Biohacking and MS: Buyer Beware

Twice so far this month, my wife Cathy, who has MS and writes for MultipleSclerosis.net, has been bombarded with high-pressure sales tactics from acquaintances who sell a product that promises to increase antioxidant levels and destroy free radicals in her blood. The sales reps who contacted her call themselves “biohackers.”

My role as a caregiver

As a caregiver, one of my important roles is to become familiar with trends that pertain to the care and treatment of MS patients. The goal is to assist Cathy in making medical and lifestyle decisions that may affect her MS.

What is "biohacking"?

So, I jumped on the internet and looked into biohacking. There are multiple and varied definitions. What stood out is that biohacking is a marketing term and, frankly, not a very good one. (Is “hacker” now a compliment?) Biohacking is a slick term that businesses use to increase credibility for their products.

Researching antioxidant alternatives

When we researched the antioxidant product and competing products, the first thing that jumped out was the cost: about $1.50 to $2.00 per pill. The second was the obvious lack of rigorous clinical testing that is required for pharmaceutical products. Third, we reminded ourselves that there are ways to increase antioxidant activity more naturally: we often drink smoothies with fresh broccoli, carrots, strawberries and blueberries.

When we consulted a doctor for advice on the antioxidant product, Cathy was advised to stay away. The physician wisely noted that there was a possibility of an adverse interaction with the prescription medications she was taking for MS and other conditions.

High-pressure marketing

After Cathy told the sales reps that she could not try their product, their sales drive─rather than any concern for her health─kicked in. Their replies used stock language that was obviously pulled from the manufacturer’s marketing handbook, much of it of the high-pressure variety. Instead of respecting the patient’s decision and moving onto the next target, Cathy was hit with messages such as “Don’t you want to improve your condition?”

Yes, but not by taking unproven products from businesses who care only about sales and not one bit about my health.

The human body is complicated.

We still don’t fully understand how many chemical compounds, foods and other substances affect it. What once constituted reliable information is often revealed to be myth. A prime example is the value of supplemental vitamins and minerals. The global market for dietary supplements approached $50 billion in 2017 and is growing, according to Statista, a German data company.

What about vitamins and supplements?

Many of us, including medical professionals, have long believed that supplementing a good diet through vitamins and minerals from a pill or a powder can improve health and longevity. Not so fast, my friends. A 2017 study reported in the American Journal of Cardiology found that popular supplements “were without demonstrable effects on cardiovascular disease (CVD) or all-cause mortality…[though] folic acid and B-vitamins showed benefits for stroke…”

Look before you leap

Johns Hopkins Medicine agrees, concluding that the $12 billion that American adults spend each year on vitamin and mineral supplements “might be better spent on nutrient-packed foods like fruit, vegetables, grains and low-fat dairy products.”

So let’s all remember a basic maxim when marketers are promoting newfangled, expensive ways of controlling MS and other conditions: look before you leap.

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