Along the way the story engages in some pretty egregious disease-mongering, relies almost exclusively on positive anecdotes instead of data, and manages to avoid quoting anyone with a remotely skeptical view of these therapies. This story is a good example of the problem of reporting on complementary and alternative therapies. Because the evidence base is thin, anecdotes are often relied upon, to the detriment of any helpful information for patients.
While some women do suffer from a recognized disorder known as hypoactive sexual desire disorder, sexual desire is by its nature a very personal issue that varies greatly from woman to woman and even within the same woman at different times. Journalists have to be careful not to pathologize the normal range of sexual appetites, especially when there is money to be made by suggesting normal habits are somehow dysfunctional and require treatment.
No information about costs here — significant considering that the therapies discussed have very little evidence to show that they work and will be paid for out of pocket.
We can understand why this story was a bit short on data showing the benefits of these treatments, since there really aren’t any. But that’s no excuse to fill the void with rosy anecdotes from patients and alternative medicine providers. The story could have earned a satisfactory by seeking out a skeptical perspective and spending a bit more time on the potential downsides of these approaches. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
There is growing recognition that many alternative treatments, despite being "natural," can produce serious side effects. But this story doesn’t even nod in the direction of harms, despite discussing approaches, including vaguely described "herbal combinations," that may carry unknown risks. Notably, the FDA has repeatedly warned consumers against herbal dietary supplements marketed for sexual dysfunction, as these have been shown to contain Viagra or similar substances that can cause harm in some patients and can interact uNPRedictably with other medications.
While it’s hard to argue with the libido-boosting approach described by one source in this piece (she sat "quietly in a chair massaging her lower abdomen" for six minutes every day, the story tells us, in all apparent seriousness), we think anecdotes such as this should never be the only evidence cited in support of a health claim. The story does note that there are "no large-scale studies" saying whether the alternative therapies discussed work or not, but it relies almost exclusively on the perspective of patients and alt med practitioners to inform us about these treatments. When it does reference studies from well regarded medical institutions, it does so with throwaway lines that convey very little useful information about the research. (Example: We learn that a study about the herb ginkgo biloba showed it was "useful in helping women who had sexual dysfunction brought on by antidepressants" — but that’s the full extent of the discussion.)
The article passes along a claim that has been repeated ad nauseum in the run-up to the FDA’s decision about flibanserin: "nearly 40 percent" of women say they have sexual problems, usually a lack of desire. However, the story neglected to mention some important details about this statistic:
Exaggerating the prevalence of a disorder and pathologizing minor or transient changes in function are the hallmarks of disease-mongering.
When there are two sides to an issue, it’s not enough to source a story with three views from the same side, as this story did. While it is undeniable that many patients find great comfort and benefit from alternative medicine approaches such as those discussed in this article, it is equally clear that many of these treatments have very little evidence to support their use, and have the potential to cause harm. Of course, the same is true for many "conventional" medical practices, which is why we always think it’s a good idea to include at least one truly independent source to comment on claims made in a health story.
Before rushing out to try maca root supplements or herbal combinations, women might want to explore whether there’s an alternate explanation for their symptoms, whether it’s a relationship problem, a physical health issue (e.g. thyroid disorder, depression, sleep deprivation), or perhaps the side effect from a medication. This story didn’t mention any of these possibilities or how they might be treated.
The article notes that an FDA panel voted against approval of flibanserin, an investigational drug for treatment of low sexual desire in women. The availability of the alternative libido-boosting therapies discussed in the article isn’t really in question, but the story does provide links to organizations which maintain lists of alternative health providers.
The novelty of the treatments discussed in this story isn’t in question.
We can’t be sure to what extent this story may have relied on a release, so we’ll call it not applicable.