Most natural remedies aren’t

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Rachel wrote:

My daughter and I were talking the other day and saying we would like to ask a doctor what his thoughts are about all these ‘natural’ remedies that are available. Recently a friend made the remark, ‘I do everything I can to avoid a doctor.’ I lean more toward the medical system and the knowledge they have acquired over the years rather than relying on these home remedies. What are your thoughts?

A great question, Rachel. It turns out that many of these “natural” remedies aren’t very natural at all. Something should be considered “natural” if it exists in the world around us – if it’s a part of the observable, real world we live in – and a part of our world that we didn’t create or imagine. Trees and rocks and wind are natural. Ghosts and voodoo curses are not (they only exist in our imagination). Bridges, ovens, clothing, and books are not (we made those things.)

When you think about it, a lot of what passes for “natural” remedies are not natural. Homeopathic remedies rely on an entirely imagined mechanism of chemistry invented by Samuel Hahnemann around 1796. He thought that by diluting and shaking substances, a vital essence of their properties could be captured, which upon further dilution could alleviate the symptoms that were caused by ingesting that same substance. Acupuncture relies on changing the flow of a life-energy, Qi, through channels in the body that do not, objectively, exist. Chiropractic (invented by DD Palmer in 1895) relies on identifying and treating “subluxations” that do not exist on x-rays or any other objective test. Modern chiropractors have acknowledged that their subluxations are more of an idea than a real thing, but most of them insist that treating these nonexisting things is helpful. (Not all chiropractors subscribe to this belief – a small group is trying to distance themselves from the dogmatic belief in Palmer’s subluxations. I wish them well.)

Many other kinds of healing supported by “naturopathic doctors” are not at all natural. Reiki, Ayurveda, “detoxification”, iridology, reflexology, kinesiology, and many other ideas are like homeopathy, chiropractic, and acupuncture. They all  “supernatural”, like ghosts and voodoo and magic.

What about herbal medicine? Herbs, themselves, are natural (and, often, tasty!) But what’s sold at drug and what used to be called “health food” stores is not. Many herbal supplements do not in fact contain the labeled herbs. The herbs are imaginary and un-natural. Even if the herbs are indeed contained in the supplement, by the time they’ve been processed and turned into capsules, are they any more natural than the “medications” on the shelf nearby?

I think the wisest way to think about Rachel’s question is to reject the false dichotomy between what’s “natural” and what’s not. There’s nothing inherently safer or better about natural things. Smallpox is natural, earthquakes are natural, heart attacks and strokes and cerebral palsy are all natural. Poisons from pufferfish and venoms from rattlesnakes are natural. On the other plenty of good and necessary things are “unnatural.” The food we eat has been grown with fertilizers and pesticides (including organic foods, which use all kinds of substances you wouldn’t consider “natural” at all), brought to stores by trucks on roads driven by people wearing wristwatches and clothes. None of these things are natural. And that’s OK.


Coming up next post: OK, fine, natural remedies aren’t natural. But do they work?

Who you gonna call?

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10 Comments on “Most natural remedies aren’t”

  1. wzrd1 Says:

    I have a rather large cabinet full of different herbal teas.
    Interestingly, they treat a single deficit, a lack of a tasty cup of something to drink.

    Now, one tea, which shall remain nameless so as to protect the guilty, did have a moderate effect upon my hypertension. Not quite as effective as my blood pressure medicine (Lotrel at that time), but one present and noticed when I was awaiting a refill after exhausting my supply of medicine. Doctor even took note and suggested a study to see if an agent could be ascertained and perhaps, a drug derived from it.
    Frankly, as the effect lasted all of four hours, I’d be dubious of any first generation drug made from that, but like other modern drugs, derivations can be much, much better.
    I still enjoy that particular tea, it doesn’t relax me any more or less than any other pleasant tasting beverage, but it does taste quite nice.

    But hey, caffeine containing drinks can get a bit old.
    Which is a malady that can be 100% effectively cured with the proper herbs, just as such can cure a bland dish with the same herbs.


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    “Interestingly, they treat a single deficit, a lack of a tasty cup of something to drink.” <– you win!


  3. Rachel Says:

    Thank you for considering my question! There were some specific things I was wondering about. One is taking huge amounts of garlic, vitamin C, and echinacea when sick, not taking Tylenol because that is hard on your liver and kidneys. Another is taking a tincture made of black walnut hulls to “heal” cavities. I don’t do any of these, because I don’t think it would be good or helpful. Garlic would probably be good….


  4. another pediatrician and skeptic of "natural" claims...... Says:

    Honey for cough!!!!
    natural and effective


  5. wzrd1 Says:

    “Honey for cough!!!!”

    Not bad, I personally prefer honey and lemon. But then, honey is a bit sweet for me to have alone.

    Saline gargles work as well, as long as it’s hypertonic. Believe it or not, it does work.

    As did an ancient treatment, which rightfully fell by the wayside, “painting the throat”. Something my family physician, a real M.D. did, decades ago. With an iodine solution.
    Yes, it’d work, but the deleterious effects were equal to the salutary effects.
    But then, that offer was made in the late 1960’s (I was so dubious and precocious, doctor actually handed me the proper reference and gave the entry to look up).*

    *I’m fun at times on medical sites, where anti-science types are somewhat tolerated, as I can recall some of the antiquated methods that they’re championing as de-novo treatments and I happily explain why such treatments were dropped for more effective, less harmful interventions.

    The doctor who offered the iodine paint job had given me some words of wisdom around that time, when I had enthused about his lifesaving and healing abilities.
    He said, “I never cured or healed anyone, I allowed their body time to cure or heal itself by applying the appropriate intervention”.
    Never have truer words been said. Words uttered when smallpox was still an extant disease.


  6. Jamie Says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue. I would think that if something were “natural” and legitimately provided healing that that substance would be medicine. For example, I have used bicarbonate of sodium numerous times for heartburn, and to help treat minor burns. However, there isn’t a bicarbonate of sodium tree, that I’m aware of, but that’s considered “natural”.

    As for some other remedies mentioned, like walnut hulls for treating cavities, seems like they would work fine and well up to the point that the one using the treatment experiences excruciating pain, and then would need/demand immediate relief from a dentist who is well practiced in using “Western” medicine.


  7. Dr. Roy Says:

    There are certainly some things from the world of “natural medicine” with good evidence that they really work well. Honey, for cough in children, has more evidence than anything else. Riboflavin can be an effective migraine preventer, and oil of wintergreen is good at numbing angry teeth (too bad it’s very toxic, even in small doses — a tsp can easily kill a child.)


  8. Dr. Roy Says:

    Rachel, there’s no evidence that huge amounts of vit C help a cold i (tho there’s a history, and even a grain of truth, to why people might think that); garlic is tasty and great in the kitchen, but that’s about it. Echinacea is pretty much worthless. Black walnut I know nothing about, though I don’t care for it in ice cream.

    Tylenol can be very toxic to the liver in overdose (or in people with preexisting liver disease.) There’s no denying that our “medicine-medicines”, overall, are “less safe” than “natural remedies” — but the trade off is that almost all “natural remedies” don’t do anything therapeutic. If someone promises you there’s a cure for a disease that has no potential side effects, that’s because whatever they’re offering has no therapeutic benefit, either. You cannot have one without the other. Careful docs need to ALWAYS weigh benefits and risks when prescribing. Often we don’t, but that’s a topic for another blog post.


  9. wzrd1 Says:

    Yak! Walnut hulls in the mouth?! I’ve gotten just a bit of residue in my mouth before, it makes both opioids and penicillin taste good!

    Walnut hulls can be used as a decent enough clothing dye, if you lack anything better and like brown.
    They’re also good to kill most to all of the fish in a pond, if you’re desperate to feed a village. (Both are part of SF survival training)
    I do recall the dental bit, as a last ditch, no real help is available option, but I carried eugenol with me, which is the active ingredient with ambesol and similar oral pain drops (which is derived from oil of cloves, it’s just purified a lot more and an RX only oral anesthetic. A bit of zinc oxide paste (sold in survival kits and individually for “back woods” and holiday weekend emergencies) to pack the cavity, evacuate to a dentist ASAP.

    Dental infections are kind of a big deal. There are rather large blood vessels in proximity to the roots of the teeth and supplying them with blood, nerves and let’s face it, they’re in your head. An upper mandible infection is actually a bone of the skull infection and the brain isn’t all that far away from one’s teeth, with spongy bone the only thing between a severe infection and one’s brain.


  10. wzrd1 Says:

    @Dr Roy, “Often we don’t, but that’s a topic for another blog post.”
    Yeah, that’d be a *really* long post. It seems that every year, I see doctor’s chart annotations running later and later into the evening.
    Add in insurance patient contact time expectations and pressures to meet those artificial expectations, yeah, it’d be a long blog post.
    Add in CE units, soon, sleep time will be less than that which residents don’t get. 😦


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