Posts featuring 'Dr Sebi' tout unverified health advice

Years after his death, an herbalist's supposed cures for cancer and other diseases are amassing hundreds of thousands of interactions on social media. But oncologists told AFP there is no scientific evidence the plant-based "alkaline diet" is effective -- and that the claims may cause patients to delay potentially life-saving treatments.

"Since turning alkaline-electric, I have not been sick ONCE (8 years and runnin')," says an April 3, 2024 Instagram post -- one of more than 1.6 million using #drsebi.

The hashtag is also popular on TikTok, where thousands of videos in English, French and Spanish reference "Dr Sebi," a Honduran herbalist named Alfredo Darrington Bowman.

"If nature didn't make it, don't take it," says Bowman in a Facebook clip from an account claiming to offer a cure for sexually transmitted diseases and chronic illnesses.

Screenshot of a TikTok taken April 25, 2024
Screenshot of an Instagram post taken April 29, 2024

Bowman died in 2016, but his interviews and testimonies of people who tout his advice frequently appear in posts hawking "holistic" products. Facebook groups relaying the diet have several hundred thousand members.

Screenshot from Facebook taken April 17, 2024
Screenshot of a Facebook post taken May 2, 2024

Other posts and a bevy of books on Amazon say Bowman's recommendations -- which include drinking a gallon of natural spring water per day and avoiding alcohol, animal products, processed sugar and genetically modified foods -- are a "simple cure for cancer."

However, Norbert Ifrah, president of the French National Cancer Institute (archived here), told AFP that it is "false and dangerous to suggest" that "simple and miraculous" diets can ward off cancer.

"Only conventional treatments -- surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapies, targeted therapies, etc -- have demonstrated their effectiveness against cancers," he said April 16, 2024.

Who was 'Dr Sebi?'

Bowman, who was not a licensed physician, had a long history of peddling questionable health claims.

In the late 1980s, he was acquitted in New York on charges of practicing medicine without a license (archived here). However, he was fined and agreed to cease making disease-specific claims, such as advertisements he paid for in several New York newspapers declaring "AIDS has been cured" (archived here).

Bowman later built a supplement business, with many compounds marketed as "detoxification solutions."

Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator with the McGill University Office for Science and Society, debunked that notion in a 2019 blog post, writing: "Our body does not require a regular detox. Our kidneys and liver are doing just fine at filtering our blood" (archived here).

Working with stars such as Michael Jackson, Bowman is also linked to a conspiracy theory about the 2019 death of Nipsey Hussle (archived here).

Collage of screenshots taken April 30, 2024 from videos on TikTok

Just before he died, the rapper mentioned working on a Dr Sebi-inspired documentary, sparking false claims that he was murdered to prevent the film's release (archived here and here). But a criminal trial found Hussle was killed by a California man named Eric Holder following a dispute over claims that Holder was "snitching" to the police. 

In May 2016, Bowman was arrested at Juan Manuel Gálvez de Roatan Airport in Honduras on charges of money laundering. He died while battling pneumonia in police custody.

Alkaline diet

Bowman argued there was only one disease -- and that an "alkaline diet" consisting mainly of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes was the solution.

The American Institute for Cancer Research says on its website that an alkaline diet "refers to the idea that as foods are digested and metabolized, they create a more acidic or alkaline environment in the body" (archived here).

Bowman said the regimen can protect against disease because cancer cells thrive in an acidic environment and die in an alkaline one.

However, adopting an alkaline diet to treat cancer is ineffective, said Pierre Saintigny, a French oncologist and researcher (archived here), on April 3, 2024.

A systematic review published in 2016 found a lack of evidence and concluded: "Promotion of alkaline diet and alkaline water to the public for cancer prevention or treatment is not justified" (archived here).

Maria Petzel, a senior clinical dietitian at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in the United States, said in a 2018 blog post that research indicating an acidic environment helps cancer cells grow "studied cells in a dish" and does "not represent the complex nature of how tumors behave in the human body" (archived here).

Doubting chemotherapy 

Bowman regularly questioned using chemotherapy to treat cancer, claiming it is harmful to patients.

Screenshot of a TikTok taken April 30, 2024

Chemotherapy uses drugs that can kill tumor cells, according to the American Cancer Society (archived here).

The drugs are powerful and can also harm healthy cells, resulting in a range of side effects from hair loss to serious long-term nerve damage and fertility problems (archived here). Still, many patients opt to take the treatment in the hope it will prolong their life by shrinking tumors or keeping cancer from growing and spreading.

AFP has debunked numerous unproven treatments for cancer, including posts pushing hot lemon water, mugwort and soursop wine.

Experts say many of the alternatives shared online are at best ineffective and at worst toxic. The real danger is that patients will forgo evidence-based care.

"Once people buy into this idea that an alternative remedy -- even if it's a vegetable broth -- can cure cancer, they will try it," said Romy Sauvayre, a sociologist specializing in science and beliefs (archived here), on April 3, 2024. "Sometimes they abandon their treatment and they hasten their death."

More of AFP's reporting on health misinformation is available here.

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