Quackery feeds on the desperation and vulnerability of those who are seriously ill. Some experts have advice on how to avoid being duped.
If a miracle cure existed that would cure cancer or autism, it’d be tempting to seek it out.
The Genesis II Church of Health and Healing claims to offer that “miracle cure” for cancer, autism, and more.
But it turns out the “miracle” remedy, which the church refers to as MMS (Miracle Mineral Solution), is a form of industrial bleach, according to a recent report by ABC News.
Federal prosecutors are currently investigating the church’s actions.
The Genesis II Church isn’t alone.
There are plenty of other “miracle” healers trying to lure consumers into spending billions of dollars each year on fraudulent health products, according to Quackwatch, a nonprofit corporation that combats health fraud.
“The reality is that all people who are seeking help for an illness do so with a set of expectations and hopes about getting better,” Dr. David Gitlin, chief of medical psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, told Healthline. “The need to get better, fear of failing treatment, and fear of death can drive people’s expectations so much that they are willing to believe almost anything in the hopes of getting those expectations met.”
So was the case for Natasha Lipman, a 27-year old woman in London, England, who blogs about living with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, myalgic encephalopathy, and histamine intolerance.
Lipman’s conditions cause her chronic pain, fatigue, gastric issues, depression, and more.
After years of living with the conditions, Lipman visited a homeopathic specialist who suggested naturopathic treatments, one which included snake venom.
“When I discovered that, I knew it could be quite dangerous, but when you’re desperate to get better, you’ll consider anything that might give you some control over your health,” Lipman told Healthline. “I found myself in the situation thinking ‘what’s the harm?’ but then I got really annoyed with myself that I had let my desperation to try anything put me in a situation that was potentially dangerous.”
In addition to desperation, Gitlin points to the human need to believe.
“This has been going on for thousands and thousands of years. It is faith healing,” said Gitlin, who is also chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Psychosomatic Medicine. “I don’t say that in a negative way. There are many well-respected religions in which faith healing is an important component. Religion and spirituality may help more people in the world than medicine does partly because the human condition has a need to believe. When people lose a reason to believe we know people fail and die.”
Lipman says faith-based belief adds to people’s vulnerability.
“I’ve had people tell me that if I just asked God or the universe or something else, I would feel better. I find this very offensive and victim-related,” she said. “There is only so much we can do. Of course, I will eat well, rest, and see my doctors, all the things to not make myself worse, but at some point we have to accept our condition.”
Still, positive thinking may make people feel better, adds Gitlin.
“We know from studies that when one has a positive perspective on what’s going to come and happen that that can change the brain chemistry and that change in brain chemistry can lead to actual physical improvement, particularly with diseases of the brain, such as depression, anxiety, and epilepsy,” Gitlin said.
Consider psychotherapy, he adds. Studies show that psychotherapy works with mild to moderate depression.
“It’s not a sham or a miracle cure. We can measure changes in the brain chemistry for those who are depressed before psychotherapy and those who have a successful response to it based on measuring their brain chemistry,” said Gitlin.
The changes are identical to the changes in brain chemistry caused by antidepressant medications because classical cognitive behavioral therapy helps people change negative expectations, perceptions, and distortions into more positive thoughts, which can actually lead to changes in brain chemistry, explains Gitlin.
“Good doctors know that part of treatment is helping you to build resiliency, positivity, and hope because that’s part of what contributes to the improvement of all medicines,” Gitlin says, all while presenting realistic expectations.
Lipman concurs, and says this is where charlatans take advantage.
“The reason that many of these quack approaches make people feel better is because the people offering them are often giving people time and listening to them and comforting them, which can be hard to get from traditional doctors simply due to time limitations,” she said.
But what about being realistic? Gitlin says it’s not that simple.
“When you tell someone their likelihood of surviving this cancer for more than 6 months is 10 percent, a lot of people will believe they’re in that 10 percent, but there is a natural bell curve to all diseases. Some people will die quickly, some will live the average amount of time, and others will live longer,” he said.
“When we hear statistics we have this unconscious drive that prevents us from giving in and may drive us to believe anything. In many ways this is a good human quality,” Gitlin added. “The problem is there are a lot of bad people in the world who take advantage of that human desire and need and that’s what charlatanism is at its basic core. It’s not that they trick people so much as prey on those vulnerable individuals who are so desperate to change their circumstance against all evidence.”
Positive thinking carries over into the placebo effect, a phenomenon that occurs when a fake treatment (placebo) such as water or sugar is given to a person, and actually improves the person’s condition.
“We know that the need to believe, the desire and the expectation and hope for improvement can at least give the perception of improvement,” said Gitlin. “I think this may be the reason why people who seek out these cures then go on to say the miracle helped them. They can distort their own thinking so they may say ‘I feel better. I know my cancer has shrunk’ even though the data would show that it didn’t. Sooner or later, they come to realize it didn’t work or they may believe it stopped working. But what’s fascinating is that they perceptually did feel better.”
Intense desire to feel better can have an impact on brain chemistry, including neurotransmitters, hormone levels, and inflammatory markers. Those are important in the management of many diseases.
“The brain then transmits those changes to the rest of the body and may actually lead to changes in the body,” explained Gitlin. “They may also affect the parts of the brain where one’s perception of improvement occurs. There are many studies where we give people the placebo treatment, but they think they may be getting a medication. We not only see the effect happen, but even when we don’t see an effect, which in most cases we don’t, a percentage of patients will say, ‘I’m definitely better than I was before.’”
Lipman believes the placebo effect could intertwine with a miscorrelated reason for feeling better. At one point, she was on a strict diet that she credited with helping her feel better.
“The thing is that at the same time I was coming off of meds that were causing severe reactions and making me really unwell, yet I didn’t put that together,” she said. “In fact, following a diet is very different from curing people. We might try to attribute feeling better to that one thing because we want to believe it, but there can be so many different reasons for why you might be feeling better at that time.”
What makes someone emotionally vulnerable to falling for a miracle cure?
Gitlin says it’s complicated and has to do with resiliency, personality, and experiences.
Those who have more resilience or are able to handle stressors don’t have the need to change or remove the bad things in life, he says. Instead, they adapt to them.
“They may hope for the best results and may seek out intense treatments, but not so much with a miracle in mind, more because they want to do the best they can and make the best of what they get. The more resilient tend to believe — mostly unconsciously — that while bad things happen, they are in control of how they manage those things,” Gitlin says.
On the other hand, those who struggle with resiliency may turn to someone to fix them or make their problem go away.
“They may think they are victims of the world, walk through life waiting for bad things to happen to them, and believe that nothing is under their control,” Gitlin said.
While temperament is partly biological, life circumstances also contribute to a person’s resiliency and ability to handle the hard things that come their way. Consider growing up in a traumatic environment where everything is truly out of your control.
“I see this with victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” said Gitlin. “When PTSD is chronic and recurrent at young ages, there is a feeling of lack of control. Things just happen to you. Bombs fall. People hit you. This tends to be connected to decreased resiliency, and can make people especially vulnerable to things like charlatans and cults.”
Barbara M. Rocha, N.D., a certified traditional naturopath, says while MMS and other “miracle cures” may be dangerous and unhealthy, not all natural remedies are.
“First of all, in natural medicine/healing, whatever term you want to use, we never say we can heal or cure you,” Rocha told Healthline. “Naturopathic medicine is not a ‘miracle cure,’ nor is any type of holistic treatment. It is about getting the body back into proper alignment in all aspects so that the body can move back to the proper state. And there is never just one answer or modality to accomplish it.”
“I tell my patients this takes work and time to turn things around and isn’t ‘bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.’ It takes commitment to themselves. I have been in this field a long time and have a great belief system, but never have I seen a ‘miracle’ in the sense that [the MMS church] uses,” she said.
Still, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that consumers should be mindful of products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure diseases or other health conditions but are not proven safe and effective for those uses.
“Relying on unproven products or treatments can be dangerous, and may cause harmful delays in getting the proper diagnosis and appropriate treatments,” says Lyndsay Meyer, FDA spokesperson.
Despite all the warnings, Lipman understands that many products and treatments that make headlines or have strong followings on social media may seem harmless and easy ways to take control of one’s health. However, she says always be wary.
“I understand that the will to feel better can overtake everything,” she said. “When I fell for quackery, it wasn’t that I didn’t have the critical thinking skills or intelligence. It was desperation that took over and the thought that if I couldn’t have the life I wanted then what was the harm in trying anything possible to feel better. The only reason I came out on the other side is because it didn’t work, and I accepted my limitations, as well as medicine’s.”