Alternative medicine practitioners love to coin magic words, but really, how can you blame them? Real medicine has a Clarkeian quality to it*; it’s so successful, it seems like magic. But real doctors know that there is nothing magic about it. The “magic” is based on hard work, sound scientific principles, and years of study.

Magic words are great. Terms like mindfulness, functional medicine, or endocrine disruptors take a complicated problem and create a simple but false answer with no real data to back it up. More often than not, the magic word is the invention of a single person who had a really interesting idea, but lacked the intellectual capacity or honesty to flesh it out. Magic is, ultimately, a lie of sorts. As TAM 7 demonstrates, many magicians are skeptics, and vice versa. In interviews, magicians will often say that they came to skepticism when the learned just how easy it is to deceive people. Magic words in alternative medicine aren’t sleight-of-hand, but sleight-of-mind, playing on people’s hopes and fears.

A reader has turned me on to another magic word I hadn’t known about. It’s called the “Inflammation Factor”, and is the invention of a nutritionist named Monica Reinagel. Like most good lies, this one builds on a nidus of truth.

Inflammation is a medical term that refers to a host of complex physiologic processes mediated by the immune system. Inflammation gets its ancient name from the obvious physical signs of inflammation: rubor, calor, dolor, tumor, or redness, heat, pain, and swelling. As the vitalistic ancient medical beliefs bowed to modern science, inflammation was recognized to be far more complex than just these four external characteristics. In addition to being a response to injury and disease, the cellular and chemical responses of inflammation can cause disease. For example, in asthma and food allergies, a type of immune reaction called type I hypersensitivity elicits a harmful type of inflammation. Coronary heart disease, the biggest killer of Americans, is believed to have a significant inflammatory component.

But nothing in medicine is perfectly simple. For example, corticosteroids, which can be used effectively to treat the inflammation in asthma are not effective against the inflammation in cororary heart disease. It’s just not that simple.

But while inflammation may not be that simple, people can be. People want easy answers, and quacks are happy to step in to provide them.

So Ms Reinagel has invented a diet, available for sale in a book called The Inflammation Free Diet Plan. Her premise is that inflammation is at the root of all major diseases, and that your diet can affect inflammation, thereby improving your health.

While the hypothesis is intriguing, each step of the argument has problems, leading to an invalid conclusion.

Inflammation is the root of all disease

No, it’s not. “Inflammation”, which is actually refers to a lot of different processes, plays an important role in many diseases. But not all inflammation is the same.

The most important factor in fighting inflammation is the food you eat every day.

Um, no. If you have a staph infection on your arm, your eating habits will not change the amount of heat, pain, swelling, or redness. The kernel of truth here is that diet can affect various measures of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (here is one of many examples). There’s a long leap between this fact and the conclusion that diet can “stop inflammation”.

The benefits of reducing inflammation are immediate as well as long term. You’ll notice that your skin looks younger, your joints feel better, and your allergy symptoms improve. At the same time, when you reduce inflammation, you also reduce your risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, and other complications of aging.

It’s a very long walk from the claim that reducing inflammation is “a good thing” to proving that your particular diet reduces inflammation and thereby improves health . A hypothesis is not true simply because it sounds pretty.

Who wouldn’t love a magic book that would prevent and cure all illness? Perhaps you’ve noticed that these books come along every few months. None of them ever has the one true answer. Life is much more complicated and beautiful than any magic book. It may be a lot more difficult to commit science than to commit quackery, but in the end it’s a lot more satisfying and a lot more useful.

*”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

Posted by Peter Lipson

Peter A. Lipson, MD is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan.  After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He currently maintains a private practice, and serves as a teaching physician at a large community hospital He also maintains appointments as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, the first being a large, established medical school, the latter being a newly-formed medical school which will soon be accepting its first class of students.  He blogs at White Coat Underground at the Scientopia blog network. A primary goal of his writing is to illuminate the differences between science-based medicine and everything else.  His perspective as a primary care physician and his daily interaction with real patients gives him what he hopes is special insight into the current "De-lightenment" in medicine.  As new media evolve, pseudo-scientific, deceptive, and immoral health practices become more and more available to patients, making his job all that much more difficult---and all that much more interesting. Disclaimer: The views in all of of Dr. Lipson's writing are his alone.  They do not represent in any way his practice, hospital, employers, or anyone else. Any medical information is general and should not be applied to specific personal medical decisions.  Any medical questions should be directed to your personal physician.  Dr. Lipson will not answer any specific medical questions, and any emails and comments should be assumed public. Dr. Lipson receives no compensation for his writing. Dr. Lipson's posts for Science-Based Medicine are archived here.