Welcome to Bad Science on the Internet! Here, we highlight some of the crazy and sometime dangerous stuff people post online, and then we give you the facts.
The bad science:
There are a lot of dubious supplements being sold online, and we could spend years discussing them one by one. However, Truehope deserves to be highlighted because of their over-the-top claims and the sad story behind it.
What do they claim?
Truehope is a supplement company that markets supplements specifically for the treatment of mental illnesses. The specificity of their claims is alarming. On their website, they don’t even bother to change the wording of their claims, just substituting one condition (like autism or bipolar disorder) for another:
“If you or your child suffer from [mental illness, mood disorder, or autism] and you want to address the cause effectively rather than “cover up” the symptoms with medication, Truehope EMPowerplus Advanced can help.”
“Extensive independent research shows that when the body and brain are provided with the essential nutrients found in EMPowerplus Advanced, they are able to function properly—often negating the signs and symptoms of [ADD-ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, or depression].“
Are they trying to sell you something?
Of course. It will cost you about $80 per month for the EMpowerplus supplements.
Is any of this true?
No. There are some limited studies that suggest a small benefit for some of the listed disorders, however, if you actually look at the reports themselves (click on “Research”), you’ll note that all the reports they list call for larger, more thorough follow-up studies to be run to confirm the preliminary findings. Such studies have either not been run or been negative.
On top of that, their claims are wildly overstated – no one, not even the experts they quote on their website can reasonably expect that these supplements can “negate” that signs of autism, bipolar disorder, ADD-ADHD, or depression. This is a dangerous assertion, since you’ll notice that right on every bottle of EMpowerplus is a warning not use use this supplement with pychotropic (mood-altering) drugs without consulting a physician. No reasonable doctor (MD or DO) is going to treat these serious diseases with supplements only. That would literally be malpractice.
Supplements don’t “cure” diseases, and treating any illness with a nutritional supplement like this would only make sense if the disease was caused by a vitamin or mineral deficiency. It is extremely uncommon for persons in developed nations to suffer from serious nutritional deficiencies, and the mental illnesses that Truehope claims to treat are not known to be linked to vitamin or mineral deficiencies of any kind. For most of these diseases (autism and bipolar disorder included), modern medicine cannot offer a “cure” either. It is sufficiently difficult to treat the symptoms of the diseases listed above with the advanced pharmaceuticals of our day. The best you could hope for out of a nutritional supplement is a slight improvement on top of standard medical care. However….
Is any of this dangerous?
It could be. Most of the ingredients in this supplement are just standard essential vitamins and minerals with some amino acids (protein building blocks) and anti-oxidants thrown in. These are things you’ll get in most multivitamins. However, it contains a few other potentially dangerous ingredients. We can’t say for sure these are dangerous, because they don’t say how much is in there (it’s proprietary). However, it contains:
Boron – Some people suggest that boron supplementation can strengthen bones or increase testosterone, however, the evidence for these effects is extremely weak. We do know that boron is harmful to the fetus when taken by pregnant woman and also that is might harm a man’s ability to father children. Low doses of boron are probably safe, but it’s not clear how much is in this supplement.
Vanadium – Vanadium supplements are sometimes sold to treat symptoms of diabetes, where they may help control blood pressure or improve cholesterol. However, it’s not a commonly used supplement because it can be toxic to the kidneys when used for extended period of time at doses above 1.8 mg/day. Again, we don’t know how much is in the EMpowerplus supplement.
Germanium – This one worries us the most. Germanium is a metal that has been touted to have benefits for many conditions, particularly arthritis, cancer, and viral infections. However, there is really no evidence that it helps in any of these cases. On top of this germanium is toxic, particularly to the kidney. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website says: “Because of the frequency of toxic side effects such as kidney, liver, and nerve damage, germanium supplements should not be used, even at low doses.” The FDA issued a special alert for germanium in 2017. Here is the exact wording:
Reason for Alert:
Germanium is a nonessential trace element that has caused nephrotoxicity (kidney injury) and death when used chronically by humans, even at recommended levels of use. Germanium containing products have been labeled for drug use (e.g., with claims that they are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of diseases such as AIDS or cancer), although there are no approved new drug applications (NDAs) or current investigational new drug applications (INDs) on file. Germanium containing products also have been offered for entry as food products such as dietary supplements.
Districts may detain all Germanium products offered for entry, without physical examination, including unlabeled bulk entries, except for semiconductor use as discussed below. If the product claims to be useful in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, use the drug charge; otherwise use the “poisonous and deleterious” charge.
There are legitimate uses for germanium in the semiconductor industry. If an importer shows that the intended use of the product is other than for human consumption, the entry should be released with comment. If possible, appropriate follow up should be made to assure the ultimate disposition is as indicated by the importer.
This means that the government is authorized to literally seize any supplements containing germanium as unlicensed drugs (if they claim to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent disease), or as poisonous and deleterious substances if they don’t. Again, it’s hard to say how much germanium is in this supplement, and it obviously makes it into the US (it’s made in Canada) to some degree, but germanium is dangerous. It’s not something you should be taking on purpose for any reason.*
You mentioned a sad story?
Yes, very sad. Truehope was founded by an anti-vaccine couple who believe strongly in alternative medicine. They claim to have two children with bipolar disorder that they treat with their supplements. In 2012, one of their younger children came down with meningitis (an infection of the brain). This type of meningitis is easily treated with antibiotics, however, despite knowing their child suffered from this serious condition, the parents chose to treat him for two and a half weeks with herbal remedies such as horseradish, ginger root, and onion. Their son, Ezekiel Stephan, died because of the lack of real medical care. He was 19 months old.
The parents were arrested and charged with “failing to provide the necessities of life” to their child. Both were convicted and the father is now currently in jail. As sad as the death of an innocent 19 year old child is, the worst part of this story is that the parents are unremorseful, blaming their son’s death and their conviction on government conspiracies and even the ambulance drivers that tried to save their son.
It’s not clear why people believe in conspiracy theories and reject fact-based science. Some think it’s because these people feel powerless and seek to rebel against those in power. However, no matter why these parents believed what they did, their beliefs in the power of alternative medicine and the dangers of vaccines are factually wrong, and the death of their son is clearly result of their poor judgement.
Just a few years earlier, a young schizophrenic man from Vancouver went off of his prescribed medication and tried to treat himself with Truehope’s EMpowerplus. The man went into a psychotic state and attacked his parents. His father, Donald Ramsey, was killed, and his mother Wendy was seriously injured. Truehope denied any responsibility for this death, saying they “don’t promise a cure”, but when your website says you can “address the cause” or “negate the effect” of a disease, that sounds an awful lot like offering a cure to most people.
What’s the bottom line?
Of all the anti-science conspiracy theories and misconceptions, the belief in “alternative” medicine is one of the most dangerous. This is because when taken to it’s logical extreme (all natural or alternative medicine is “good” while all mainstream medicine, like vaccines, is “bad”), it can lead to people ingesting dangerous chemicals of little or no therapeutic value while also refusing the life-saving therapies offered by modern medicine. Vaccines, antibiotics, and modern pharmaceuticals are arguably the greatest achievements of our species. They are the main reason we can look forward to growing old instead of praying we make it to adolescence like prehistoric humans did. If all the vaccines, antibiotics, and pharmaceuticals were to disappear tomorrow, the result would be almost instantly catastrophic – diseases we have long since forgotten about would wipe out huge portions of our population (polio, diptheria, the bobonic plague, etc), while seemly minor conditions like pneumonia, diabetes, high blood pressure, skin infections, and even diarrhea would be a death sentence for many. The idea of turning your back on all that science has accomplished is incomprehensible to most, but it happens nonetheless. Ezekiel Stephan and Donald Ramsey are dead because people did just that.
This is what makes Truehope such a powerful example of the dangers posed by alternative medicine. These supplements will not cure mental illness. The majority of scientific data says they are unlikely to benefit persons suffering from these conditions in any way. They may pose a real risk to human health because of the germanium they contain, but the most dangerous thing about them is that they offer false hope that some will use as a rationale to abandon evidence-based medicine.
Many, many people take supplements, reasoning that this more “natural” approach is somehow better then modern pharmaceuticals, or at least not harmful, so “why not?” Even if the Truehope product did not contain potentially dangerous levels of germanium, the answer to the question of “why not” is exemplified by the founders of Truehope themselves. Because if we are willing to reject science enough to try and treat mental illness with unproven alternative medicine supplements, then why not replace modern medicine with alternative medicine completely? The answer is very clear and very sad, and it should encourage us all to think more critically about the science behind anything we consider putting in our own bodies.
* UYBFS has reported the sale of the germainium-containing Truehope supplements in the United States to the FDA.