Media’s Marvellous Medicine

When it comes to our health, the media wields enormous influence over what we think. They tell us what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right and wrong, what we should and shouldn’t eat. When you think about it, that’s quite some responsibility. But do you really think that a sense of philanthropic duty is the driving force behind most of the health ‘news’ stories that you read? Who are we kidding? It’s all about sales, of course, and all too often that means the science plays second fiddle. Who wants boring old science getting in the way of a sensation-making headline?

When it comes to research – especially the parts we’re interested in, namely food, diet and nutrients – there’s a snag. The thing is, these matters are rarely, if ever, clear-cut. Let’s say there are findings from some new research that suggest a component of our diet is good for our health. Now academics and scientists are generally a pretty cautious bunch – they respect the limitations of their work and don’t stretch their conclusions beyond their actual findings. Not that you’ll think this when you hear about it in the media. News headlines are in your face and hard hitting. Fluffy uncertainties just won’t cut it. An attention-grabbing headline is mandatory; relevance to the research is optional. Throw in a few random quotes from experts – as the author Peter McWilliams stated, the problem with ‘experts’ is you can always find one ‘who will say something hopelessly hopeless about anything’ – and boom! You’ve got the formula for some seriously media-friendly scientific sex appeal, or as we prefer to call it, ‘textual garbage’. The reality is that a lot of the very good research into diet and health ends up lost in translation. Somewhere between its publication in a respected scientific journal and the moment it enters our brains via the media, the message gets a tweak here, a twist there and a dash of sensationalism thrown in for good measure, which leaves us floundering in a sea of half-truths and misinformation. Most of it should come with the warning: ‘does nothing like it says in the print’. Don’t get us wrong: we’re not just talking about newspapers and magazines here, the problem runs much deeper. Even the so-called nutrition ‘experts’, the health gurus who sell books by the millions, are implicated. We’re saturated in health misinformation.

Quite frankly, many of us are sick of this contagion of nutritional nonsense. So, before launching headlong into the rest of the book, take a step back and see how research is actually conducted, what it all means and what to watch out for when the media deliver their less-than-perfect messages. Get your head around these and you’ll probably be able to make more sense of nutritional research than most of our cherished health ‘gurus’.

Rule #1: Humans are different from cells in a test tube
At the very basic level, researchers use in-vitro testing, in which they isolate cells or tissues of interest and study them outside a living organism in a kind of ‘chemical soup’. This allows substances of interest (for example, a vitamin or a component of food) to be added to the soup to see what happens. So they might, for example, add vitamin C to some cancer cells and observe its effect. We’re stating the obvious now when we say that what happens here is NOT the same as what happens inside human beings. First, the substance is added directly to the cells, so they are often exposed to concentrations far higher than would normally be seen in the body. Second, humans are highly complex organisms, with intricately interwoven systems of almost infinite processes and reactions. What goes on within a few cells in a test tube or Petri dish is a far cry from what would happen in the body. This type of research is an important part of science, but scientists know its place in the pecking order – as an indispensable starting point of scientific research. It can give us valuable clues about how stuff works deep inside us, what we might call the mechanisms, before going on to be more rigorously tested in animals, and ultimately, humans. But that’s all it is, a starting point.

Rule #2: Humans are different from animals
The next logical step usually involves animal testing. Studying the effects of a dietary component in a living organism, not just a bunch of cells, is a big step closer to what might happen in humans. Mice are often used, due to convenience, consistency, a short lifespan, fast reproduction rates and a closely shared genome and biology to humans. In fact, some pretty amazing stuff has been shown in mice. We can manipulate a hormone and extend life by as much as 30%1. We can increase muscle mass by 60% in two weeks. And we have shown that certain mice can even regrow damaged tissues and organs.

So, can we achieve all of that in humans? The answer is a big ‘no’ (unless you happen to believe the X-Men are real). Animal testing might be a move up from test tubes in the credibility ratings, but it’s still a long stretch from what happens in humans. You’d be pretty foolish to make a lot of wild claims based on animal studies alone.

To prove that, all we need to do is take a look at pharmaceutical drugs. Vast sums of money (we’re talking hundreds of millions) are spent trying to get a single drug to market. But the success rate is low. Of all the drugs that pass in-vitro and animal testing to make it into human testing, only 11% will prove to be safe and effective enough to hit the shelves5. For cancer drugs the rate of success is only 5%5. In 2003, the President of Research and Development at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, John La Mattina, stated that ‘only one in 25 early candidates survives to become a prescribed medicine’. You don’t need to be a betting person to see these are seriously slim odds.

Strip it down and we can say that this sort of pre-clinical testing never, ever, constitutes evidence that a substance is safe and effective. These are research tools to try and find the best candidates to improve our health, which can then be rigorously tested for efficacy in humans. Alas, the media and our nutrition gurus don’t appear to care too much for this. Taking research carried out in labs and extrapolating the results to humans sounds like a lot more fun. In fact, it’s the very stuff of many a hard-hitting newspaper headline and bestselling health book. To put all of this into context, let’s take just one example of a classic media misinterpretation, and you’ll see what we mean.

Rule #3: Treat headlines with scepticism
Haven’t you heard? The humble curry is right up there in the oncology arsenal – a culinary delight capable of curing the big ‘C’. At least that’s what the papers have been telling us. ‘The Spice Of Life! Curry Fights Cancer’ decreed the New York Daily News. ‘How curry can help keep cancer at bay’ and ‘Curry is a “cure for cancer”’ reported the Daily Mail and The Sun in the UK. Could we be witnessing the medical breakthrough of the decade? Best we take a closer look at the actual science behind the headlines.

The spice turmeric, which gives some Indian dishes a distinctive yellow colour, contains relatively large quantities of curcumin, which has purported benefit in Alzheimer’s disease, infections, liver disease, inflammatory conditions and cancer. Impressive stuff. But there’s a hitch when it comes to curcumin. It has what is known as ‘poor bioavailability’. What that means is, even if you take large doses of curcumin, only tiny amounts of it get into your body, and what does get in is got rid of quickly. From a curry, the amount absorbed is so miniscule that it is not even detectable in the body.

So what were those sensational headlines all about? If you had the time to track down the academic papers being referred to, you would see it was all early stage research. Two of the articles were actually referring to in-vitro studies (basically, tipping some curcumin onto cancer cells in a dish and seeing what effect it had).

Suffice to say, this is hardly the same as what happens when you eat a curry. The other article referred to an animal study, where mice with breast cancer were given a diet containing curcumin. Even allowing for the obvious differences between mice and humans, surely that was better evidence? The mice ate curcumin-containing food and absorbed enough for it to have a beneficial effect on their cancer. Sounds promising, until we see the mice had a diet that was 2% curcumin by weight. With the average person eating just over 2kg of food a day, 2% is a hefty 40g of curcumin. Then there’s the issue that the curcumin content of the average curry/turmeric powder used in curry is a mere 2%. Now, whoever’s out there conjuring up a curry containing 2kg of curry powder, please don’t invite us over for dinner anytime soon.

This isn’t a criticism of the science. Curcumin is a highly bio-active plant compound that could possibly be formulated into an effective medical treatment one day. This is exactly why these initial stages of research are being conducted. But take this basic stage science and start translating it into public health advice and you can easily come up with some far-fetched conclusions. Let us proffer our own equally absurd headline: ‘Curry is a Cause of Cancer’. Abiding by the same rules of reporting used by the media, we’ve taken the same type of in-vitro and animal-testing evidence and conjured up a completely different headline. We can do this because some studies of curcumin have found that it actually causes damage to our DNA, and in so doing could potentially induce cancer.

As well as this, concerns about diarrhoea, anaemia and interactions with drug-metabolizing enzymes have also been raised. You see how easy it is to pick the bits you want in order to make your headline? Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than just curcumin. It could just as easily be resveratrol from red wine, omega-3 from flaxseeds, or any number of other components of foods you care to mention that make headline news.

It’s rare to pick up a newspaper or nutrition book without seeing some new ‘superfood’ or nutritional supplement being promoted on the basis of less than rigorous evidence. The net result of this shambles is that the real science gets sucked into the media vortex and spat out in a mishmash of dumbed-down soundbites, while the nutritional messages we really should be taking more seriously get lost in a kaleidoscope of pseudoscientific claptrap, peddled by a media with about as much authority to advise on health as the owner of the local pâtisserie.

Rule #4: Know the difference between association and causation
If nothing else, we hope we have shown that jumping to conclusions based on laboratory experiments is unscientific, and probably won’t benefit your long-term health. To acquire proof, we need to carry out research that involves actual humans, and this is where one of the greatest crimes against scientific research is committed in the name of a good story, or to sell a product.

A lot of nutritional research comes in the form of epidemiological studies. These involve looking at populations of people and observing how much disease they get and seeing if it can be linked to a risk factor (for example, smoking) or some protective factor (for example, eating fruit and veggies). And one of the most spectacular ways to manipulate the scientific literature is to blur the boundary between ‘association’ and ‘causation’. This might all sound very academic, but it’s actually pretty simple.

Confusing association with causation means you can easily arrive at the wrong conclusion. For example, a far higher percentage of visually impaired people have Labradors compared to the rest of the population, so you might jump to the conclusion that Labradors cause sight problems. Of course we know better, that if you are visually impaired then you will probably have a Labrador as a guide dog. To think otherwise is ridiculous.

But apply the same scenario to the complex human body and it is not always so transparent. Consequently, much of the debate about diet and nutrition is of the ‘chicken versus egg’ variety. Is a low or high amount of a nutrient a cause of a disease, a consequence of the disease, or simply irrelevant?

To try and limit this confusion, researchers often use what’s known as a cohort study. Say you’re interested in studying the effects of diet on cancer risk. You’d begin by taking a large population that are free of the disease at the outset and collect detailed data on their diet. You’d then follow this population over time, let’s say ten years, and see how many people were diagnosed with cancer during this period. You could then start to analyse the relationship between people’s diet and their risk of cancer, and ask a whole lot of interesting questions. Did people who ate a lot of fruit and veggies have less cancer? Did eating a lot of red meat increase cancer? What effect did drinking alcohol have on cancer risk? And so on.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), which we refer to often in this book, is an example of a powerfully designed cohort study, involving more than half a million people in ten countries. These studies are a gold mine of useful information because they help us piece together dietary factors that could influence our risk of disease.

But, however big and impressive these studies are, they’re still observational. As such they can only show us associations, they cannot prove causality. So if we’re not careful about the way we interpret this kind of research, we run the risk of drawing some whacky conclusions, just like we did with the Labradors. Let’s get back to some more news headlines, like this one we spotted: ‘Every hour per day watching TV increases risk of heart disease death by a fifth’.

When it comes to observational studies, you have to ask whether the association makes sense. Does it have ‘biological plausibility’? Are there harmful rays coming from the TV that damage our arteries or is it that the more time we spend on the couch watching TV, the less time we spend being active and improving our heart health. The latter is true, of course, and there’s an ‘association’ between TV watching and heart disease, not ‘causation’.

So even with cohorts, the champions of the epidemiological studies, we can’t prove causation, and that’s all down to what’s called ‘confounding’. This means there could be another variable at play that causes the disease being studied, at the same time as being associated with the risk factor being investigated. In our example, it’s the lack of physical activity that increases heart disease and is also linked to watching more TV.

This issue of confounding variables is just about the biggest banana skin of the lot. Time and time again you’ll find nutritional advice promoted on the basis of the findings of observational studies, as though this type of research gives us stone cold facts. It doesn’t. Any scientist will tell you that. This type of research is extremely useful for generating hypotheses, but it can’t prove them.

Rule #5: Be on the lookout for RCTs (randomized controlled trials)
An epidemiological study can only form a hypothesis, and when it offers up some encouraging findings, these then need to be tested in what’s known as an intervention, or clinical, trial before we can talk about causality. Intervention trials aim to test the hypothesis by taking a population that are as similar to each other as possible, testing an intervention on a proportion of them over a period of time and observing how it influences your measured outcome.

Why Asians are more prone to Type 2 diabetes than Westerners

Thirty-four year-old Alan Phua is what you might describe as a typical male Chinese man. He exercises for three to five times a week in a country that places a high emphasis on healthy lifestyles. He also carefully observes what he eats and is strict about his diet.

Alan lives in Singapore. In addition to military service for the duration of two and a half years when they turn eighteen, citizens have annual reservist training for two weeks until they turn forty. Failing to meet targets for physical exercises such as chin ups, standing broad jumps, sit ups, shuttle runs and a 1.5 mile run means remedial physical training every few months until these standards are meet. But not all is negative though. Meeting or exceeding these targets is rewarded by financial incentives. In other words, living in Singapore as a male means there is a strong push to keep fit and maintain it.

The reasons for this are very clear. Singapore is a small country surrounded by two large neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia. Its population of five million citizens means that like Israel, it has to rely on a citizen reservist force should the threat of war ever loom. While most of the citizens there seem of the mindset that military war would never break out, as the country is so small that any military action would damage the infrastructure and paralyse it; furthermore, the military is only a deterrent force, the readiness to military action gives leverage in negotiations between nation. For example, if the countries disagree over the supply of water that Malaysia gives Singapore to refine, and the discussions escalate towards a military standoff, having a reservist army puts the country in a better negotiating position. But while many may claim that a war is hypothetical, there is a simpler reason for maintaining fitness. A fitter population means less stress on the healthcare system. Singapore is the sustainable healthcare system that many countries are seeking to adopt.

Like many others in Singapore, Alan’s body does not produce enough insulin. This, as a result, causes the accumulation of sugar in the bloodstream. The lack of insulin leads to other health issues, such as general fatigue, infections, or other effects such as the failure of wounds to heal. However, all is not lost. Eating properly and having a good level of exercise can prevent the blood glucose level from rising and developing into diabetes.

Local researchers from the country’s National University Hospital (NUH), working together with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, have discovered that the reason why Asians are moresusceptible than Westerners to developing Type 2 diabetes is the inability of their bodies to produce high enough levels of insulin.

Even though the finding was based only on a small sample size of 140 mostly Chinese participants, the data, if expanded and refined, will point the way and help patients with diabetes to manage it better; not just for local patients but also within the region. Doctors believe that better dietary advice and a better selection of drugs would help patients to treat diabetes. The preliminary findings are part of the country’s largest diabetes study launched last year. The five-year ongoing study has recruited around 1,300 participants, and aims to eventually nearly double that.

The researchers did however notice the ethnicity of the results was fairly restricted and more participants from a wider racial profile will be needed for the results to be applied to the general population.

Currently, the statistics show that one in three Singaporeans has a risk of developing diabetes. Currently, one out of every fourteen Singaporeans are diabetic. Type 2 diabetes comes about because insufficient insulin is produced by the pancreas, or because the body has insulin resistance.

A previous study that 8 per cent of Chinese people with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 23 have diabetes. A BMI of 23 is within the normal weight range for Caucasians, and the rate of diabetes development within Chinese people is four times more than their European counterparts. The researchers claimed that it highlighted the importance of avoiding too much high-glucose food such as those rich in simple carbohydrates which include white rice and sugar.

The findings could also lay the foundation for efforts to test whether therapies that target insulin secretion and the ability to make more insulin could be more effective in the local population, and lead to customised diabetes treatment.

What bearing does this have on us, and what action can we take? A good start would be to avoid eating high glucose food such as rice too often and managing our diet. Also try adopting a more active lifestyle!

Women and favoured sleep positions

If you’ve ever woken up in the morning to stiffness in a particular side you would probably arrive at the conclusion that you had spent much of that night lying in that position. That discomfort may have arisen from the weight of your body pressed against that side for a prolonged period.

An incorrect – or to be more specific – uncomfortable sleeping position can raise your blood pressure through the night and consequently bring along some of the other risks associated with raised blood pressure if repeated for a prolonged period.

If the pressure of your own body pressed against your side in a night causes that level of discomfort in the morning, imagine what would happen if you were a pregnant woman bearing the weight of a baby?

We have already examined in the previous post how common themes around daily life such as diet, exercise, medicine and mental health are often researched and investigated and thoroughly mined for slants and angles as part of a media strategy of generating column inches from pre-existing information and common knowledge.

So it is no surprise, hence, to see yet another article in the media dispensing advice on sleep.

The Mail Online advises women not to sleep on your back in the last trimester as it could cause stillbirth. Backed of course, by experts.

Remember the line of thinking mentioned in the previous post?

A shark is a fish. A whale is a fish. With time, sharks can become whales, according to experts.

This is how the media works.

The Mail Online seems to have done exactly that. Perhaps sensationalising the headline first, then teasing the reader along the way by purporting to reveal the organisation and result of a blitz of information at the end. Except that after reading the article, you’ve probably thought it flowed well, but didn’t really reveal any insight.

The study – who financed it? – examined the sleep positions of twenty-nine women in their final trimester and the effects these had on their baby’s behaviour.

The overall result was that all babies were born healthy. On that basis there was no significant impact on sleeping positions on baby development. Remember the attention grabbing headline? It seemingly amounted to nothing in the end.

The tenuous link used in the research was that when women slept on their right side, babies were slightly more likely to be active and awake, and if mothers slept on their backs, babies were more likely to be quietly asleep.

The research was carried out by researchers in New Zealand and involved placing ECG monitors on mothers in the third trimester.

Despite the non-entity of significant results, sleeping on your back for a pregnant mother may compress major blood vessels and this may change the baby’s heart rate.

But don’t role out the possibility that in years to come, the media may use this piece of research to bulk up an article fronted by the headline “Sleeping on your back gives you calmer babies”, using the tenuous link that the blood flow and pressure of stressed, tense pregnant women to the baby was reduced when they slept on their backs.

There are 7 billion in this planet and using a study sample size of twenty nine women is also ridiculously small. If 1 of those women had experienced complications then the headline might have been “3% of all foetuses at risk”!

Just sleep in a comfortable position. And get lots of sleep. And go see your GP for advice instead of seeking health advice from a newspaper.

You know how media spin works.

What your breakfast reveals about media companies

Wordsmiths would tell you that the origins of the word “breakfast” lie in the words “break” and “fast”. Then again, you wouldn’t actually need an expert to tell you the combined word comes from its intention – to end the fasting period. What fast? Presumably in Roman days the fast represented the period from after sunset to sunrise, where people had to endure going without food in the cold of night, at a time when the thinking was “Eat as much as you can during the day, while you can”. The line of thinking about what to eat for breakfast certainly does vary from place to place. Some believe that after a period of doing without food – okay, so a few hours every evening now after a “Just Eat” gorge of Indian takeaway washed down with bottles of Kingfisher can hardly be called a fast anymore –  the body has to stock up on its resources. Enter the full English breakfast; sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, beans (mustn’t forget your greens), black pudding – everything you wanted to eat during the day, presented to you literally on a plate, in case you miss the opportunity to eat later on. In contrast, there are others of the thinking that after an overnight period of doing without, the body cannot be forced into what is a gorge. Just as someone who is parched and dehydrated has to resist the natural urge to guzzle down water when presented with it, breakfast, some think, is only a primer for a heavy lunch. Hence the idea of a light continental croissant, a little way of appeasing the hungry body but regulating the intake of food so the body is not lulled into a yo-yo pattern of starvation and gorging that is more typical of eating disorders.

Makes sense? Both points of view actually do, despite the conflicts about whether or not to eat heavy first thing in the morning. But to further complicate the issue, a third group believes that since your body, when at rest, will require resources to draw on when you are asleep, then it makes perfect sense to load up with a heavy meal as the last meal of the day. Start light, finish heavy. Viewed in the context, it makes sense too.

If there is any one consistent factor about diet, it is probably that the debate, ideas and media reports will continue into the future, and ideas will come and go and come back again. The fad for various diets has sold books and filled magazine columns and given the media lots to write about, which is great for the industry because media is not a sector that relies on bringing to you information that is necessarily correct, it is a sector that relies on attracting readership and human traffic in order to build up a reader base which it leverages to companies to sell advertising. Advertising is what drives media, not the exposition or exploration of facts. Hence media companies will present information that they feel is of interest and will hook in readers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be substantiated, as long as there is a fellow source to mention, as if the validation of facts had been corroborated by them.

Where do research scientists fit in this grand scheme of things? There are various kinds of research scientists, ones that truly explore the world in order to further it, and others who conduct investigation in order that it may be latched on to by the media in reports. Ultimately it comes down to who is funding the work. Funded by a company such as Cancer Research? The investigative research conducted by such research scientists is likely to be subject to stringer validation. Funded by a pharmaceutical company? The data obtained by such research needs to be handled carefully in order that the outcomes are not flawed or biased towards any products the company is producing.

In other words, if a pharmaceutical company is working on producing a medical product that is, for example, has seaweed as an active ingredient, then the research must not be conducted in a way that only shows the positive benefits of seaweed; research that only gives supposed scientific validation to a pre-determined result.

Bias is all too easy to spot when the links are direct, when a pharmaceutical company employs scientists. But what happens when the grand paymaster is the media company?

Hang on, I hear you say. Why would a media company, perhaps a newspaper, employ a group of scientists? And how could they get away with it?

The end product for a pharmaceutical company is a medical one. The end product for a newspaper is news, and the research scientists are there to provide it.

The group of scientists don’t necessarily need to be under permanent employ, just occasional contract work when there are lull periods in the news. And the work that they do is not necessarily related to what is in the article that is published anyway. Tenuous links are exploited to maximise the draw of a headline.

This is how it works:

A shark is a fish. A whale is a fish. Your newspaper reports that there is the possibility that sharks could become whales.

And that’s it.

A media company – newspaper, magazine, channel, web agency – can hire research scientists to lend credibility to semi-extravagant claims.

As long as there is another attributable source, or somewhere to dismiss the evidence – easily done by mentioning “It is generally accepted that …” or “Common convention holds that …” before launching into the juicy bit – the bit that spins things out, through a long process by which the receiver, either reader or viewer, has hopefully forgotten what the gist of the argument was in the first place – everything can passed off. In fact, it is a psychological trick – the receiver keeps following in the hope of being able mentally ordering the great influx of information.

Ever watched a BBC drama series? After six episodes, numerous disjointed flashbacks, the final  episode always seems a bit of a letdown because you realise everything was obvious and the in-betweens were just filler bits to spin things out.

I digress. But returning to the point, media companies can hire research scientists on an occasional basis. Some may even do so, and have a scientist for full time hire as a generator of scientific news.

A direct link between a media agency and a research scientist may sound implausible. But think of the UK’s Channel 4 programme, Embarrassing Bodies, where a team of four doctors go around examining people, dispensing advice, running health experiments in a format of an hour-long slot punctuated by two minutes of advertisements for every thirteen minutes of the programme.

If the media company does not want its links to be so obvious, it can dilute them progressively through the form of intermediary companies.

For example, ABC newspaper hires DEF company to manage its search engine optimisation campaign. DEF hires GHI creative media, who hire  JKL, a freelance journalist who knows Dr MNO, who conducts research for hire. Eventually MNO’s “research” ends up in the ABC newspaper. If it proves to be highly controversial or toxic to some extent, ABC’s links to MNO are very, very easy to disavow.

So when the media recently reported that scientists say skipping the morning meal could be linked to poorer cardiovascular health, should we pay any heed to it?

The research findings revealed that, compared with those who had an energy-dense breakfast, those who missed the meal had a greater extent of the early stages of atherosclerosis – a buildup of fatty material inside the arteries.

But the link been skipping breakfast and cardiovascular health is tenuous at best, as the articles themselves admit.

“People who skip breakfast, not only do they eat late and in an odd fashion, but [they also] have a poor lifestyle,” said Valentin Fuster, co-author of the research and director of Mount Sinai Heart in New York and the Madrid-based cardiovascular research institute, the CNIC.

So a poorer lifestyle gives negative impact to your health. A poorer lifestyle causes you to miss breakfast. Sharks do become whales.

This supposed link between skipping breakfast and cardiovascular health was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, and the research had partly been funded by the Spanish bank Santander. The health and diets of 4,052 middle-aged bank workers, both men and women, with no previous history of cardiovascular disease were compared.

You can bet that on another day where news is slow, someone will roll out an “Eating breakfast on the move harms your health” headline. Nothing to do with the way you move and eat, it is simply because you have a stressful lifestyle that impacts on your health which forces you to eat on the go. But it was a link and headline, a “sell” or bait that drew you in to either purchase a newspaper or magazine, watch a programme, or spend some dwell time on a site.

And that’s how media works.

Revising Traditional Antibiotic Advice

What do you do when you have a cold and feel under the weather? Perhaps you decide to tough it out, and head to work as usual. You grin and bear it, because as far as you are concerned, it’s just a common cold and you can’t do anything about it.

But suppose you don’t get any better after a week, when you expected that the cold would have already run its course. You decide to stay at home to rest, and after a further two days when no improvement is seen, you go to visit the doctor.

The doctor’s advice? A course of antibiotics. Two tablets three times a day after meals, and by the way, keep finishing the course even when you feel better.

This is the advice that has been dispensed through decades to patients. Finish the whole prescription of antibiotics. And as patients, we put our trust in doctors so whatever they said went. Who were we to argue with seven years of medical training?

But what would you say if this medical advice turned out to be incorrect? I know what I’d think – firstly the sceptic in me would say medical advice is fickle and flows with what is fashionable at the time. At times, medicine seems also subservient to politics and economy. Remember the case with red wine? When the economy was flagging, a glass of red wine was said to be good for you. Yet when the NHS was under strain this so-called health benefit was reversed.

In this day and age it is also fashionable for everyone to carve a niche for themselves, and for many the way to do so is to turn traditional advice upside down on its head and revise or reformat existing information. And so, with these in mind, it is unsurprising that we learn of yet another study that claims the rule that patients must finish antibiotics course is wrong.

The new slant on the old problem is that patients should stop taking the prescribed medication when they feel better rather than as what doctors previously used to recommend.

The new panel of experts suggest that  the long embedded rule is incorrect, because continually taking medication after we have felt better only lowers the body’s resistance in the long run. They argue that if the body already feels better, giving it medication it does not need has counter-productive effects.

This differs with the advice that doctors have traditionally recommended, which is based on the idea that bacteria remains in our bodies even though we feel better and these bacteria may develop adaptation to antibiotics if they are not fully killed off. In other words, if you have not fully killed off the bacteria, it develops tolerance and immunity to the drug which partially fended it off, and ultimately the antibiotics’ effectiveness is negated.

Imagine two medieval armies: Trojans and Greeks. One day the Trojans manage to get inside the Greek city walls and wreak havoc (according to the Greeks anyway) with their torches, spears and swords. But the Greeks have a special weapon, say for arguments’ sake, an M16 with a laser sight. If the Greeks completely defeat the Trojans, the effectiveness of their weapon is guaranteed against successive waves of Trojan attacks. But if the Greek army stops to celebrate the moment the city battle swings in their favour, retreating Trojans may bring back information about the weapon, and how it works, and plan successive attacks that limit the effectiveness of the weapon or destroy it completely.

Martin Llewelyn, professor in infectious diseases at Brighton and Sussex medical school have called for a re-examination of the traditional advice. In an analysis in the British Medical Journal, they say “the idea that stopping antibiotic treatment early encourages antibiotic resistance is not supported by evidence, while taking antibiotics for longer than necessary increases the risk of resistance”.

In other words, stop taking the medicine the moment you feel better.
In the past, the theory supporting the completion of a course of antibiotics has been that too short a course would allow the bacteria causing  disease to mutate and become resistant to the drug.

For certain diseases, bacteria can clearly become resistant if the drugs are not taken for long enough to completely eradicate them. One such example of this is tuberculosis.

But a large majority of the bacteria that cause illnesses are found in the environment around us and have no impact until the bacteria gets into the bloodstream or the gut. The case putting forward a cessation in medication once the patient’s health improves is that the longer the bacterial exposure to antibiotics within the body, the higher the chance of developed resistance.

The hypothesis put forth by Professor Llewelyn has not been without its backers.

Peter Openshaw, president of the British Society for Immunology, said he had always considered the notion  that stopping antibiotic treatment early would make organisms more drug-resistant rather “illogical”.

He supported the idea of a more sparing use of antibiotics because the evidence of a link between long-term complete use and benefit was tenuous.

He dismissed claims that not finishing a course of antibiotics would lead to bacteria gaining antibiotic resistance but thought the reverse would be more true. “Far from being irresponsible, shortening the duration of a course of antibiotics might make antibiotic resistance less likely.”

A great British authority, Prof Harold Lambert had made the suggestion as far back as in 1999 in a Lancet article entitled “Don’t keep taking the tablets”. Even though the idea had been broached then, it had not been taken seriously and with hindsight it is surprising that nearly two decades later the medical world has not investigated the alternatives fully and that the optimum duration of antibiotics courses or doses in many conditions remains an investigated fast.

Jodi Lindsay, a professor of microbial pathogenesis at St George’s, University of London, stated that the new research by Professor Llewellyn was good in principle, and that the previous advice to complete a course of antibiotics may have been based on a fear of under-treatment. But nevertheless she cautioned against an over-reaction towards the results of the findings. “The evidence for shorter courses of antibiotics being equal to longer courses, in terms of cure or outcome, is generally good, although more studies would help and there are a few exceptions when longer courses are better – for example, TB.”

To complicate matters, the ideal length of a course of antibiotics varies in individuals depending on what antibiotics they have taken in the past. Hospitalised patients can be tested to find out when the drugs can be stopped. Outside of a hospital setting, this testing is not feasible.

The World Health Organisation advice is still based on the pre-existing guidelines and has not changed.

The Royal College of GPs, however, expressed caution over the findings. “Recommended courses of antibiotics are not random,” said its chair, Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard. She further elaborated that antibiotic treatment courses were already being customised according to individual conditions and if patients took it upon themselves to adjust the prescribed periods, stopping when they felt better, it would be dangerous because a slight turn in outlook did not necessarily demonstrate the complete eradication of the disease. Professor Stokes-Lampard also stressed that it was important for patients to have clear guidelines to adhere to and any adjustment using feel as an indicator might be confusing.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is currently developing guidance for managing common infections, which will look at all available evidence on appropriate prescribing of antibiotics.

The cynics among us might ask, has such a review on current guidelines been made with the objective to cut the cost of medical care? It is well known the health budget is ever dwindling, and one cannot help but feel that the review on existing guidelines of antibiotics has been made with an objective to save on the cost of medicine rather than put patient health first.

The health service is currently riding the trend of developing sustainability in infrastructure and treatment, and this revision of traditional guidelines may seem to be a reframing of the evidence to suit a pre-determined outlook.

Let us return to the example of Greeks and Trojans. If the battle is raging within the Greek city walls and the tide turns against the Trojans, should the Greeks fire their ammunition at the retreating Trojans until they all fall to the ground? Ammunition in the form of gunpowder and metal casings cost money and if the ammunition could be used sparingly, then there is more money to funnel towards other  daily activities like farming and livestock. The question we are being asked to address is the equivalent of this hypothetical situation: Should the Greeks keep firing their weapons, until all the Trojans fall before they manage to retreat and leave the Greek city walls, or should the Greeks try to save the cost of a few rounds of ammunition if they are certain the Trojans are so heavily wounded they would never survive the escape and make it to their own city walls to compromise the information they know about the secret weapon?

You may decide, as I did, that the cost of a few extra rounds of ammunition outweighs all the mental confusion of wondering “what if …?” for the next few months. “What if I didn’t take the medication long enough? What if the bacteria has mutated?”

You can see why it is easier that when it comes to health, be cautious, don’t customise. Don’t experiment on the one life you’ve got!