Some “natural” remedies aren’t natural

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. 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 D.D. 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 non-existent 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 drugstores 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 unnatural. 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 the 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.

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.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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