Do natural remedies work?

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Last post, I gave Rachel’s questions about “natural remedies” a hard time. They’re not, usually, natural at all. And whether they’re natural or not doesn’t imply that they’re good for you or bad for you. The label “natural” is an irrelevant marketing gimmick slapped on products to get you to buy them.

Still: Rachel had a fair question, and I really haven’t answered it yet:

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.

OK, for the sake of answering the question, let’s just accept that “natural” means “seems natural” or “marketed as natural” or whatever you want it to mean. I think we know what Rachel’s talking about here – home remedies, or alternative medicine things, or things you can do yourself without relying on a physician. Do these kinds of things “work”?

Yes. They do. Most of the time, for most people with most problems that come to the doctor, “natural remedies” will indeed work. Usually, you will feel better, and indeed you will get better, after taking them.

(I’m not talking about a placebo effect here—though that’s an interesting subject we can talk about another time. And I’m not saying that these natural remedies “trick” you into feeling better, or that you only feel better because you spent money on something and you expect to feel better. I’m talking 100%, honest-to-goodness, my rash went away and I am better-better!)

Here’s the scoop, the insider secret you all have been waiting for: most concerns that most people bring to the doctor, most of the time, are things that will get better on their own. Your cough will get better, your fever will get better, your sprained ankle will get better. Your rash will improve, you’ll have fewer belly aches, and that weird foot odor will probably improve, too. The fact is, and doctors and alternative-health practitioners know this, that your body will heal, and your symptoms will improve, and — if what you want to do is play the odds – whatever is on your mind the day you go to a medical practitioner is probably going to get better on its own.

There’s two reasons for this, depending on the nature of the problem. For acute things (like a common cold, or the flu, or a twisted ankle), your body will probably do a pretty good job healing itself if you get out of the way and let it get better. For longstanding sorts of things, like headaches or back pain, you’ll get better, too—if only because you usually go see your healer when these symptoms are at their peak. Think about it – you’ve got backaches, or stomach pains, or whatever. From day to day or week to week the symptoms go up and down. Your symptoms are sometimes worse, or sometimes better. You don’t go to your doctor (or naturopath) when the symptoms are minimal or improved. You go when you feel bad. And—guess what?—the symptoms continue to go up and down. Only now, you think it’s going down because of the medicine, or because of the herb or the magic potion. But: in truth, the “treatment” probably doesn’t matter. All that matters is that most problems get better.

Of course, “most problems” isn’t all problems. Your child’s asthma, leukemia, or iron deficiency anemia isn’t likely to go away on its own, and if you’ve had a heart attack you’d better get thee to a hospital, pronto. Some things will get better faster with appropriate treatment. I am not suggesting that no one needs a medical evaluation. But the main point of almost any doctor visit is to get advice from someone with both the expertise and experience to tell the very-many-who-will-get-better from the few-who-really-need-therapy.

And the few who truly need therapy probably don’t need what naturopaths have to offer.

 

Ric Flair

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4 Comments on “Do natural remedies work?”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Now that you put it into words… I know the reason I take my children to the doctor is to have a professional tell me whether they will get better on their own or not. The last half year my 10 year old and 3 year old have been getting sick about every month with high fevers and sore throat. It was the same story every time. The strep test is negative, so it must be a virus, and we got sent home. The fevers (103-105) lasted about 5 days. The last time our pediatrician mentioned a periodic fever syndrome (PFAPA), but now they are not getting as sick as often anymore. No one else in the family got sick. Was it just a passing thing that got better/

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  2. jane Says:

    There have now been thousands of placebo-controlled clinical trials, worldwide, reporting that various botanicals alleviate various diseases, discomforts or risk factors. Some have been the subject of dozens of positive trials. Some have in vitro and animal studies that demonstrate mechanisms of action. To say across the board that “they ‘work’ because you would have gotten better anyway” is to reject a lot of science. Further, it is not much less insulting to the thousands of users who report benefit than saying “they’re placebos”; by implication, consumers are too dumb to know what a headache, case of flu or bout of depression ordinarily feels like and observe whether it gets better faster when they use a certain product.

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  3. Dr. Roy Says:

    jane, I said quite explicitly “I’m not talking about a placebo effect here—though that’s an interesting subject we can talk about another time.” What I’m talking about has nothing at all to do with anyone being dumb (or smart, or that matter.) Did I say or imply that in any way?

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  4. jane Says:

    Dr. Roy, with respect, I think you did imply that. You intimate that traditional and non-Western medicines do not work across the board. This raises the question of why millions of people have considered some remedies for common ailments to give relief. (I omit discussion of remedies that in modern studies are shown to affect biological measurements used to define and track chronic diseases.) If willow bark does nothing for a headache or backache, why have so many people used it and said it helped? Your answer is, effectively, “Because they are not experienced or intelligent enough to recognize that headaches don’t last forever if you take nothing for them.”

    Patients or parents who actually know that there is modern evidence for a particular treatment will think the less of you if you insist that it can have no objective value and should be abandoned; they’ll wonder why your protestations of value for other interventions are more trustworthy. Have the humility to treat traditional remedies as individual things (so that debunking one does not debunk all the others, an attitude you would never apply to allopathy) and admit when you don’t know whether something is likely to help or not, and we will respect you more, not less.

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