MSG Myth Laid to Rest

Another sacred cow from my medical school days has been laid to rest. A letter in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 triggered a rash of anecdotal reports about facial flushing allegedly caused by monosodium glutamate (MSG) in Chinese food. “Chinese restaurant syndrome” had entered the popular medical mythology. Finally, 26 years later, two Australian scientists conducted a double-blind placebo controlled trial and found that some reaction to MSG was experienced by 15% of the subjects but the same reactions were also experienced by 14% of the placebo subjects. The scientists believe that the true cause of Chinese restaurant syndrome are histamine compounds found in fermented ingredients such as soy sauce, black bean sauce and shrimp paste. New Scientist 15 Jan ’94 p15


A US plastic surgeon found that the majority of his patients presenting for operative penile enlargement were motivated by anxiety over the size of their privy member rather than its performance. In fact one patient’s partner reportedly phoned the surgeon before her husband’s operation and told him she would rather have a fur coat! (GP Weekly) The procedure of penile enlargement was developed in China by the appropriately named Dr Long Daochou.

This absurd operation is not at all unusual in a culture where people also have silicon inserts into their muscles in order to look good at the beach. In fact, Ken and Barbie dolls are good models for such people who prefer plastic moulding to the real thing. Speaking of which, Barbie now has her own spiritual “channeller” (Barbie:”I need respect”!) and a “Barbie Channelling Newsletter”. Sadly, Barbie’s cries for help were treated with derision by Mattel Corporation who threatened the channeller with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Sunday Star Times 5 June ’94


I was absolutely stunned to read in the Christchurch Press (12/8/94) that the Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru is planning to offer a three-year Bachelor of Applied Science in naturopathy. Incredibly, the Qualifications Authority (QA) will be visiting the polytechnic to assess the course. The list of “basic sciences” to be studied includes herbal medicine (Kentucky fried medicine) and homeopathy (dilutions of grandeur). Is there anyone out there with any influence on the QA? Should market forces be allowed to dictate what constitutes a “basic science”? These are serious questions.


Can anybody help me come to an understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? I know it is the new term for what used to be called “shell-shock” but can anyone tell me if the condition is seen in societies which do not have compensation available and are therefore not subject to Welch’s law (see NZ Skeptic 32).

Three passengers on the cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov were awarded a total of nearly $300,000 compensation for PTSD and a further 18 plaintiffs are waiting for their pot of gold. In order for PTSD to have a valid aetiology there must be an equal incidence of cases in the NZ passengers.

I briefly mentioned similar cases related to military service (NZ Skeptic 32) and most people will have heard about “Agent Orange” and alleged links with ill-health in Vietnam vets. It proved cheaper for the manufacturer to settle out of court but this decision has now entered the popular mythology as proof of causation.

Gulf War veterans (something of a misnomer since very few saw any active service) are claiming that symptoms such as fatigue and memory loss constitute a syndrome for which they will no doubt be claiming compensation. (NZ Skeptic 31) I have been following this saga in the medical literature, and investigators are coming up with ever more fanciful theories to explain what is nothing more than mass hysteria. Christchurch Press 14/6/94

Medical News

A therapist who become famous through treating Diana, the Princess of Wales, has been ejected from his Harley St consulting rooms because his claimed medical qualifications were found to be bogus. Presumably he must have had some success with his treatments but the real Harley St doctors were offended and he had to go. What about the opposite situation — real doctors who persist in offering bogus treatments? We have plenty of these in New Zealand and a medical registration system which can do absolutely nothing about the situation!

There will be no sensible policy on smoking in Israel because the acting health minister, Prime Minister Rabin, is a chain-smoker and refuses to sign a bill prohibiting smoking in public places!

Finally, a common inclusion in 17th century Dutch paintings of women visiting the doctor is a charcoal burner and string. The string was burnt near the nose of hysterical women so the fumes can drive the “wandering uterus from the woman’s upper body back to its proper place in the pelvis.” A quaint theory which has been replaced in our time with food and multiple chemical allergy, RSI, CFS. Have we made any progress? Lancet Vol 343 p 663, BMJ Vol 308 p606, International Express 31/8/94.

Mass Hysteria

Some of you will have noted the derivation of hysteria from the Greek “hysteros” for the female uterus which was thought to wander about the body causing hysteria.

Many of you will remember two cases in the US (where else?) where “poisonous” patients caused ill-health to their medical attendants. The first case concerned a 31-year-old woman receiving chemotherapy for cervical cancer. Following the taking of a blood sample in the emergency room, a nurse noted a smell and promptly passed out followed by other emergency team members. Following exhaustive tests no toxic chemical was found and I quote “no one seems to have seriously attributed the mystery illness to hysteria”. The second case followed a similar course.

Both of these cases are in fact classical examples of mass hysteria which is an unfortunate term with connotations of misbehaviour. Mass hysteria is better described as a contagious psychogenic illness. Psychogenic refers to the production of physical symptoms under conditions of stress and should not be confused with neurosis or malingering. The classical sequence of events begins with a generalised belief about a toxic substance in the workplace followed by a precipitating event, typically, as in the above example, a smell. This perceived threat to health and safety leads to psychological arousal and typical symptoms and signs such as dizziness and fainting. There have been many examples of mass hysteria in New Zealand — the Parnell civil defence emergency 1973 (NZ Med J April 28 1982 p277 and also Australian and NZ Journal of Psychiatry 1975 9:225) and the ICI Chemical fire. Occupational overuse syndrome and sick-building syndrome are good examples of mass hysteria in the workplace.

See Scand, J., Work Environ Health 10 (1984) 501-504) for a good review on the subject.

Bioenergetic Medicine

An advertisement for a course in bioenergetic medicine in GP Weekly (25/5/94) recently caught my attention. The location was the same place where I did a week-long basic acupuncture course in 1987. I spent a week and about $1,000 in total expenses learning a practice which is totally unscientific and can be taught in about half an hour to any intelligent skeptic.

During my course the tutor introduced a market-gardener with alleged “allergy” to tomatoes. The patient was connected up to a Vega machine or equivalent and we were given a demonstration of how his muscle strength was diminished when exposed to the killer tomatoes. A container of steroid was then introduced into the circuit and the muscle “weakness” was cured.

Unfortunately one of the other skeptics in the room had actually removed the vial of steroid from the box and revealed it at the conclusion of the demonstration. Incredibly, the tutor was unfazed and attributed the “improvement” to steroid residues (presumably homeopathic) in the box! Truly a graphic demonstration of the power of belief, one which got me interested in active skepticism as a scientific philosophy highly relevant to my own chosen area of medicine.

I suspect that bioenergetic medicine is very similar to applied kinesiology (AK) where muscle strength is tested while a person is subjected to various influences such as foods, vitamins, homeopathic remedies etc. Controlled studies of AK have repeatedly shown that responses are random under conditions where both tester and test subject are unaware of the substance being tested. My own anecdote is a good example of this. NCAHF Vol 17 No 3 has a brief overview

Fraudulent Food & Drink

Yuri Tkachenko, of the resort town of Sochi, has been given permission by city authorities to “magnetise” the Sochi river and thereby lessen the flow of pollutants into the Black Sea. As the river water quality is obviously a little suspect you might like to try some of his “magnetic” vodka which is guaranteed not to cause hangovers.

On the other hand, if you are mainly worried about getting rid of heavy metals, look no further than a new Hungarian oat-bran extract guaranteed to soak up lead and radioactive strontium carried in the blood stream. The pill, Avenan, has been developed by Lajos Szakasi who needs few lessons in the marketing of quack remedies. Avenan will go on sale as a health supplement rather than a medication because “it can be approved after a simple registration procedure”. To quote Lajos again “I believe the product will be successful because…people will always spend on their health.”

More fantastic still is a report from Japan where Kazu Takeishi has been arrested for giving medical advice and medicines without being properly qualified. It all began with his “healthy” vegetable soup which can be mixed with urine to become a miracle medicine, particularly effective against AIDS and cancer. Kazu claimed to make his diagnoses by touching patients’ knees and the palms of their hands. Like all good quacks Kazu is sure of his market and it’s a good one — $30,000 a day and a two-month waiting list (must have been getting behind on the urine supply). Cancer is a taboo subject in Japanese culture and doctors are even protected in law from informing patients about such a diagnosis.

Now, if I could get the recipe for this soup, I could mix it with urine and treat cancer patients for $300 per consultation and there is nothing the medical council can do — because I’m a doctor!

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