Natural Remedies: Help or Hindrance?
As a skeptic, it is very easy to look upon natural remedies in an entirely cynical and pessimistic way. We so often see quack cures and the exploitation of the word “natural” that it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to dismiss every home cure, herb or remedy. Was everything your granny told you about cold cures rubbish? Will garlic capsules help your arthritis? Of course natural substances and plant extracts are often components of medicines, but would they work all on their own? Time to investigate, and find out the “who’s who?” of useful naturals.
Garlic is a favourite of home remedies- it is said to have antiviral, antibacterial and pain relieving properties. It’s commonly used for toothache, arthritis, athlete’s foot, high cholesterol and more. But is there real science behind this?
Well, it can be used as a mild disinfectant as it does have antimicrobial properties. In fact, my current biology project is about testing traditional antibacterials such as garlic and cinnamon on the growth of bacterial cultures. Although it was by no means a well controlled experiment, the garlic solution had a noticeable effect on the growth of Bacillus, whilst the cinnamon solution had none. Although by no means proof, it was pretty neat and the growth of bacteria stopped in a defined ring around the spot of solution.
However, other uses of garlic may be old wives’ tales. For example, it is widely reported to help those with high cholesterol- my dad even took it for a time (ALL OF THE ANECDOTES). It didn’t work for him- and evidently, it doesn’t really work for anyone else either. A 2007 randomised clinical trial by the NIH found that “the consumption of garlic in any form” did not improve the blood cholesterol of patients with a moderately high cholesterol. It was also found that there was insufficient evidence to support the use of garlic to treat the common cold- a 2012 report in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that “claims of effectiveness appear to rely largely on poor-quality evidence” and that further experimentation is necessary.
Conversely, a 2012 placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomised (if you don’t know what this is; it generally means that the experiment is much more reliable) trial found that aged garlic was superior to placebo in lowering systolic blood pressure in patients with hypertension. In addition to this, it was found to be useful as a mouthwash additive, reducing microbial activity by 2.5%. Unfortunately, it gives you icky breath, which defeats the purpose somewhat.
In conclusion, garlic is good for some things and useless for others- as with many plant-based remedies!
According to website Home Remedies Web (their tagline is “alternative healthcare at home” which alarms me somewhat), cinnamon helps with digestion, diabetes, cholesterol, diarrhoea, arthritis, halitosis, memory, the common cold, toothache and migraines. Wow. Does it really work for all that? Um, no. But there is significant evidence that it does have some real medicinal uses!
In a 2000 study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, the bark, shoot and fruit of 16 species of plants (including cinnamon) were found to have a positive effect on HIV. The compund eugenol, found in the leaves of the cinnamon tree, has been found to have a positive effect on oral and genital herpes. A 2003 NIH study found that cinnamon had a positive effect on the glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes.
Perhaps most excitingly (is that even a word?), a 2011 study isolated a chemical in cinnamon bark which has a significant effect on Alzheimers in mice. Groups of proteins form a “plaque” in the brain of the affected person, which contribute to nerve cell death and cause Alzheimers. In these mice, the chemical from the cinnamon bark was an effective way of stopping these protein aggregates from forming. The study was performed by students from Northwestern University and Tel Aviv University, and was published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, it is a preliminary study, so much more experimentation is needed!
Who doesn’t love honey? It tastes great, lasts forever, and is said to have an abundance of useful medical properties. It is widely believed to help with allergies such as hayfever- and trust me, as someone who is essentially allergic to life, I’ve probably tried it. It has been found, however, that no variety of honey is more effective than placebo at controlling allergy symptoms. It’s also true that honey made from the flowers of toxic plants can have harmful effects on humans, with symptoms such as dizziness, weakness, sweating and vomiting.
However, honey does have many documented uses in medicine. Honey, when placed on a wound, produces Hydrogen Peroxide. This works as an antiseptic and helps to keep the wound clean. It also has a relatively acidic pH level of between 3.2 and 4.5, which prevents the growth of many bacteria- it’s generally a poor environment for bacteria to thrive in. That’s why it can last so long! It has been successfully used to treat diabetic ulcers when other topical antibiotics could not be used.
So there you have it! Three of the most common natural remedies- what they work for, what they don’t work for, and what they might work for. Although lots of traditional or natural remedies are a bunch of woo, or even harmful- there are some elements of truth behind the proposed effects of many natural substances. My advice? Treat it like any medicine! If you’re going to bother taking a natural remedy, do your research (as you would with most medicines) and find out if they’re useful, and if so what they’re useful for. There’s no point in diving in after seeing something on a random health forum, as people often misremember real studies or repeat old wives’ tales that they have long assumed to be true. As with everything, be a true skeptic and look carefully at the evidence! Happy… remedy-ing?