Following on the heels of our renewable energy special series, we’re now delving into the world of alternative therapies. Homeopathy, acupuncture, energy healing and a whole host of other therapies are available for everything from pain relief to personality problems. A report by the Telegraph in 2008 suggested that £4.5 billion per year is spent on alternative therapy, and alternative therapy practitioners now outnumber GP’s despite there being little evidence of their efficacy beyond the placebo effect. In this series of specials we will look at several alternative therapies, not only in view of the evidence, but also their use as a placebo effect for treating some conditions. Unfortunately once we know that a medication is no better than placebo, we often stop feeling the effects so read on at your peril!
Bach Flower Remedies
Bach flower remedies were ‘discovered’ by Edward Bach; a physician, bacteriologist and homeopath. As a physician he understood and accepted the germ theory of disease but sought a way to explain why some diseases did not affect everyone equally. He decided this disparity must be due to differences in emotion and personality of the patients, and set out to discover a solution.
He concluded that plant energy could be used to change negative emotions by ingesting a ‘tincture’ of water/alcohol and plant energy. These tinctures were prepared by suspending a plant in water and letting the sun pass through it or boiling it (potentization) this was thought to transfer the vibration of the flowers into the water. The solutions are so dilute that it is unlikely that even one molecule of the original flower essence remains; it is the vibration that is said to be effective.
I decided to have a look at what Bach Flower remedies could do for me and take an assessment; apparently I need a combination of pine, wild oat, agrimony and white chestnut. Pine helps you to accept your own accomplishments while wild oat helps you make decisions, white chestnut keeps unwanted thoughts at bay and agrimony encourages you to talk about your feelings. All of the remedies are to ‘fix’ personality traits that are considered negative. I wonder if it is helpful to tell people that the problem is with their personality and that they need to change, especially if the tincture does not work.
To be completely frank no studies have shown that Bach Flower remedies are effective, in most cases they perform as well as a placebo. This is not surprising since the tinctures contain water and alcohol and in most cases not a single molecule of the flower remains to have a physical effect on the body. The theory that the vibration of the flowers harmonises with the body has so far not been proven.
However, does a lack of physical effect mean the remedies are useless? Sometimes belief in a cure is enough to stimulate a physical response from the body, this is known as the placebo effect. The placebo effect has been known to stimulate the bodies’ natural pain killers, causing not only a perceived reduction in pain, but also a physical response.
If the problem is psychological, for example a lack of confidence, then perhaps a placebo is the most effective way of treating that perceived ‘problem’. Certainly it is safer than being drunk all the time to repress your self-consciousness… Minor personality traits such as lack of confidence, nervousness and self-belief can be improved by positive thinking and an optimistic outlook. If a herbal tincture helps someone to believe in themselves through the power of placebo, then surely it is serving a valuable purpose and is a valid form of treatment. The question then becomes: Is it ethical to use pseudo-science to stimulate the placebo effect and profit from it?
The problem with the placebo effect is that once you know that the ‘medicine’ has no medical effect, then you are unlikely to experience the placebo effect. It would be like having a headache and convincing yourself that gulping down some chocolate ‘Smarties’ with water is the same as taking a pain-killer; a hard trick to pull on yourself. However, if you have a sixty dollar consultancy with a very caring and understanding practitioner, especially if they’re in a white lab coat, and then buy some very expensive cures, you’re much more likely to see an effect. However, it would still be a placebo effect and you’ve spent a lot of money to pay someone to listen to your problems and give you a sugar pill. Is this fraud or a valid treatment? How can we make that decision if we can’t tell ourselves that the treatment is a placebo, in case it stops working?
The decision is yours to make, but once you start questioning it is very hard to stop and the placebo effect might be lost for your forever.
Interesting reads to help you decide: