease.

However, the information imparted is usually half-baked. Viewers are rarely cautioned against the pitfalls of using natural remedies mindlessly. For instance, a popular TV yoga guru has for long propagated the goodness of bottle gourd-bitter gourd juice to stem diabetes. But few knew that the raw juice of these vegetables could prove to be toxic under certain conditions

Last week, the absence of this crucial piece of information cost Delhi-based scientist Sushil Kumar his life. For four years Kumar had followed this popular remedy to keep his diabetes under control. Unfortunately for him, the lassi glass of tauki-karela Juice he drank contained killer toxins.

Newspaper reports now say that many such incidents had been reported earlier from other parts of the country. In the absence of any legislation to monitor the content of these wellness channels, all kinds of untested tonics and pills are being hawked to millions of gullible viewers.

The world over, alternative medicines are becoming popular, but in India the problem is compounded by a unique factor Says Dr Anoop Misra, director and head, department of diabetes and metabolic diseases, Fortis, “In India, religious issues add to the problem. People blindly follow their TV gurus. Alternative therapies are largely scientifically un proven. Most of these practices or formulae have been passed down the generations by word-of- mouth. Some have proved to be effect over a period of time, for instance, the Chinese remedy for malaria. But the effectiveness of most other such remedies remains questionable.’

Aloe vera juice is another popular plant remedy. Its benefits include reduced inflammation and stronger immunity. Cans and bottles of this juice are easily available under various brands in the market. But the quality of their content is strongly suspect.

While the Indian Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 does govern the herbal medicine industry, it lays emphasis only on ensuring hygienic conditions in manufacturing units and the rigorous testing of raw material. But it mostly ignores critical factors such as the source of the raw material, the harvest and post-harvest conditions in the farms and fields, and the processing and manufacturing techniques. These need to be regulated as well.

In random surveys conducted by scientific bodies like the Centre for Science and Environment, it has been found that many of these brands may contain either too little or too much of the ingredients they claim to use. Plus, contraindications are not always mentioned on the labels of these concoctions.

A Dangerous Web
The personal computer is fast replacing the personal physician. The internet is littered with websites — both reliable and dubious — that offer everything you should know about your ailment — the symptoms, treatment possible side effects, cost of treatment, testimonials, access to support groups and more.
Trustworthy websites like and www.mayoclinic. com are referred to by millions around the world and offer interesting user options: a comprehensive list of the most commonly used drugs along with user reviews, and what to expect of different diagnostic and lab tests. If you are about to undergo a surgical procedure, you can find information about how long it will take, what the procedure entails, the duration of post-op care and possible side effects.
While these websites empower people to make informed decisions about their health, they also spawn pill peppers who self-medicate, often with serious outcomes. Abhay Arora was down with possible viral fever and a quick Google search revealed that a first generation antibiotic is the most effective cure. He did not bother with consulting a doctor and simply treated himself with an OTC antibiotic. He woke up the next morning with angry rashes all over his body — he had developed a drug allergy. Arora was lucky to get away with just a rash.
Self-medication can land you in serious trouble. But that does not stop people from taking chances with their health. After all a visit to a neighborhood internet café costs much less than a visit to a doctor’s clinic.

For instance, aloe vera juice is not advised for pregnant and lactating women. And the quantity of juice you consume is also important,” says nutritionist Ishi Khosla. Similarly, senna leaf — a common natural remedy for constipation — if consumed carelessly can damage the kidneys. Wheat grass juice is another popular remedy for detox. TV doctors often prescribe it for patients undergoing chemotherapy. This can prove to be a source of Infection though.

Exercise therapies shown on television too are leading to injuries and health problems. Dr IPS Oberoi, senior consultant orthopedic surgeon Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon, says he regularly sees patients who have injured themselves while working out with a tele instructor. The spine, hip and calf muscles and the shoulders are most prone to such an injury.

Seema Sondhi, a Delhi-based yoga teacher, agrees with Oberoi. Her own mother-in-law has developed chronic backache after doing unsupervised yoga. She would switch on the television, sit on the bed and start imitating the asanas being shown on the screen. Now, she is on painkillers and cannot move much,” says Soudhi.

In another case, Chandigarh school teacher Rachna Nigam found her left knee swelling after she started working out with an aerobics DVD in order to knock off some extra kilos. “I went over board with the intensity of the moves” says Nigam. Her doctor has put her on a course of anti inflammatory medication and advised her not to climb stairs.

Like Nigam, many people fail to realise that before starting on a workout routine the body needs to be prepared for the physical activity Warm-up exercises help you do that. ‘They also minimise the chances of an injury,’ says Oberoi. But tele instructors often miss out this crucial part. In fact, what adds to the risk of a sprain or tear of muscle or tissue is when people start following the exercise programmes immediately without realising that, as beginners, they need to start with simpler exercises or asanas,” explains Oberoi. If you are unfit and mindlessly ape the athletic instructors on TV chances are that you will land up with a slip disc, swollen knees or chronic muscle pain.

Most people do not realise that yoga may seem simple but requires thorough supervision and guidance. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tracks sports in juries caused in exercise regimes that don’t include equipment, nearly 4500 people ended up in the emergency room after yoga injuries in 2006, slightly fewer than the year before but still up 18 per cent since 2004. In 2001, The New England Journal of Medicine published an article that cites yoga as one of the many possible causes of damage to arteries in susceptible patients.

Even breathing exercises when done with incorrect technique can lead to complications. Certain pranayamas are not recommended for patients of high blood pressure and kapalabhati (a form of intense breathing) is contraindicated in heart diseases.

Shobit Dhar

Courtesy: TOI