Willow bark has a long and storied history. The Sumerians used it 4,000 years ago to treat pains of all kinds. So did the Egyptians after them, and the Chinese and the Greeks, but it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that anyone bothered to isolate the active ingredient and begin manufacturing it into the pills we know it as today: aspirin.
We didn’t even really understand the mechanism by which aspirin works as an anti-inflammatory until 1971, and yet for thousands of years humans have been treating themselves with it.
In some ways, this sounds like a triumph of natural medicine. The humble willow tree contained one of the best pain relief drugs we have, and those silly Westernized doctors just had to pay attention to what naturopaths had been preaching for eons. In reality, though, it exemplifies an old adage: What do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.
Plenty of our medicines originally came from plants—we still look to them today for potential new drugs. And that means that sometimes natural remedies do work. Foxglove plants really can treat heart failure because they contain digitalis. Cinchona bark and artemisia actually treat and prevent malaria because both contain quinine. Oranges could prevent scurvy because they’re full of vitamin C.
Many of these naturopathic cures originated in times when we couldn’t run clinical trials or investigate active ingredients. Once we started doing so, those natural medicines that worked were commandeered under a new umbrella: medicine.
This is why nearly all naturopathy is benign at best today—often those plants that really do cure diseases go into drug development and come out the other side as pills and tablets and gels. There are certainly a few remedies that do work, especially for minor ailments like joint or muscle pain, since pharmaceutical companies aren’t necessarily interested in putting down millions of dollars just to develop another aspirin-esque drug.
But let’s be clear about one thing: natural remedies and homeopathy aren’t the same thing. Naturopathy, while not scientifically proven, is mostly based around using plants to treat diseases. Some of those remedies work, and on principle we can’t dismiss a treatment simply because it comes from nature.
However, we can certainly dismiss all of homeopathy. And we will.
Unlike the ancient doctors who brought us aspirin and quinine, homeopathy was only invented about 200 years ago. It’s based on the principle that “like cures like.” Homeopathic remedies are therefore diluted down so much that the active ingredient essentially doesn’t exist—believers claim the water “remembers” the substance, and therefore can cure ailments. If you have a headache, the thinking goes, tiny amounts of a substance that would normally cause a headache in a healthy person might cure you. Or similarly, as one Canadian naturopath recently made headlines for, saliva from a rabid dog might cure a fear of dogs. You've just got to dilute it.
Water doesn’t have memory. Even if some of the remedies used as active ingredients in homeopathic drugs did cure headaches and joint pain, diluting them down thousands of times would only handicap their ability to help you. The NIH notes that “there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition” and that “several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics.” The European Academies’ Scientific Advisory Council similarly concludes that “there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect” and that “the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts.”
It’s also possible that some homeopathic remedies could hurt you, not because water has memory but because no one really regulates herbal supplements. Unlike a drug like aspirin, a homeopathic pill doesn’t go through testing to make sure that it actually contains the thing it claims to in the amounts listed on the label. That means sometimes homeopathic remedies reach the market containing poisons, and often no one realizes until they cause enough problems for the FDA to get complaints. Last year a homeopathic teething gel that used belladonna to numb babies’ gums killed 10 infants and made 400 more ill, because it contained far more of the active ingredient than its manufacturer claimed. Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, is extremely toxic and can cause vomiting, seizures, blurred vision, and muscle weakness among many other symptoms. (The manufacturer refused to recall the gel, but has since discontinued it in the U.S.)
Now, not every homeopathic manufacturer is as dangerous, but here’s the thing: none of it works. So don’t take the chance.
Natural remedies aren’t regulated by the FDA either, but they do tend to be safer than homeopathics—they’re not diluting down the active ingredient, so they don’t use poisons as headache cures. That doesn’t mean the garlic or ginkgo biloba or St. John’s wort or palmetto or chondroitin or echinacea you’re taking will do what they’re supposed to. They usually don’t. But they’re still unlikely to do you harm (though you should still ask a physician to weigh in on anything you're thinking of taking, as some herbal remedies can interact poorly with prescribed medication.
Some of the only natural remedies with proven efficacy? Arnica gel seems to work just as well for osteoarthritis as ibuprofen (though capsicum gel doesn’t). Honey really does help a cough, though only for a few days. Probiotics, which used to be an exclusively alternative medicine, now have enough research proving their worth that they’re becoming plain ol’ medicine (though many of the products you can purchase are arguably useless, because we’re still figuring out what microbes help the human body and how best to deliver them).
Some of you may be thinking right now, "but wait, aren't lots of pharmaceuticals dangerous? Chemotherapy is almost literally poison!" And you're right. Plenty of drugs on the market have serious side effects, and many chemotherapeutic agents work by killing off good cells along with bad. The important difference between those drugs and natural or homeopathic remedies is that pharmaceuticals are regulated. Manufacturers have to disclose all potential side effects, their drugs are tested to make sure they help the disease they're prescribed for, and companies have to actually prove that the pills contain what they claim to. Chemotherapy, while dangerous, is generally worth the risk—the cancers we use it for will otherwise kill you (and studies show that natural remedies simply don't get the job done). All that being said, if your doctor wants to prescribe you a drug with side effects that sound way worse than the condition you're trying to treat, you should absolutely raise those concerns, and get a second opinion if you're still uncomfortable. But you can at least rest assured that whatever pills you get from the pharmacist have gone through rigorous testing before they got to you, and that there's evidence the potentially dangerous ingredients of the drug do enough good to be worth the potential harm. The same cannot be said for unregulated remedies.
But if you think that feverfew or peppermint cures your migraines, then it probably does. After all, pain is subjective. If something makes you feel better, it works! Many natural remedies don’t pass the test for being true “medicine” because they don’t work any better than a placebo when given to a large group. That doesn't mean they can never have any positive effect on anyone. And plenty of people feel relief from a placebo, especially for minor ailments like headaches and mild joint pain. Your mind is surprisingly powerful. Stick with what works, just so long as you’re not experiencing side effects—or refusing to take a proven medication that could help ever more.
You shouldn’t fix something if it ain’t broke. Maybe turmeric doesn’t help with achey knees. But if you think it does, and it’s not causing other problems, who cares? Keep drinking that golden milk before bed. But don't let your love of plant-based wellness interventions make you bristle when you hear arguments against homeopathy, because they are not one in the same. And the one that feeds diluted belladonna and dog saliva to kids is never a good idea.