References Required

June 9th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, gillian mckeith, nutritionists, references | 8 Comments »

References required

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 9, 2005
The Guardian

· Talk about fans in high places. Two weeks ago, I said I was going to start giving references, and suddenly Dr Gillian McKeith PhD is writing this in her newsletter: “You will note that I deliberately include scientific sourced references [sic] which correspond to the numbers in the text.”

· Fantastic! Let’s note those references. Dr McKeith PhD says: “Studies [3] have proven that lemon balm does indeed have a soothing effect on the stomach.” But [3] refers to one study, not “studies”, and the paper gives a preparation of six ingredients, of which lemon balm is just one, so it’s not a study on the efficacy of lemon balm, and “proven” is not the word the average doctor would use, in this context, regardless of discipline.

·”In case studies [5] with humans and animals alike, lemon balm consistently demonstrated sedative effects when taken orally.” Go, Gillian. [5] refers to three studies. The first is not a “case study”, it’s a lab experiment on rat gut in a dish. The second is not a “case study”, it’s a review article, which goes through the research evidence for other more effective therapies and then says: “Lemon balm and passionflower are reputed to be mild sedatives but need much more experimental examination.” Or, as Dr McKeith would say: “consistently demonstrated sedative effects.” The last reference is not a “case study”, it’s a trial, of 18 people, showing that lemon balm “increased self-ratings of calmness and reduced self-ratings of alertness” (and if you want to call that “consistently demonstrated sedative effects”, then be my guest).

· It goes on. “Studies [7], reported in a traditional medical journal in 2004, indicate that that the calming effects of lemon balm can help lower high blood pressure, regulate the menstrual cycle and reduce stress and anxiety.” I have this very paper right here in front of me. It mentions blood pressure once, in relation to a completely different plant, and menstrual cycle nowhere.

· Who knows if lemon balm works after all this? Richard Feynman described approaches like McKeith’s as Cargo Cult Science: “In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. They’ve arranged things like runways, fires along the sides of the runways, a wooden hut for a man to sit in … and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form … is perfect.”

These are the references as they appear at the bottom of Dr McKeith’s piece:

1. De Sousa S et al: Melissa officinalis L. essential oil: antitumoral and antioxidant activities. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2004 May;56(5):677-81.

2. Dragland S: Several culinary and medicinal herbs are important sources of dietary antioxidants. J Nutr. 2003 May;133(5):1286-90. Melissa officinalis L. essential oil: antitumoral and antioxidant activities. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2004 May;56(5):677-81.

3. Madish A et al: Treatment of functional dyspepsia with a herbal preparation. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Digestion. 2004;69(1):45-52. Epub 2004 Jan 30.

4. Vernona RD et al: Overweight and obese patients in a primary care population report less sleep than patients with a normal body mass index. Arch Intern Med. 2005 Jan 10;165(1):25-30.

5. Sadraei H et al: Relaxant effect of essential oil of Melissa officinalis and citral on rat ileum contractions. Fitoterapia. 2003 Jul;74(5):445-52. Gylen C et al: Efficacy and safety of herbal stimulants and sedatives in sleep disorders. Sleep Med Rev. 2000 Jun;4(3):229-251. Attenuation of laboratory-induced stress in humans after acute administration of Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm). Psychosom Med. 2004 Jul-Aug;66(4):607-13.

6. Dallman M et al: Chronic stress and obesity: a new view of “comfort food”. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Sep 30;100(20):11696-701. Epub 2003 Sep 15.

7. Kennedy D et al: Attenuation of laboratory-induced stress in humans after acute administration of Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm). Psychosom Med. 2004 Jul-Aug;66(4):607-13.

8. Kennedy D et al: Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of single doses of Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm) with human CNS nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-binding properties. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003 Oct;28(10):1871-81.


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8 Responses



  1. Jem said,

    February 21, 2006 at 10:12 pm

    For all of your negative comments about Gillian McKeith (and nutritionists in general), you cannot alter the simple fact that she has had a positive impact on the lives of many, steering them away from a lifestyle and diet, that would, in many cases have meant at the least poor health, and, at the worst, death! Whether the so called ‘scientific’ information is accurate or not, doesn’t change that!

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 21, 2006 at 10:44 pm

    Oh yeah? Jamie Oliver doesn’t need to peddle pseudoscientific nonsense or promote the public misunderstanding of science to get people to eat healthy food:

    www.badscience.net/?a=xdforum&xdforum_action=viewthread&xf_id=1&xt_id=122&pstart=0#lastpost

  3. ach said,

    February 22, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    Gillian McKeith also pushes her own range of ludicrously expensive and totally pointless “foods” and gives the impression that the best way to eat healthily is to believe this crap (literally in her case with her poo obsession.) She also pretends to have qualifications which she doesn’t really have – at least, not genuine, accredited ones. Why do that? Why tell people you are a doctor if you’re not? To get them to buy into your expensive products.

    It is perfectly possible to eat healthily and exercise without going to the extremes Ms Mckeith advocates. But, that wouldn’t be making her the shedloads of money.

    As for it not mattering if the scientific information is accurate or not, that perturbs me. Is it Ok to lie about history, maths, geography etc too, is it is just science when it “doesn’t matter if the information is accurate”?

  4. pv said,

    February 27, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    Ben , in the same lecture Feynman also spoke of what is missing in Cargo Cult Science: “…a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything you think might make it invalid…”.
    What’s obviously missing with Ms McKeith and her ilk is that “utter honesty” to which Feynman refers. Isn’t it what all altmed quacks lack?

  5. Sally O said,

    March 6, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    What’s obviously missing with Ms McKeith and her ilk is that “utter honesty” to which Feynman refers. Isn’t it what all altmed quacks lack?

    So you reckon only altmed quacks lack this?

    Looks to me Feynman is talking about anybody who has decided what they want to prove (or disprove!) and skew their approach to get the result they are expecting. seems to me we need a bit more honesty all round. I know “Dr Gillian” is an easy target, but is it sensible to use her as convenient excuse to lambast every poor innocent newly dipping their toe into research and maybe not quite up to speed yet?

    Historically, orthodox science is notorious for being reluctant to accept unacceptable ideas, what about the doctor who sussed the cause of puerperal fever and was promptly shunned by his colleagues? nothing altmed about them, but they had certainly made their minds up already

  6. Louloubelle said,

    April 6, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    I think Gillian McKeith is very rude and ill mannered.

    She makes such a big fuss about humiliating people while examining their poo and telling them how disgusting it is to the point of bullying them and sometimes making them cry.

    Let’s face it, everyone’s poo is pretty disguting and with the possible exception of certain German fetishists on the internet (oh how I wish I hadn’t looked) most people find poo smelly, slimy and deeply unpleasant.

    The thing that really riles ms is that she doesn’t even have the good manners to examine their poo after they have been on her diets and then compliment them on how marvellous it is.

    The least she could do would be to inhale deeply and to proclaim these poor people’s turds to be less disgusting then they were before.

    Ms McKeith should at least console herself that, should her television and book publishing businesses crumble and fail, there are certain remote corners of the internet, mostly located in Germany, where her enthusiasm for humiliating people while examining their poo can be utilised to lucrative effect.

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