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 percent, 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.
Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at the Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.
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