Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What’s the Evidence, Ms Kardashian?

By Lauren Giorgio

It is disturbingly common to find celebrities paid to spruik alternative treatments, medicines and practices that science has already shown are ineffective – or worse.

Critics of complementary and alternative medicine demand an evidence base to separate effective medicines from those that offer no more than a placebo. The gold standard for evidence is often cited as peer-reviewed publication, but the story is complicated by the powerful influences of media hype and celebrity endorsement.

Medicinal use of turmeric, a spice we all have in our kitchen cupboards, dates back more than 2000 years to ancient Indian and Chinese civilisations. Its active ingredient, curcumin, is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties. Indeed, there is promising clinical and testimonial evidence to support curcumin as a treatment for diseases of inflammatory origin.

Epidemiological evidence also reveals a lower incidence of gastro­intestinal cancer and mortality rates in India and other Asian countries compared with Western countries, and Asians consume more turmeric than Westerners. Somewhere along the line a link was made between turmeric consumption and lower cancer rates.

This connection saw the exploration of curcumin’s possible anti-cancer activity grow exponentially in the past 15 years. Many studies demonstrated that curcumin’s anti-cancer potential is immense because it can target multiple factors involved in the growth of cancer, but much of that research tested curcumin against human cancer cells maintained in laboratories for many years. Unfortunately, similar results have not been replicated in living patients due to poor curcumin absorption.

Nonetheless, at some point the media began reporting on curcumin as an anti-cancer agent, and results not considered exceptional by scientists were sometimes misconstrued by the media and hence the public. Some went as far as claiming that curcumin stopped the formation of secondary cancers in prostate cancer patients.

In reality, the study being reported on was conducted in mice and used a model in which cancer cells are injected into the circulatory system and dispersed around the body. Needless to say, this model is considered a poor representation of secondary cancer in humans.

This example highlights the concerning media hype that often surrounds “natural” remedies. The media do not always interpret the data correctly, and the public do not have the ability to cross-reference media releases with original research publications. As such, they are vulnerable to believing what they see in the news, and sometimes choose to supplement their diet with the latest publicised remedy – especially if celebrities endorse it.

The role of celebrities in shaping our nation’s health care is alarming. Consider Kim Kardashian and her paid endorsement of Quick Trim, a radical 48-hour cleanse that reportedly helped her lose 7 kg in a matter of weeks.

More often than not, these “cleanses” and “detoxes” promise to flush toxins out of the system and result in substantial weight loss. However, not only is there no scientific evidence to support this claim, rapid weight loss is dangerous and almost always unsustainable in the long term. As an aside, the eradication of toxins is what our liver does and our immune and excretory systems are for!

Celebrities and the media have a powerful impact on the public’s perception of desirable health measures, yet this is seldom in tune with the evidence base available. It is disturbingly common to find celebrities paid to spruik alternative treatments, medicines and practices that science has already shown to be ineffective or worse.

Even the description “natural” plays an influential role in all of this. While natural preventatives or treatments are certainly effective against many diseases and deserve further research, many people are unaware that many natural medicines are still drugs capable of interfering with other medications. For example, St John’s Wort is a widely used herbal treatment for depression that negatively interacts with a long list of prescribed medications, including beta blockers, statins and oral contraceptives. While this has been well-established by clinical trials, the simple description of “natural” renders this herbal treatment both harmless and desirable in the public mind.

The bottom line is that just because it is derived from nature, works in laboratory mice, the media are raving about it or a celebrity swears by it, does not mean it is right for you. Seek advice from your doctor, not the news headlines or the Hollywood gossip columns.

Lauren Giorgio has recently been awarded her PhD from The University of Adelaide’s Medical School. Her project investigated curcumin for the treatment of prostate cancer.