6 New Age cures that are (mostly) as full of crap as you think

Sometimes you find good skepticism in strange places. One example of this has been Cracked.com. Normally, Cracked.com is a humor site based on the magazine that I used to read sometimes back in 1970s. Unfortunately, the magazine folded several years ago, but the website lives on. For example, Cracked.com once did a snarky article making fun of the "heroes" of the antivaccine movement and contrasting them to "villains" like (of course!) Paul Offit. It even featured for emphasis the infamous "baby eating" poster that Age of Autism ran a couple of years ago that featured Steve Novella, Paul Offit, and other champions of vaccine science sitting around a Thanksgiving feast featuring as its main course a baby. In general, many of the articles in Cracked.com take the form of lists, like 8 New TV Show Ideas Almost as Stupid as 'Grey's Anatomy' and The 5 Most Insane Examples of Chinese Counterfeiting. Unfortunately, some of you forwarded an article of this form with the title 6 New Age Cures That Aren't As Full Of Crap As You Think.

If I see much more of this, I might have to reassess my opinion of Cracked.com as an unlikely seeming place to go for skepticism and critical thinking. Let's just put it this way. Some of "New Age cures" that Cracked.com characterizes as not being "as full of crap as you think" are actually more full of crap than you think. Acupuncture, for example, which is number six on the list (given that these lists usually run from the highest number to the lowest). After starting out promisingly enough characterizing the idea of qi as nonsense, the article veers into the quackademic medicine explanation of how acupuncture "works" that buys into every trope that apologists of placebo medicine use to justify the use of acupuncture. First, though:

It's probably not very surprising that science has been unable to locate chi energy on any X-Rays.

Which is true enough and a good start. Too bad it had to be ruined by what follows:

What might be surprising is that despite this, actual scientific studies that don't involve a single "spirit crystal" show that acupuncture actually freaking works. Yes, according to that article in The Wall Street Journal, "neuroimaging studies show that it seems to calm areas of the brain that register pain and activate those involved in rest and recuperation," all of which sounds surprisingly official for a pain-relief method that involves repeated stabbing.

No, acupuncture doesn't work. When you look at the totality of the evidence, it's most consistent with placebo effects. As I've pointed out time and time again, acupuncture does no better than sham acupuncture. Or, to be more precise, it doesn't matter where you stick the needles. it doesn't even matter if you stick the needles in. My favorite example of this is a classic study in which twirling toothpicks actually produced more apparent symptom relief than actual "real" acupuncture. That didn't stop the investigators from trying to spin the study as evidence that acupuncture "works." Good luck with that. When the real therapy doesn't perform any better than the sham therapy, what do we normally say? That's right. We normally say that the treatment doesn't work. It's a placebo. Yet the authors tried to say that the study indicated that both real and sham acupuncture worked. One wonders what they would say if a drug company did a clinical trial where its new drug didn't work any better than a placebo and tried to spin the results as saying that their drug works.

In any case, the WSJ article referenced cites a whole lot of dubious quackademic research, including that of Helene Langevin, some dubious functional MRI imaging studies, and other tropes that regular readers of this blog should be intimately familiar with. The article itself even concludes with:

"I don't see any disconnect between how acupuncture works and how a placebo works," says radiologist Vitaly Napadow at the Martinos center. "The body knows how to heal itself. That's what a placebo does, too."

Yes, it's the rebranding of a CAM modality as a "powerful placebo" that can heal.

This article also misinterprets another study:

That's actually one theory on how it works. When an acupuncturist sticks a tiny needle in your skin and twirls it around, she's not quite harming you enough to cause real pain, but she is harming you just enough for your body to act in self-defense and release a natural chemical called adenosine, which acts like a local anesthetic.

No, no, no, no, no! I explained in great detail why the infamous "adenosine" study shows nothing of the sort. Its results were mildly interesting, but were in no way strong evidence that acupuncture "works," much less that it works through releasing adenosine. Acupuncture mavens sure did sell, sell, sell that study, though, didn't they? They're still selling that study. What was most disappointing to me is that the peer reviewers at a really good journal didn't catch the faulty reasoning in the conclusions of that study.

I spent the most time on acupuncture because it's what I know the most about, but the other five "New Age" therapies being billed as not being "not as full of crap as you think" are, for the most part, equally hooey. For instance, there's aromatherapy, about which, I'll admit, Cracked.com has a good line, "It should go without saying, but inhaling something's 'life energy' in order to become stronger only works for evil wizards and mummies. No matter how strongly you concentrate the smell of flowers, you're still just smelling flowers." That's an awesome quote. Too bad it, too, is ruined by what follows, which is basically more acceptance of credulous treatments of aromatherapy. The authors Pauli Poisuo and Alexia Franklin would have done well to read skeptical treatments of aromatherapy by the Skeptic's Dictionary, the Bay Area Skeptics, the Digital Bits Skeptic, Steve Novella, or Lynn McCutcheon.

Oddly enough, in the seven years I've been blogging, I haven't written much about aromatherapy at all. Maybe I'll have to rectify that sometime.

I tend to put aromatherapy in the same category as massage. There's a lot of woo in massage therapy, where all too many masseuses buy into various forms of energy woo. From my perspective, massage feels good. It helps you relax, and it can sooth tight muscles. Unfortunately, too many massage practitioners can't just leave it at that. It can't just be massage. Oh, no. It has to be a "therapy." The same thing with aroma. There's no doubt that warm baths with pleasant-smelling oils can make you feel quite relaxed and good. Why not leave it at that? Aroma therapists, alas, can't. They have to label it as a "therapy" and infuse it with all sorts of energy woo. I've said it before about massage therapy, and Steve Novella says the same thing about aromatherapy:

I am not just being picky. Attaching the word "therapy" to the back end of an activity is an attempt to give it a status it may not deserve - and that status is subsequently used to garner insurance coverage, hospital resources, consumer patronage, and research dollars. It is also used to constrain how we think about an intervention - implying that perhaps there is some specific mechanism as work, when none need exist.

Unfortunately, the Cracked.com article takes the thinnest gruel of evidence to try to argue that aroma therapy might not be the crock that we know it to be through science.

Next up is St. John's Wort. It isn't quite as unskeptical to think that there might be something to St. John's Wort. St. John's Wort, is, after all, a natural product, and it could well work as a drug. Certainly, it's been hyped, but more recent evidence has been disappointing. Actually, this is one area where this article isn't quite so bad, and even gets it mostly right:

Hold on, don't run out to the grocery store and buy a case of the shit just yet.
See, the problem is that, unlike Prozac, there's no real way to regulate whether a capsule of St. John's wort is going to contain enough hyperforin to do any good. That's one of the problems with herbal cures -- they're not regulated in any way, not for effectiveness or even to find out if they actually contain what their labels say.

And, sure enough, tests on commercially available brands of St. John's wort found wildly fluctuating dosages that don't necessarily resemble the dosage claimed on the bottle. And even when the dosage is correct, it's only effective for mild to moderate depression. So unless you feel like rolling the dice with your depression (or relying on a nice placebo effect), see a damned medical professional.

They also make a similar point with Ginseng, which doesn't really do anything at the doses commonly found in energy drinks. I'll give that one to them.

I can't give it to them, however, that they seem to think that results suggesting that alternating fast days with "pig out" days might prolong life:

Then again, you can accidentally reap a benefit from fasting if you're really bad at it. Recent research suggests that if you alternately stop eating and then pig out every second day, your body gains a whole host of new weapons to combat diabetes and coronary heart disease. The specific sort of bodily stress and hunger caused by fasting forces the body to use up glucose of the body as nutrition, which in turn reduces the number of fat cells in the body -- which in turn reduces diabetes risk and symptoms and decreases cholesterol.

Wow! Real research! Well, not really. The article cited appeared in Medical Hypotheses. You remember Medical Hypotheses, don't you? It's not as though I haven't written about MH on many occasions. It's a journal that is very friendly to cranks, doesn't require any actual evidence. In other words, it's a journal for wild-ass speculation. No wonder antivaccinationists love it. It did, after all, publish Mark and David Geier's article that served as the basis of their use of chemical castration to treat autism. Of course, there is copious animal research suggesting that caloric restriction prolongs life. There's even fairly recent research that suggests that fasting might increase the efficacy of chemotherapy and that intermittent fasting might be beneficial. Equating these sorts of studies with "detox" fasts, however, is quite a stretch in the service of an argument that fasting is good for you, particularly given that the majority of the evidence comes from animal studies and not humans.

Finally, the authors take on biofeedback. They actually make a good point, namely that biofeedback is relaxation and the illusion of control:

When you tell a stressed person to calm down, odds are that she will panic more at being unable to calm down. But when you tell a person that she can physically control her heart rate, muscle tension and hand trembling by concentrating real hard and telling these body parts to stop being assholes, you give that person an illusion of control, the effect of which is that she stops worrying about it.

In fact, biofeedback's evidence base at present is pretty weak, at least for EEG-based biofeedback. For other forms of biofeedback, there might be some utility, but the evidence is fairly mixed. For example, it looks most likely that biofeedback probably doesn't work to alleviate labor pain. In fact, what biofeedback proponents say about it is actually fairly revealing. Take, for instance, what the University of Maryland, that bastion of quackademic medicine, seems to conceded about biofeedback:

Researchers aren't sure exactly how or why biofeedback works. However, there does seem to be at least one common thread: most people who benefit from biofeedback have conditions that are brought on or made worse by stress. For this reason, many scientists believe that relaxation is the key to successful biofeedback therapy. When your body is under chronic stress, internal processes like blood pressure become overactive. Guided by a biofeedback therapist, you can learn to lower your blood pressure through relaxation techniques and mental exercises. When you are successful, you see the results on the monitor, which encourages your efforts.

Alright, maybe I was too hard in the beginning. Biofeedback might "work," but only to the extent that it aids in relaxation and is used for conditions in which anxiety or chronic stress are contributing factors. I suppose that, when you boil it down, this article had two major turkeys (its take on acupuncture and aromatherapy), two semireasonable items (St. John's Wort and ginseng), and two borderline clunkers.

The problem, though, is that the entire point of the article seems to be to argue that certain New Age "cures" aren't total bunk because they "work" by real scientific mechanisms that aren't related to the "New Age" magical mystery mechanisms claimed for them by their proponents. Unfortunately these "New Age" cures are not cures at all. At best, they might be marginally effective treatments (herbal remedies, biofeedback). At worst, they're total quackery (acupuncture and aromatherapy). In no way are they "cures." In some cases, they aren't even "New Age." After all, what makes biofeedback "New Age" anyway? Its connection with meditation and the like is rather tenuous, and it requires monitoring of specific physiologic parameters, such as EEGs, blood pressure, or the like.

I know, I know. Perhaps I expect too much from Cracked.com, but it's generally been pretty good before (and often quite funny). It's disappointing to see an article there that flirts a little too closely with credulity. Here's hoping this is just a single misfire.


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#1: Cracked.com

By Matthew F (not verified) on 20 Mar 2012 #permalink

I was actually relatively satisfied with the article, personally; it's nowhere near perfect, but I went in with pretty low expectations. At the very least, it pointed out that what does happen is mostly either A) because herbal remedies have active ingredients too, they just are crap for getting it to you reliably or B) it only works for relaxation/pain relief... which I'd say is /technically/ true, even if it's placebo effects for the latter.
Note that this isn't to say that a takedown of issues with the piece is bad, it's just me providing my perspective on the balance of good vs bad in the article. Incidentally, Cracked articles are made by various different authors, so you might want to take note of who wrote what articles if particularly good/bad ones crop up.

By King of Ferrets (not verified) on 20 Mar 2012 #permalink

I saw the article yesterday and was going to bring it to your attention, but you beat me to it. I would say that cracked is often pretty well grounded in fact, depending on what authors you read, and I hope this is just an anomaly. I think the other area where they deserve a bit of flak is history; while they do get it right most of the time, there are more than a few articles I've read in which the history is either in debate (more common) or isn't quite accurate (not as often).

By captainahags (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Orac, dude!, you missed the point: Ever hear of "damning with faint praise"...?

What the Cracked article does for each of those is say "The theory behind this is a crock of hooey. It might make you feel better in some mundane way, but no more so than doing something else you can do without paying a bundle and buying into a bunch of BS."

That's a known-good technique for "meme vaccines." Start with an attack, then admit the other side has a grain of something-or-another if not exactly "truth," and then wrap up by making fun of whatever-it-is.


I'm with you about taking the woo out of things such as massage, as you might have noticed if you saw my comments about meditation.

The reason massage got ratcheted up into "therapy" was to take it out of the context of "quasi-prostitution" ("and would you like a *full release* with that?"). There was a time when massage parlors were flat-out illegal, and then they became "therapy" and got respectable. For anyone who just wants to relax pleasantly while someone kneads and pounds on their tight muscles, it's now perfectly OK. When I was in college, it was common for people to do massage sessions with their friends, and it was wonderful: all of that with no claims of magical baloney, just "I'm all wound up from studying for finals, can you pound on my back for a few minutes?"

Aromatherapy is nothing more than waking up and smelling the proverbial roses. Of course that's going to make people feel good! It shouldn't be surprising that when people pay attention to pleasant sensory stimuli, they feel good. And there are consistent findings that when people pay money for something, they value it even more than if it's free. Wonders never cease, eh?:-) You can even make your own "aromatherapy" by growing some flowers in a garden outside and then stepping out for a good sniff once in a while. Or grow them in a window box and leave the window open, so the pleasant smells waft into the house. Just like grandma did. Hmmm....

As for biofeedback, just speaking from personal experience, frontalis muscle EMG proved highly useful for learning how to relax when I was all stressed out in highschool. The only claim I recall hearing about this was something along the lines of "the machine amplifies signals from tense muscles that you don't normally pay attention to; by paying attention you can learn to relax those muscles, and in doing so, you learn to relax more completely."

In a few sessions I learned how to do that well enough to be useful, and that was that. There's also plenty of peer-reviewed research on EEG alpha frequency feedback and relaxation. It may be that all of this is nothing more than teaching people to do something that they should already know how to do, but none the less it's helpful as long as it's not sprinkled with magic.

Same thing with yoga: light exercise is good, it can be entirely separated from the magic, but if someone wants to engage with bits & pieces of Hinduism that's better than joining the religious right and trying to take away women's contraceptives.

Now I just wish that people would get away from the awful abuse of the word "energy"! If someone said to me "...feel the energy vibrations..." the first thing I'd think of was that I'd gotten myself between an AC power source and a ground. Near as I can tell, "energy" is being used as a rough synonym for "emotions." OK, so then say it that way: "...feel the pleasant emotions..." and so on. Suggestion is psychologically effective, so giving people the instruction to feel pleasant emotions may work for some folks, and not confuse them with nonsense.

Anyway, lighten up about Cracked. If I'd ever had the slightest inclination to go popping ginseng pills before reading that, their description put me off to the point where the first association I have to ginseng is "use the whole root as a splint." Not to mention getting needles stuck in me at random points (better version of "how it works": "Everyone is scared of needles to some degree, and you'll feel just great after all those scary needles are removed from you!"). But I might have just talked myself into growing some pleasant-smelling flowers. Heh.

Keep in mind that Cracked gets articles form dozens of different contributors, some writing just one article, others as many as ten or twenty over years and year. So while their editorial standards are normally quite solid and most of their writers are skeptical enough to call B.S. when necessary, they will have the occasional slip up and publish something that's well off the mark.

They've also had a nonsense article on physics disemboweled by Starts With A Bang, and one that was nothing but apologetics for Ancient Wisdom woo. However, these nonsense articles are rare and far between and they're an unfortunate inevitability when an editor is asleep at the wheel one day or is far form an expert in the topic at hand, and your content comes from many different people who may or may not really know what they're talking about.

Being a fan of MAD in my younger days, I seldom read Cracked. It still isn't very funny.

By machintelligence (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Re acupuncture:

Personal experience as a long-time chronic pain sufferer: Over the years I've seen many doctors (physiatrists, rheumatologists, etc.) in hopes of finding some relief. One guy is even married to an acupuncturist. I'm pretty much resigned now to the fact that there's nothing that can be done about it beyond temporary relief from NSAIDs. The distressing thing is that so many of the MDs have asked me if I've tried acupuncture, insinuating that it could/might help. My guess is that it's the closest of any of the fringe modalities to have a modicum of acceptance in the mainstream, perhaps because so many doctors have been brainwashed/hoodwinked by all the anecdotes of "success." Even my new primary care physician brought it up at our introductory appointment. The one thing they all have in common, though, is that as soon as I mention the fact that there are no good studies that demonstrate efficacy beyond placebo the subject is dropped.

By kurt youngmann (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

kurt youngmann @6 -- No wonder they drop the subject - as soon as you mention to your doctor that you know acupuncture has no success beyond placebo, they realize that you won't get a placebo effect from it because you don't believe it. At least they don't have to go through the ethical contortion of recommending something that they're pretty sure isn't efficacious, in hopes of getting some placebo effect.

I do hope your condition improves! (I'd pray for you, but (a) I'm an atheist, and (b) it doesn't work anyway, but the thought is there.)

By palindrom (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

I enjoy cracked.com, but you do have to keep in mind that it's primarily a humor site, with a variety of contributors. Quality is variable, and it is more important to get a good laugh out of visitors than to inform them. I enjoy the website (more than the magazine, actually; I was more of a MAD fan) but I've also definitely observed that you can't just assume all articles will have a good sense of skepticism or be entirely accurate. Given the high proportion of penis jokes, perhaps it isn't the best place to expect high standards of intellectual rigor. ;-)

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

the University of Maryland, that bastion of quackademic medicine

Sigh. Yes, we have a quack infestation. No, we do not teach it to the students, and it is largely a joke amongst the staff. I would suggest other than better PR, our quack problem is no worse that any other university's.

Isn't there also a problem with St. John's Wort interacting with birth control pills and reducing their effectiveness?

Was I the only one who read Orac's title and thought he was going to tell us about cures made from the contents of public toilets?

I regard aromatherapy as a sub-category of perfume sniffing- ambient sniffing?

Gentlemen, let me enlighten you: many women really like to sniff arcanely concocted potions at counters in shops. You have no idea how much time I have wasted engaged in this activity although the amount of money I've spent is truly staggering. I have one for sports, one for dining out, one for colder weather, one for everyday, ones I used to love but have grown tired of, alas!. My current fave is a mixture of lime, almonds and possibly violets: it costs a ridiculous sum and fades within a few hours so I need to find ways to carry another dose with me, like an addict does ( the manufacturer don't make small bottles- they're insufferable- which is part of their charm). It makes me feel better and somehow- don't laugh- *more like myself*... I'm not making this up.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

@ LW:

But if water truly has memory, all homeopathic remedies are full of crap.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Denise Walter

I have one for sports

For doing or watching? Not sure which I'd odder.

(But then I'm not merely a man, but also an engineer, so the risk of me understanding is probably nil anyway.)

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

DaveD @ 10:

Isn't there also a problem with St. John's Wort interacting with birth control pills and reducing their effectiveness?

Birth control pills, antibiotics, and anti-rejection drugs. They're all metabolized through the same pathway in the liver, apparently, and if I'm understanding the explanation right (no guarantees: I'm a software engineer, not a pharmacist), St John's Wort accelerates the action of this channel. This causes them to be cleared from the body more quickly, reducing their opportunity to be effective. So you need more to get the same effect. I'm not aware of any actual pregnancies resulting from this, but it'd be something to be cautious about.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Many hospitals have figured out that CAM is a new revenue stream. Why not offer patients the option of getting their unproven 'therapies' at the hospital rather than let them blow their cash on those same 'therapies' in the community? My medical school made us do yoga to experience CAM because studies showed it would make us feel healthier and more relaxed. (It's called exercise, duh) A different hospital I worked at offered Reiki classes - yes, touching energy points to improve healing.

One side point is that I'm not entirely convinced that health insurance shouldn't under certain conditions cover things like massage, spa treatments, etc., which simply help people relax. There are some real health benefits to not being so damned stressed out all the time. If attaching the word "therapy" to it is what it takes to get it covered, that's potentially okay with me -- as long as it is not accompanied by claims that it can do more than is reasonable.

"What might be surprising is that despite this, actual scientific studies that don't involve a single "spirit crystal" show that acupuncture actually freaking works."

Except, of course, there aren't any studies showing that "real" acupuncture works any better than "sham" acupuncture or sticking needles into random places. It's called "placebo effect".

Karl Youngman (#7):

"The distressing thing is that so many of the MDs have asked me if I've tried acupuncture, insinuating that it could/might help."

I've spoken with a number of doctors (including pain specialists) about this subject and their responses seem to indicate that about a third of doctors think acupuncture might work, in some magical way, whereas the other two thirds or so recommend acupuncture when they've run out of ideas and don't want to admit it to the patient. It's a way of saying "I can't help you." in an indirect fashion.

Either way, I would take the suggestion of acupuncture (or chiropractic, which has about the same percentages) as an indication that your doctor has run up against the limits of his/her abilities.



I agree to a degree with your statement that your doctor has run up against his abilties, but not completely. You see, many patients are doing CAM therapy and don't want to tell their doctor about it. They fear their doctor will view them as stupid or won't agree with whatever it is they are trying. Doctors are told to be open-minded to their patients beliefs in order to facilitate a healthy doctor patient relationship.

Acupuncture and chiropracture are two more 'mainstream' services that are widely available. Also, they are, generally, less harmful and less expensive than other options. I once had an ER patient pay a naturopath 5,000 for a micronutrient analysis and then 10,000 for an individualized micronutrient herbal diet for her fatigue. (We diagnosed her with hypothyroidism for about $100 and refered her to a real doctor)

For autistic families, I ask about CAM and if they are doing alot of it, I know I won't be able to convince them to stop things that they are clinging to on a shred of hope. I do discourage dangerous therapies or ones that are moneymaking schemes and do nothing about the ones that are cheaper and more harmless. (No to chelation, no to hyperbaric oxygen, no to virtual reality suits. Switch to soy from dairy, sure. Completely restrictive diet, no. Unpasterized camel milk has just made the 'no' list)

First off - that should have been Kurt Youngman. Sorry about that, Kurt.

Second, there's a vast difference between not trashing a patient's decision to use acupunture and/or chiropractic and actually recommending it.

I'd agree that it can be counter-productive to lecture patients about their bad health-care decisions (e.g. acupunture), and it is certainly not necessary to be "judgemental" or shaming. However, simply accepting the patient's choice to engage in questionable "health-care options" shouldn't include validating those choices and certainly shouldn't include recommending acupuncture or chiropractic, no matter how "mainstream" they may be.

I do understand that good doctors must walk a fine line between giving the best advice and "turning off" their patients.


As a person who is sensitive to certain smells, I am leery of aromatherapy. When I was in college during the late 1970s there were stores that burned incense near campus. I never was able to go into them, because I would walk in the door and walk back out. It is also why I never enter a couple of stores in our local mall: the candle store ("Illuminations", which closed) and Sephora, a cosmetics store.

I don't understand aromatherapy just like I don't understand why anyone would voluntarily eat cilantro (tastes like soap).

@ Chris:

I know exactly what you mean. When I was ~15, I couldn't go into a lot of stores around Christmas, because one of the perfumes used in potpourri and on trees made my eyes water so badly I couldn't see a thing. My mom had a similar reaction, albeit less strongly.

Fortunately I grew out of it, but wow, that was painful.

Denice@13 -- Men kinda like ambient-sniffing too. A squadron I was assigned to 30 years ago (oh Lord. That long), had only one shower. After morning PT the guys in the unit let me use it first.

I used to think it was gallantry until one of them admitted that they all really, really liked my perfume. Evidently the fragrance would fill the entire shower room and linger for quite a while.

Chris#23: I think cilantro is an acquired taste. I hated it when I as a kid, love it now.

Shay, actually the cilantro thing is a genetic thing. One does not acquire a taste for soap. I am also a supertaster (I did the foul paper test, it took a long time and lots of water to rinse the taste from my mouth), but I still like broccoli, coffee and dark chocolate. It means that I am more sensitive to certain alkaloids. I can even smell it when it is near.

Beamup, I never grew out of it. My sense of smell would also get more sensitive during menstruation. It was so bad that I ripped the cushions off an old chair because a moldy smell that for the first became overwhelming. Even after menopause there are periods during the month when my sense of smell is heightened.

It is weird and complicated.


It's weird that hormone fluctuations have such an effect - I have a similar thing, during a certain phase of my cycle I can't stand to smell my husband. I don't know how to tell him, "I don't want to snuggle, you smell bad. Once I ovulate you'll smell great. Nothing personal."

(I am also a supertaster and an androstenone-smeller. The world is yucky.)

By LovleAnjel (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Chris -- do other strong-smelling herbs affect you, such as parsley or mint? No snark, just curious.

But Chris, it's delicious soap.

More seriously, I wonder if there are other genetic variations in taste/flavor preferences in addition to the "supertaster" gene TAS2R28.

Back on topic: The American Holistic Nurses Association endorses "clinical aromatherapy, (whatever that is), craniosacral therapy (taught by an MD, for crying out loud), "Healing Touch"("a nursing continuing education multi-level program in energy-based therapy ") and "Integrative Reflexology"(no comment).

"Holistic Nursing" is a recognized specialty by the American Nurses Association. If that's not quackademic medicine, I don't know what is.

@Kurt #7 - Oy. I was recently offered acupuncture by a physician, and he tried to get me to try out some dude he knows who trained in acupuncture in China. I griped about this in an SBM comment, but being trained in BS in China doesn't really change the fact that it's BS...

We recently submitted our tax worksheet to our accountant, and the sheet had spots for amounts spent in the past year on homeopathy, acupuncture, etc. Is that shite tax-deductible?

My blood pressure is going up. I'm going to have to take some aromatherapy. :p

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Heavily-linked comment in moderation touching on cilantro & supertasters and woo in nursing.

Chris, do you know of any studies on variations in odor sensitivity in the menstrual cycle?

I have to confess I am a complete dullard, not particularly sensitive to smell, taste, sound, temperature variation or texture. It's one of the things I've had to really push myself to understand, vis-a-vis my autistic friends.

I can smell them, but they are not as bad. Many of them have a more umani/sweet sometimes salt smell, but not the very bitter soap effect. I also dislike fennel. I tend to like only regular basil, but not some of the variants like spice basil. When I cook recipes calling for cilantro I substitute oregano.

I can definitely tell the difference between cilantro and flat parsley by smell. It is complicated. Think of it as a form of colorblindness, only with many more variations. Those variations include the genetic differences in the olfactory/taste receptors combined with personal preferences.

I actually have an herb and rose garden, I only have scented roses. I have encountered some plants that I have had to remove due to their smell, like chameleon plant. I once forced paperwhite narcissus, but regretted that because they smelled terrible. I like the smell of lilies, but they are too strong for indoors.

I have not seen much on the science of taste and smell. I did go to a presentation of food, gardening, etc. where one presenter was a retired professor of psychology/neuroscience. She explained that many people have different perceptions of the taste and smell, and some of it does have to do with biology. She had the little pieces of paper that test for supertasting, which is why I spent the rest of the evening taking sips at the water fountain.

Many years ago I did read a book that discussed the sense of smell, The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr. There is active research in it, but it turns out to be very complicated.

'Biofeedback' works for lots of things you neglected to mention. And to just talk about the EEG Biofeedback excludes a whole host of other techniques and applications.

To just say that Biofeedback sorta works by reducing stress ignores the fact that you can learn how to control autonomic functions regardless of the conscious mind's beliefs.

Unfortunately, it's easier for a doctor to prescribe drugs, and quicker for a patient to just pop a pill.

You forgot to mention the one and only treatment approved and offered by mainstream medicine to treat autistic (vaccine damages) children, that being Applied Behavorial Therapy. This wonderful mainstream treatment uses college kids, paid minimum wages, to basically provide the same thing dog trainers do (sit Rover and I'll give you your biscuit). This only costs families about $60,000.00/year. In addition, to be able to qualify for this some psychiatrist has to evaluate your kid first and get their $5,000. Talk about new age quackage at its worst. At least homeopathy and acupuncture practicinares don't rob families blind. Now go get your child there 70 some injections of organic mercury, aluminum, DNA from aborted fetal tissue, etc. When you're done let me know. I'll give them a deal on some Applied Behavorial Therapy. Right now it's on sale for only $59,999 (shrink services not included). Remember, the earlier treatment starts the better the results (wink, wink)!

Regarding cilantro: there is a genetic thing that affects how you perceive the flavor. You can probably acquire a taste for it either way, but the two groups experience it completely differently. It will either taste like soap or it will taste like citrus. I love cilantro; it was a little bit of an acquired taste for me as well, but it definitely tastes citrusy to me. (Losing my ability to eat actual citrus, due to an allergy, probably encouraged me to acquire the taste.) My husband, however, swears it tastes like soap. He avoids it like the plague. No word, yet, one how our kids feel about it -- so far it's "ew" because it is green. :-D I might go buy some fresh cilantro, though, just to run a taste test experiment at home. Heck, maybe I can parlay that into getting the kids to try new tastes and not be so dang picky!

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Cark @30

'Biofeedback' works for lots of things you neglected to mention.

Citation needed.

To just say that Biofeedback sorta works by reducing stress ignores the fact that you can learn how to control autonomic functions regardless of the conscious mind's beliefs.

Citation needed.

Unfortunately, it's easier for a doctor to prescribe drugs, and quicker for a patient to just pop a pill.

Why is this unfortunate? What specific conditions that doctors prescribe medications for can be remedied by 'biofeedback?' Why is this alternative preferable to prescription medication?

Liz Ditz:

Chris, do you know of any studies on variations in odor sensitivity in the menstrual cycle?

Absolutely none. I noticed sensitivity to smell while I was pregnant, and I only really made the connection after the ripping off upholstery of an old chair incident (I have bought the new fabric, foam, etc but have not fixed it after almost ten years). I hate musty odors.

I have a comment in moderation. But while I was working on it I did notice that there is some research, but it is not much. Doing searches on PubMed would bring fewer than ten papers.

Oh, wait, I found some a couple:

Biol Psychol. 1996 Sep 27;44(1):31-54.
Olfactory information processing during the course of the menstrual cycle.

Only five women, "The results show that olfactory perception changes during the menstrual cycle."

Experientia. 1991 Jul 15;47(7):712-5.
Changes in olfactory perception during the menstrual cycle.

Only fourteen women: "Olfactory sensitivity was not significantly influenced by the menstrual cycle."

Yeah, there is not much. So much is just subjective.

"All truth passes through three stages:
First, it is ridiculed;
Second, it is violently opposed;
and Third, it is accepted as self-evident."
- Arthur Schopenhauer

And that particular quote about truth is probably not Schopenhauer's. It's also been attributed to G.B. Shaw and Ghandi.


Evidence, ken, not quotes.

Of course, by your history of postings, we'll be waiting a long while for your evidence.

Smell and taste? You call it cilantro, I call it coriander, either way it's horrible. Sometimes I can't even taste it in something like a stir-fry - what I can taste is meat that's gone off.

For those who have a similar reaction to other herbs, I finally found a trace of a hint of a scientific explanation. I loathe, hate and despise cumin, coriander, caraway, dill, anise, fennel and a few others. When I was younger, they could make me throw up if the smell was from a hot dish. There are some garden plants with a similar nauseating effect - especially when watered on a hot day.

Turns out there are quite a few of us around the world. And it's all down to the active aromatic ingredient in caraway which turns up in all sorts of places. The main place it turns up for me is in descriptions of dishes that are "not hot at all, just a lovely warm aroma". The flashing lights and alarm bells tell me that this will never make it to my kitchen.

There was one of those Q&As at the back of New Scientist a while ago with 3 alternative explanations. One that seemed worth following up was that the sensitivity could be worsened by zinc deficiency. (Didn't keep the references, sorry.)

Orac only posts negatives because he has nothing else to blog about. Does he ever
post anything new like positive research on cancer treatment developments in SBM?
Or anything new and exciting in SBM? I'm ironically using this blog to keep keep tabs on the latest alt med stuff, some of which is nonsense I do admit. They are being
creative at least -sometimes to a fault and living in fantasy land.

Much, though not all, bullshit passes through three stages:

1. It is fabricated by some idiot.
2. It is mocked and rejected by people who know better.
3. It is nonetheless repeated by subsequent idiots until it becomes "ancient wisdom".

"Pithy quotations attributed to legendary figures are not useful tools for distinguishing between the first stage of truth and the second stage of bullshit." -Confucius, or Einstein

By ConspicuousCarl (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

@ Andreas Johansson:

I wear scent while playing tennis...you cannot believe that I actually watch sports ( other than the odd Grand Slam)?

Some men- even engineers- like scent. Here's an intro: Perfume @ wiki details the arcane art and science- i.e. chemistry meets physio meets perception. To experiment, go to a shop that sells a brand- I suggest Creed, Burberry or Calvin Klein ( trust me). Sniff and take a sample on paper. You will probably like one for inexplicable reasons.

@ Shay:

I imagine that sexual dimorphism in sensitivity to smell has evolutionary significance: to avoid spoiled food, decay, infection. I know a fellow who never wore any scent- I thought that he might like something with oakmoss** in it- I was totally right, he became a convert. To oakmoss.

@ Chris:

I do remember some lit about ovulation and olfaction about sniffing out differing immune systems of potential partners.

I don't know if I'm a super-taster but I'm pretty good at recognising scents and am able to discern ingredients in complex blends of perfume. I tend to prefer those which blend fruits, flowers, resins etc. Oddly, many of the scents I like have bergamot ( so does Earl Gray tea) and vanilla. Recently, many companies do *gourmand* style : food scents, so you might have chocolate, vanilla and caramel blends.( See perfume.com for lists of ingredients by product). Then there are the more risque and foetid smells for the adventurous.

** oakmoss is controlled in the EU because it's an irritant : needs be less than 0.1%.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink


(I am also a supertaster and an androstenone-smeller. The world is yucky.)


Denice Walter, my comment to Shay is out of moderation, and I do mention an interesting book. It is out of print, but you might be able The Emperor of Scent in a library (there are still copies in our city library).

Chris, thanks. FWIW I don't know anyone who likes the smell of paperwhites. Pretty flowers but what a noxious aroma.

I'll have to see if I can get my hands on a copy of The Emperor of Scent (after I read the twenty or so books ahead of it in the queue. I just bought The Barbary Plague -- someone here recommended it, I think).

Denice Walter,
I really do like most Burberry scents. Lately I have been using a number of Dsquared² He Wood colognes and like them a lot. Sadly my sense of smell is sort of cruddy. I wish it was better for a slew of reasons, for instance, I imagine my ability to taste whisky would be more highly developed with a better nose. I enjoy my whisky but sadly I am not as sensitive as I could be.

@ Ren: That *someone* at Cracked.com is quite knowledgeable about the anti-vaxers.

Last night I viewed a re-run on Frontline-The Vaccine War. All the luminaries of the anti-vax movement were featured, including Jenny Mc, Babs and J.B., but it truly is an unbiased film (unlike the excrement being touted by the Canary Party). Our heroes including Paul Offit and Anthony Fauci were also featured and they did their usual superb job of discussing the science behind vaccines.

That idiot school board president could have "used" his office to promote this Frontline educational program for teens:


( See perfume.com for lists of ingredients by product). Then there are the more risque and foetid smells for the adventurous.

I generally react very negatively to the broadcasting of fragrances, but it did occur to me that a pinch of hing here and there could go a ways. Sadly, the only relevant entry at perfume.com is contaminated six ways to Sunday, including with bergamot.

And suddenly I'm reminded of the candy incident from Gravity's Rainbow.

the candy incident from Gravity's Rainbow.

"The one candy he did not get to taste - one Mrs. Quoad withheld - was the Fire of Paradise, that famous confection of high price and protean taste - "salted plum" to one, "artificial cherry" to another... "sugared violets"... "Worcestershire sauce"... "spiced treacle"... any number of like descriptions, positive, terse - never exceeding two words in length - resembling the descriptions of poison and debilitating gases found in training manuals, "sweet-and-sour eggplant" being perhaps the lengthiest to date."

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

Denise Walter wrote:

I wear scent while playing tennis...you cannot believe that I actually watch sports ( other than the odd Grand Slam)?

I can't believe anyone watches sports ... but the world doesn't cooperate.

Back to olfaction, I'm definitely on the dullard end of the spectrum. It doesn't help I've got a perpetually runny nose. But I'd thought perfume worn when during exercise would be quickly overpowered by sweat.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

I'm a day late and a dollar short on this as usual, but....

On the cilantro thing, I don't think it's as binary as the bitter flavor in green cruciferous vegetables. I love broccoli and brussels sprouts, but in some unusually dark-green brussels sprouts I get a really astringent mouth-feel that if I could taste what was causing it, would probably be pretty bad. Glad I can't.

I have detected the "soapy" flavor of cilantro that people complain aboutâjust once. Somebody used it as garnish on a dish that was sitting around all day, and it was pretty pronounced. Surprised me, because I never knew what they were talking about. I think it's a continuous scale, thoughâsome people are just on the sensitive end.

I'm told you can minimize this by chopping the cilantro and adding it to the hot food instantly. If you let it sit around and oxidize for only a few minutes, that's when that flavor will start to develop. The same thing happens to green onions, FWIW.

By The Very Rever… (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

Denice Walker:

I imagine that sexual dimorphism in sensitivity to smell has evolutionary significance: to avoid spoiled food, decay, infection.

But given that all of those examples have universal survival significance, I can't see how that would support sexual dimorphism. Both males and females have a powerful survival motivation in detecting spoiled food and infection.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

@ LovleAnjel:
The world for me, is by turns, yucky and gorgeously scented, as well as everything in between. However, this can be distracting at times.

@ Travis:
Whisky is over-powering: I stick to over-priced gin and CA wines.

@ Andreas:
For some reason, sweating isn't much of a problem @ the climate-controlled tennis club.
But do try some scent, it can be life-enhancing.Might I suggest something with oakmoss?

@ Narad:
It would be difficult to acquire un-adulturated poo as a marketted scent. Civet seems to fit the bill as prime ingredient ( fortunately, most is artiificial these days). A 2007 NYT article, ( "Meow Mix") describes it in more detail and lists popular scents that use it: Chanel No.5, Shalimar, Kouros, Musc Ravageur, Rose Privree. I would add Venezia by Biagiotti, which also smells like wet tobacco.

@ herr doktor bimler:
spicy treacle?

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

@ Calli:

Men are more expendable ( purely in the evolutionary sense- *not* to me! At all.) because women carry and traditionally cared for the *bebes*, they would be more wary about detecting dangers via olfaction while men could be living in a more risky fashion.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

@ Denice:

That argument only works if one assumes that said dangers only manifest post-reproduction. I see no reason that would be the case.

@ Beamup:

It's just my speculation about why females would be better at detecting scents- related to sexual dimorphism in appearance with females being better camouflaged than males.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

They referenced the Wall Street Journal. They're prone to printing various articles using long debunked memes to contradict strong science especially if said science may require solutions that contradict their political ideological bent.

I did like Cracked's articles on why Gandalf was a terrible wizard, what would the world be like if we really lived in a Harry Potter universe (hint: horrible), comic book heroes that should never make it to the movie screen (too late, Thor and Green Lantern already made it), and a few others that made me laugh.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

Some of the high-quality studies of standard vs. allegedly-placebo acupuncture show that the former is better, whereas some do not. Unfortunately, the sacred and unchallengeable Toothpick study is not a high-quality study at all. We have been told that any positive acupuncture study must be double-blind; surely the same is true of a negative study. There was no question that the researchers knew which group was which.

And that ignores the question of whether gouging someone with a toothpick hard enough that they think they've had a needle stuck into them has an effect on the nervous system, a question that applies more broadly to acupuncture studies. Just as the anti-acupuncture crowd are not entitled to dictate that acupuncture must work via it effect on chi ("and there's no such thing as chi, therefore acupuncture is worthless - no data necessary!"), they are not entitled to dictate that it works solely via the actual piercing of the dermis.

Hold on, don't run out to the grocery store and buy a case of the shit just yet. See, the problem is that, unlike Prozac, there's no real way to regulate whether a capsule of St. John's wort is going to contain enough hyperforin to do any good.

The problem with this argument is that Prozac, like other drugs in its group, actually has a flat dose-response curve. (This is just one among many facts that should give people pause about these drugs.)

I'm male and used to have an excellent sense of smell - I could tell who had arrived at work before me because I recognized their perfume or aftershave. Answering the question, "Have you seen X this morning?" with "No, but she is in, I smelled her earlier," raised an eyebrow once or twice.

Unfortunately a sinus infection put an end to that and I am now entirely anosmic, apparently permanently. Life without a sense of smell is odd, like I have lost a layer of reality.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

It would be difficult to acquire un-adulturated poo as a marketted scent.

Well, I suppose that depends on the variety. But when I mentioned hing, I was referring to asafoetida, which I am quite fond of as a culinary item.

Just as the anti-acupuncture crowd are not entitled to dictate that acupuncture must work via it effect on chi [...], they are not entitled to dictate that it works solely via the actual piercing of the dermis.

And when does this progression cease to be "acupuncture"?

I enjoy Indian cooking but asafoetida is something I can't seem to find around here, despite a fairly sizable local Indian population.

Anyone ever smell a durian? I hoped to run across one while I was stationed in the far East but unfortunately I never made it to any of the countries where that delicacy is marketed.

@ Narad:

I *know* that- but did you seriously think that I could resist the obvious semantic leap?

@ Shay:

While I have seen them for sale, I haven't comeclose enough to smell one.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 23 Mar 2012 #permalink


I enjoy Indian cooking but asafoetida is something I can't seem to find around here, despite a fairly sizable local Indian population.

Have you tried asking for hing? In my experience if you ask for asafoetida, Indians will look at you blankly, but they know what hing is.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 23 Mar 2012 #permalink