THE suffering invalids of the 19th century were fortunate in the marvelous cures available to them.
The extraordinary Sands’s Sarsparilla tonic, for example, offered a “radical and permanent cure” for swelling of the glands, diseases of the bones, joints and ligaments, rheumatism, obstinate cutaneous eruptions, ringworm, pimples and pustules, fever, stubborn ulcers, secondary syphilitic symptoms, dropsy… Shall I go on?
The days of the miracle cure are not over. Rather than travelling from town to town spruiking their patent medicines, today’s would-be healers set up their booths in the virtual reality of the internet.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the latest medical evidence, you may be unaware that goji berries offer a natural treatment for skin cancer, diabetes, hypertension, glaucoma, macular degeneration, infectious diseases and the common cold.
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Or that peppermint essential oil can fight cancer, migraine, musculoskeletal problems, fibromyalgia, cold sores, asthma, psoriasis, hair loss, irritable bowel syndrome and flatulence. And it can help you lose weight.
Or that coffee enemas can help treat cancer (yes, cancer always seems to be on the list), digestive problems, depression, arthritis and pain just about anywhere, as well as increasing happiness, reducing anger, and addressing the “general toxicity” that causes most disease.
Personally, I think my happiness is more likely to be enhanced by taking my caffeine hit orally but, as any of these websites would be keen to point out, I’m just a tool of the medical establishment/Big Pharma conspiracy that seeks to keep life-saving remedies from the suffering public.
Thanks to the internet, we now have access to a wealth of information beyond anything previous generations could have dreamed of. Sadly, we don’t always use our online riches well.
Data journalist David McCandless has created a thought-provoking infographic that shows how wrong things can go when it comes to “natural” remedies.
McCandless ranks health supplements by both the strength of the evidence backing them (he includes links to relevant papers) and their popularity in online searches.
As you might expect, the top section of the graphic, where the supplements with strong evidence appear, is almost empty, containing only St John’s wort for depression and coffee for heart disease.
By contrast, the bottom half of the graphic, below the “worth it” line, is so crowded it’s hard to distinguish all the individual remedies.
Among the most searched for supplements in this evidence-free zone are green tea (two appearances, for cancer prevention and cholesterol reduction), garlic (three appearances, for cancer prevention, colds and blood pressure reduction), black tea (also for cancer prevention) and coffee (dementia).
Goji berries are also there, registering an abject fail for their claims to improve eye health.
There are too many other failures to list here, but a sample of the dishonour roll includes cinnamon for diabetes, cranberry juice for urinary tract infections, selenium for cancer, turmeric for cancer, spirulina for blood pressure and cholesterol, and fish oil/omega 3 for dementia, asthma, diabetes and Crohn’s disease.
That’s not to say none of these things work, but they can’t demonstrate they do through actual evidence, at least that McCandless has been able to identify.
What the graphic really highlights is the frequent mismatch between evidence and public enthusiasm. St John’s wort may top the list for its evidence base but it attracts less than half the online interest of spirulina, which has not yet shown any evidence to back its claimed cardiovascular benefits.
Sadly, when it comes to our health, many of us seem to remain as gullible as the 19th century punters who thought a draught of lolly water, with perhaps a slug of alcohol, could eradicate their venereal disease along with their lumbago.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer.
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