Most Natural Remedies Implausible & Unevidenced

By Michael Edmonds 16/01/2012

The Christchurch Press this morning contained a story describing research done by Professor Shaun Holt and his colleagues Sarah Jefferies and Andrew Gilbey examining the (lack of) effectiveness of various natural remedies. Most of us will be familiar with various advertisements for deer velvet, propolis, magnetic therapies and lemon detox diets that appear on tv from time to time, all of which have no evidence to support their use. Other treatments for which there is little evidence include arnica for bruising, megadoses of vitamin C, shark cartilage, and some applications of colloidal silver.

Of course, to bring “balance” to the article they also consulted Josie McNeil of Naturia Health and “natural product user”, Sharyn McLean. I’m guessing “natural product user” = person we found shopping in a natural health store?

Ms McNeil is reported as saying she “believed natural products and therapies worked on humans and animals” and then proceeded to give several examples of anecdotal “evidence” including the suggestion that when rescue remedy was used by two customers “on goats that got stressed when milking, (and) it calmed them.”

My question would be – how are they objectively measuring the goat’s stress?

She then delivers the old chestnut “natural remedies don’t have a detrimental effect, which drugs often do.”

I have two comments re that misconception. First, those natural products which have been shown to work, do have potential detrimental effects. Second, those natural products which have no detrimental effects typically have no beneficial effect either.  An example of this would be willowbark which if taken in high enough doses can cure a headache but will also potentially cause stomach problems. Off course if you make a concoction from it that is too dilute it won’t irriate the stomach, but neither will it cure the headache.

Ms McNeil also uses the been around “since the beginning of time” argument, which I have challenged elsewhere. Hundreds of years ago, when many of these herbal remedies were being used, the average life expectancy was typically half of what it is now (around 40 as opposed to 80+ years), and when lice, syphilis, polio and various other diseases  made life unpleasant (as well as short).

Ms McLean revealed that she paid $100 for the magnetic bracelet that she had been wearing for the past year and suggested that “I did feel better after a period of time a bit more energised. I don’t know whether that was psychological but, to be honest, I don’t really care because I felt better. I was prepared to have faith in it.”

A full description of the work by Holt and his colleagues can be found in the New Zealand Medical Journal here.

0 Responses to “Most Natural Remedies Implausible & Unevidenced”

  • That article on Stuff now has >200 comments. Randomly reading a few they’re a mixed bunch, to be polite. I find it a bit disturbing to see the ‘standard’ false arguments for natural/alternative remedies being trotted out on that scale. (Not to mention broad swipes at doctors and, in some cases, scientists.)

  • I’d like to point out that in my experience conventional medicines make you more sick. Most of the time they don’t work and if they do work it’s at the expense of something else. Hey but that’s ok because my good old GP can prescribe me something else which can fix that too but there’s side effects to that too. Liver damage anyone?

    I’ll stick to the herbal remedies that i use and know work much more effectively than conventional “medicines”. If the evidence for natural remedies is anecdotal, i don’t care as long as they work. Clinical trials are rigged and if you don’t believe that you are deluded. It’s all about the money $$$$

  • I’d like to point out that in my experience conventional medicines make you more sick. Most of the time they don’t work and if they do work it’s at the expense of something else.

    Do you have any evidence to back up these rather sweeping assertions? Citations would be good.

  • I’d like to point out that “in my experience” is not a compelling argument. As Alison says, got some evidence?

    Your comment also implies that natural remedies don’t cause liver damage, I beg to differ:

    If clinical studies are rigged, how much easier must it be for sellers of natural remedies to bias the information they provide?

    To quote/paraphrase Mark Crislip of ScienceBased Medicine
    “the three most dangerous words in medicine are ‘in my experience’ “

  • Tom,
    It sounds like you haven’t had a particularly good experience with conventional medicine. On the other hand I have – I have very good GP who uses conventional medicine appropriately and effectively.
    One of the reasons clinical trials are important is that as individuals we have personal bias that make it difficult to accurately determine cause and effect. Trials pick out statistically significant effects, something that very natural therapies have been able to show.
    Not sure what you are specifically talking about regarding liver damage – some drugs do have side effects, however, if one is aware of what they can be, it is possible to monitor and avoid them.
    Many natural therapies do not have side effects because they a having no effect – good or bad on the body.
    Your sweeping statement that clinical trials are rigged is both cynical and inaccurate. Clinical trials have revealed the effectiveness of many, many drugs in use today.