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How to Self-Advocate for Your Health - Part 3

Finding Credible Sources for Your Health Research

If you're reading this, chances are you've already done some of your research or are interested in doing some research regarding your health and symptoms. In my last post I shared some basic principles and an example for how you can conduct your own investigation to uncover possible root causes for your condition so you can find the most effective solutions to reverse your illness, not just mask it. But, how can you be sure that the information you find is credible and evidence-based?


We have so much information at the push of a button. In this day and age of AI, Dr Google is amazingly smart at showing us things that will naturally pique our interest. Alas, they may not be the most accurate source.


[But first, I am starting with the assumption that you WANT the most evidence-based information. We all have different levels of risk tolerance. Higher risk tolerance means you may be more open to information that has less scientific validation. This does not mean, however, that the information is false, only that our scientific process and system (because it is flawed, with many monetary interests driving what gets researched or not) simply hasn't produced an adequate amount and quality of studies, and/or that those studies aren't the kind that get popularized (because what gets popularized also is very political, often with dogmatic thinking people holding the reins of information communication).


This is especially true of anything that falls outside of conventional medicine, where ultimately there is nothing being sold, such as a behavioral or nutrition intervention, or the product being sold doesn't have rigorous regulatory requirements regarding effectiveness studies before being sold, such as supplements and natural health products.


You are absolutely free to experiment with information that have less scientific validation, depending on your own preferences. But regardless of where you fall on the risk tolerance scale, it is always better to know, before trying something, what the level of scientific validation is, and go into it with open eyes. Also make sure that you know your insurance policy's stance in case you experience a serious adverse event as a result of an experimental treatment with limited scientific validation.]


Short of actually looking for scientific studies indexing databases, like Pubmed, Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and others, many health or medical-related blogs claim to be evidence-based and expert-reviewed, such as Healthline, WebMD, Medical News Today, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Harvard Health. AI research tools such as chatGPT and BINGchat rely mostly on these secondary sources of information for their simplicity and ease of understanding.

Most of these health blogs do a good job of describing your symptoms and why they happen at a surface level. For example, why do cold sores happen? They will tell you it is caused by a type of herpes simplex virus, which once acquired stays dormant in your skin's nerve cells, and flare when your body gets stressed (psychological or physical stress especially on your skin). It may also tell you that you can get a flare during parts of your hormonal cycle. But it won't tell you why, for example, your hormones or psychological Image from brgfx from Freepix

stress cause a flare, or why you often get cold sores and bloating

or GI upset or other symptoms at the same time.


Some of these blogs are very conventional in terms of treatments, and do not include natural or holistic therapies. This is typical of Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. Other blogs such as Healthline, WebMD and even Harvard Health may include more holistic therapies such as lifestyle and self-care, physical therapy, devices, herbal remedies and natural supplements, and psychological interventions such as mindfulness or neurofeedback, etc.


Other credible sources include patient advocacy groups, such as Arthritis Society and Arthritis Foundation, Migraine Canada, Crohn's and Colitis Canada, Eczema Society of Canada and so on. However, if you experience several symptoms without a diagnosis, such as constipation, itchiness, headaches, and fatigue, no single patient advocacy resource group will have all of the answers, and you may not find any support group at all for some of your symptoms.


Some resources like Examine.com review and rate the evidence of natural treatments, including supplements (not medications) and certain dietary and exercise interventions for a particular disease or symptom, such as the keto diet and resistance training.


But mostly when it comes to assessing safety and effectiveness of individual treatments or strategies, for example platelet-rich plasma injections or hormone therapy for ligament tears or joint deterioration, and finding associations and root causes between different symptoms, you need to rely on many different sources and approaches. Here are some tips:


Tips to Uncover the Most Reliable and Comprehensive Sources for Your Research


1) Start with a simple Google search and look for reputable health blogs

For example, if you search for cold sores and menopause, you will get many blogs including some from experts, from private companies selling products/services, and many others in the wellness field. Some of them are legit, some of them maybe less so (or maybe simply less well-known). Ignore these for now. Start with the Mayo Clinics and Healthlines and WebMD results first, to get a basic understanding of your symptoms and then their associations.


Expert/Private company blogs may be useful to point to non-conventional and more holistic methods, but follow the same principles below.


Look for indications that the articles have been reviewed. For example, many articles will indicate the name of the author, and whether and by whom it was reviewed directly under the title and date, and sometimes you can click on the person's name and it shows you more about their bio and their credentials. Look for a credible healthcare credential, such as MD, or Dietician, or Physical therapist (PT), or PhD, Certified Personal trainer (CPT), etc.


2) Read at least 3 and ideally 5, to get a general idea of common themes

You'll get a sense of how much agreement there is on the causes and solutions, and which ones are more comprehensive vs more conventional. Generally, the more agreement there is (assuming those agreed statements are all appropriately supported by their sources), you can assume that those are accepted "facts". But still be wary of simplistic explanations and always be curious about the deeper reason, and acknowledge that "accepted" science is often the slowest to change, because people get stuck in dogmatic thinking and refuse to accept contrary evidence. This is typical of nutrition science, as well as dementia and Alzheimer's (and remember smoking? for nearly half a century, the science was ignored that it causes lung cancer and other health risks).


Notice if some go deeper in their alleged "causes" and broader in their "remedies". Those are interesting new lines of investigation, but don't believe them just yet, especially if there is less agreement between all the blogs. Make sure you investigate, in the following steps below.


For example, in the case of cold sores, most blogs will say similar things about how they are caused by the herpex simplex type 1 or 2 virus, and they flare when the immune system is suppressed such as with stress or with other comorbidities. Some blogs may talk only about prescription medications, while others may mention herbal remedies, and mindfulness practices to reduce stress.


3) Double-check the references and citations at the bottom or linked directly in the article

It's very easy to provide a link and citations but sometimes the links may be broken, so you can't verify if what the article says agrees with the referenced study, or the author may have misinterpreted or exaggerated a "fact" in their article.

Some citations may simply point to other blogs, which may or may not be supported by primary scientific sources of information (scientific articles). You should dismiss these as not strong or credible enough, not necessarily because they are untrue, but you don't have time to go down a rabbit hole chasing the primary source. It should be present in each blog. If this happens often with a particular publication, don't use it anymore (or better, send a complaint to the editor of that magazine/publication).


Also, by looking at the original scientific study, you'll get a more detailed understanding of the issue, which may provide another clue.


For example, if a blog says, cold sores can flare during parts of the menstrual cycle when progesterone is high, if you click on the scientific publication that it sources or if you do a more targeted search (see below), you may read more specifics, such as it turns out that progesterone is an immunosuppressant and causes more inflammation in the gums as well as reduces the body's defenses against herpes simplex infections. They won't tell you those specifics in the blog article, because they try to be high-level and cover many different topics without overwhelming the reader. But as an investigator who is on a mission to find the root cause of your symptoms, you have to dig deep into the details, so this is a necessary step.


4) Search more targeted questions in an indexed science database

Once you have an idea of what additional clues to look into that blogs don't get into, this is the time to search in a Google Scholar or a Pubmed or a Research Gate. Use the approach in my previous blog.


Another good rule of thumb here is to find multiple articles that seem to support one particular clue or direction, rather than just one. Also, more recent is better, but not always. Include older and more recent studies in your search and conclusion.


AI search engines are much smarter now so you may not always need specific codes like including "", "AND", "OR". You can just write your multiple search terms in the bar, like "cold sores and menopause" or "cold sores and progesterone" or "cold sores and progesterone and menstruation", or you can also use the Advanced search function of the database. Google Scholar is likely to be smarter about this than a Pubmed or a Research Gate, but feel free to use 2 engines and compare search results.


5) Focus on the Abstract, Conclusion, and Discussion parts of studies

These give you the key take-aways, so you know whether or not this article is useful to you. If so, start reading the article.


6) Rely on medical dictionaries for terms you don't understand

There will be a lot you won't understand, especially biological terms and mechanisms, like particular proteins, genes, transcription factors, ligands, diestrus, menarche, etc. You can skim and don't need to understand everything just the gist of it, but if you get stuck and need help to understand certain terms, you can use medical dictionaries such as OpenMD which sources many different medical dictionaries including Merriam-Webster, Harvard Medical, and Merck Manuals.


7) Keep an open mind and avoid confirmation bias

It's important to keep an open mind and try not to search for an article that supports what you already believe to be true. Instead, start with a bigger question, and let the results confirm or not what you believe. For example, if you've heard of a particular herbal supplement being effective for your cold sores, you should search for general herbal remedies or natural remedies for cold sores, and see if the specific one you know about comes up, or search for the name of your supplement and general conditions it treats, and see if cold sores come up. This way you not only avoid confirmation bias, but you also may get other useful treatment ideas.


Conclusion

In short: there are many experts who claim to know, and they may be right, but don't use these as primary sources. Use the ones that have reputable and verified expert reviews first, then search the scientific databases for confirmation or more detailed answers to your targeted questions. Don't assume what you read in blogs is right, always double-check citations, and make sure there is agreement between several sources, even scientific articles, before assuming something may be true. Save the names of publications in case you want to bring these up to your doctor or healthcare practitioners.


In the next article I will get into types of evidence like clinical trials, observational studies, and the like, that study particular interventions.


Subscribe to my newsletter below, and find out more about how I can help you conduct your own research or give you feedback on your research here.


I am not giving medical advice. It is always a good idea to check with a health practitioner before trying anything you find evidence in the research, but ultimately you should trust your intuition.

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