I came across an especially egregious example of veterinary quackery recently which I wanted to warn people about. Petwellbeing.com, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Natural Wellbeing Distribution sells a product call Supraglan, which it advertises as a treatment for Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism). Cushing’s disease is a serious, chronic disease in which the body produces excessive steroid hormones, which have a variety of deleterious effects on many different body systems. It is usually caused by a benign tumor in the pituitary gland in the brain, which tells the adrenal glands to make too much of their normal steroid products. Some cases are caused by a tumor of the adrenal glands, which is almost always an aggressive, highly malignant cancer. The symptoms of Cushing’s disease can be created by chronic use of steroids given to treat other diseases, but this is a different condition in that if the patient stops getting the drugs then the symptoms will resolve.
The PetWellbeing website offers a brief, and inaccurate, description of the disease and then claims their product:
is gentle yet effective, safe for long-term use without adverse side effects…Supraglan is designed to restore your pet’s quality lifestyle and to increase life expectancy by reducing thirst and regulating elimination (liver/kidney and digestive); balancing blood sugar levels (endocrine); increasing muscle use and ability (anti-inflammatory); protecting against infection (immune); and by promoting a healthy skin and coat (natural herbs)
Of course, to cover their behinds legally, the company includes the Quack Miranda Warning on their page acknowledging that the FDA has not approved the product for what they are selling it for, but this is intended to apply only to products that are making so-called “structure and function” claims, meaningless and unscientific statements that the product “supports” some body system, not that it treats or prevents an actual disease. So the treatment claims are illegal to begin with since the drug is not FDA approved as a treatment for Cushing’s disease.
Unfortunately, even the minimal restraint showed by the actual manufacturer is not found on other web sites promoting this snake oil. One site states, “There are many similarities between the symptoms of Cushing’s Disease and Addison’s Disease in dogs–both considered fatal in canines. There are many rumors in regard to the miraculous healing of the natural supplement Supraglan, reported to cure both diseases.” Addison’s disease is a lack of adrenal steroid hormones produces by destruction of the adrenal glands. It is, essentially, the opposite of Cushing’s disease, and yet Supraglan is reported to cure both! How does it accomplish this miracle? Apparently, it uses, “natural ingredients to decrease the adrenal system in dogs from a completely hyperactive state, the product slows the overproduction of the corticosteroid hormones which have become overloaded in the dog’s system. Side effects have not been seen yet in the usage of Supraglan.”
So a natural, side-effect free cure for Cushing’s disease and it’s opposite. See any warning signs of quackery yet? So what’s in this miracle elixir?
- Borage: contains natural precursors of adrenal glands hormones; supports endocrine system functions; helps with detoxification; supports adrenal cortex.
- Astragalus: tonic; nutritive; supports liver function; helps maintain immune system.
- Bistorte: astringent, soothing, anti-inflammatory, has a tonic effect on liver and kidneys.
- Eleutherococus Senticosus: helps maintain normal hormonal actions (ACTH and cortisone) on adrenal glands; supports the immune system.
- Wild Yam: natural inflammation management; contains steroidal saponins (dioscin, dioscorin) used as sources of saponins in the preparation of steroid hormones.
- Licorice: adrenal supporting (contains glycyrrhizin, a compound similar to corticosteroids); immune support; anti-inflammatory.
- Dandelion: highly nutritious food; supports liver function, digestion and appetite.
Ok, now here’s the tough part. What’s the evidence to support these dramatic claims? You guessed it–reams of testimonials from “satisfied customers” and not one single research study of any kind. Some of the claims for the specific ingredients are found in reference guides to herbal therapy, usually based only on tradition or limited suggestive in vitro or lab animal studies. A search of the usual source, including Pubmed, Cochrane Reviews, even the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is quite friendly to herbal medicine in general, turned up not a single study that lent any support at all to the idea that these ingredients, individually or in combination, are a safe and effective treatment for Cushing’s disease.
I did find a few studies suggesting why some of the ingredients might be a bad idea to use in these patients. Licorice is known to cause pseudohyperaldosteronism, a hormonal imbalance which messes up the levels of sodium in the blood and can cause high blood pressure and even interfere with proper diagnosis of adrenal disease. Wild yams have been thought to increase some steroid hormones, and so have been used as a treatment for menopausal symptoms, but in reality it does not actually increase steroids, and its apparent effects on symptoms was likely due to adulteration of commercial yam products with synthetic hormones
There probably are some in vitro or lab animal studies, maybe even a small human clinical trial or two, that might have some suggestion of some potential effects on the adrenal hormone system. After all, herbs are essentially drugs, though usually unpurified and inadequately standardized and tested, so they likely do have some effect. I would be interested in any such studies any of you are aware of, but I can promise you there is nothing that would justify selling pet owners whose dogs have a serious, life-threatening disease, this concoction with claims that it will cure them or even meaningfully improve their quality of life. Testimonials, tradition, and blind guesswork based on in vitro studies are not sufficient to make such claims or profit from people with sick animal companions.
I expect I will now receive the usual angry comments of the following sort: “Who do you think you are?! I used it and my dog got better so you’re stupid! You’ve just been bought by Big Pharma to push their toxic drugs!” I have received such comments following previous posts on similar nostrums such as Neoplasene, Yunan-Paiyao, and so on. I don’t expect to be able to head these off, but I will try to save myself some time later and make a few points:
1. For reasons discussed at length here and anywhere critical thinking is respected, anecdotes are not proof, only suggestions of areas to study more formally. A million people are capable of being wrong as easily as one, so if you believe my assessment of this product is incorrect, show me real evidence, not testimonials. The hierarchy of evidence is the best guide to what is real evidence and what isn’t, if there is any doubt.
2. I make my living practicing medicine, and that includes treating Cushing’s disease. This has nothing to do with my objections to this product. If there were proof it worked, I would use it just like I use conventional treatments now. And don’t forget the folks making and selling this have a financial incentive to promote its use the lack of evidence it works that is far greater than any incentive I have to discourage its use. I am motivated by a belief that evidence and the truth serve my patients and clients better than false hope and misleading marketing.
3. I am not closed-minded, dogmatic, and I am happy to change my mind if the evidence warrants it. Being skeptical doesn’t mean disbelieving things automatically. It means withholding judgment until the facts are in. There are almost no facts to base a judgment on here, so the burden of proof is on those making wild claims (and a profit) on the product, not on those of us pointing out there is no good reason to think it works.