Dr Caroline Leaf on Drugs

We all have a drug problem.

Well, we do according to communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist-come-health guru, Dr Caroline Leaf.  She’s pretty chirpy for a woman with essentially no health credentials.  She did a PhD two decades ago on a specialized area of educational psychology, but she has no medical training or experience.  Essentially she is the Christian equivalent of the health and relationships section of a tabloid newspaper.  Her information lurches between unfounded and the bleeding obvious.

Today’s e-mail newsletter, “Mental Health News March 2017” is a mixture of both. It’s more moderate than usual in its tone, but it’s still inspired by her open rejection of pharmaceuticals, especially medications for mental health which she has railed against many times.

Her second paragraph is a specific case in point.  “Although many medications have saved lives and can help us, we cannot have a quick-fix-pop-a-pill mentality for everything in life, and we should not denigrate alternative methods of health and healing, such as diet, exercise, human relationship, love, compassion and therapy, particularly when it comes to mental health.”

She’s right – we shouldn’t have a quick-fix-pop-a-pill mentality, but she overstates her case.  Most people don’t want pills for everything – people want good care and good treatment.  Sometimes that involves a pill, sometimes it just involves reassurance.  This is bread and butter for any good GP, and I’d love to show Dr Leaf what the front-line of medicine looks like if she ever wanted to see (seriously, the offer’s open).

And who’s denigrating diet and exercise?  Diet and exercise aren’t “alternative” health, they’re mainstream.  Is Dr Leaf so out of touch that she can’t see this?

Her bias against pharmaceuticals is more obvious in their third paragraph.  Pharmaceutical medications are not a major cause of death. According to the Centre of Disease Control, the top ten causes of death in the US are:

* Heart disease
* Cancer (malignant neoplasms)
* Chronic lower respiratory disease
* Accidents (unintentional injuries)
* Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases)
* Alzheimer’s disease
* Diabetes
* Influenza and pneumonia
* Kidney disease (nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis)
* Suicide

Notice how medications do not feature on that list.  Dr Leaf is so biased against medications that she is willing to ignore official government data in favour of her own bias.

But the truth is, pharmaceutical grade medications have revolutionised our lives.  When used in the right way, for the right people, they improve our quality and quantity of life. They give people independence.  They give people choice.   They help people work, spend time with their family and care for others where that may not have been possible otherwise.

Do medications have side effects? Can people feel worse sometimes while taking them? Of course! We need to be realistic. Pharmaceutical medications are powerful agents and we have to use them respectfully.  Prescription drugs are like power tools.  In the right hands they can do wonders, but they can also be very dangerous when used incorrectly.  But while medications can be used incorrectly, using that as a reason why we should use less drugs is like arguing that we should use less knives because sometimes they cut people, or that we should drive less cars because there are car accidents.

Oh, and what was that about the widespread manipulation of data and results in the world of science?  Dr Leaf would never misrepresent the results of her studies, or misrepresent the results of other people’s research, in order to make her products look better than they are?

Lifestyle is important, and in some cases, lifestyle is more important than medication, but there is much more nuance involved.  You need different tools for different jobs.  Imagine a surgeon going into surgery and the scrub nurse passed over a nerf scalpel.  It wouldn’t be particularly helpful would it.  Or what if the scrub nurse passed over a butter knife?  The surgeon might get the job done but with great difficulty, without the precision needed.

What a surgeon needs to perform surgery is an extremely sharp stainless steel scalpel blade.  It is more effective and more precise.  It might occasionally do some unintentional harm, but it will be a lot more effective than a butter knife (and a nerf scalpel!)

There are three different levels of treatment in health – “alternative” medicines, lifestyle treatments, and pharmaceuticals.  “Alternative” medicines are, by definition, useless.  As comedian Tim Minchin says, “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work? Medicine.”  Alternative medicines are probably not going to cause a lot of harm other than making their user poorer for wasting their time, but they’re highly unlikely to do any good.

Lifestyle treatments are the equivalent of the butter knife.  They work, but their effect is non-specific and cumulative.  Hear me right, “non-specific and cumulative” is not code for “ineffective”.  Exercise is one of the most effective non-pharmacological health strategies with clearly proven benefits, but like all lifestyle changes, the effect is fairly general, and the benefit accumulates.

And sometimes, despite doing everything right, people still get sick, and this is where pharmaceuticals have their place.  They are like the scalpel – they might have some unwanted effects, but in the right hands, when used correctly, they make a specific and tangible difference to a person’s life and health.

Dr Leaf then goes on to assert that “Changing your lifestyle and, significantly, the way you THINK can have dramatic effects on your health”.  That’s a furphy.  Thoughts make no difference to our health (I’ve shown how little difference thought makes to our health in my review of Dr Leaf’s book “Think and Eat Yourself Smart”).  Some scientists may have recommended produce over Prozac, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re right.

And Dr Leaf has trotted out the same worn, tired old factoid about loving and serving others that I’ve shown to be inaccurate as well.

If you want to improve your health without medications, then start walking.  Eat vegetables.  Drink water.  Don’t waste your time and money buying into Dr Leaf’s inaccurate teaching.

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