In a world where you can fix almost anything with a do-it-yourself video on YouTube, you might think curing your own illness would be a piece of cake.
One, the home remedy recommended by your friend — or one of the many websites promoting “natural therapies” — might not work.
And two, it could make you sicker or even kill you.
That’s exactly what happened to an Australian man who developed cyanide poisoning after taking high doses of apricot kernel extract, hoping to prevent his prostate cancer from returning.
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This “superfood” is touted as having anticancer properties. It’s a claim that has no reliable scientific evidence to back it up.
Apricot kernel extract isn’t alone in peddling hope alongside an increased risk of harming your health.
People use home remedies for a variety of reasons — fighting cancer, losing weight, increasing sex drive, or reducing symptoms of illnesses that have few medical treatments available.
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Dietary supplements were the top reason for the calls, followed by herbal, hormonal, and other products.
One reason for the popularity of herbal supplements is that they’re easy to buy — no visit to the doctor or prescription needed. They’re the ultimate health DIY.
Homeopathic remedies are based on the idea that “like cures like.” Small amounts of substances — sometimes toxic — are used to cure symptoms that those substances would cause at higher doses.
The teething tablets contained the poisonous plant belladonna, except in higher amounts than listed on the label.
The FDA investigation turned up more than 400 reports of bad reactions to these products over the past six years. Reactions included tremor, fever, and shortness of breath.
Home remedies for cancer
Cancer has long been targeted by people promoting natural therapies.
One study estimates that use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by cancer patients in 18 countries rose from 25 percent in the 1970s to 49 percent after 2000. Use of these products was highest in the United States.
Unlike apricot kernel extract, the side effects of Essiac are less severe, but they do include nausea, vomiting, increased bowel movements, and slight headaches.
Why people turn to home remedies
One study found that people are more likely to use herbal supplements if they’re uninsured, use more prescription and over-the-counter medications, or have certain health conditions.
Other research has found higher herbal supplement use among women and people with a higher education.
Some of the most common conditions that people try to treat with herbs include colds, stomach or intestinal illnesses, and problems like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis. These are all conditions that have few effective medical treatments available.
These studies try to explain why people turn to home remedies in the first place.
Our Paleo brains drive us
In a post on Skeptic, Hall suggests that human evolution has made it easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that an herb might cure our cancer, that burning a candle in our ear could improve our overall health, or that a homeopathic remedy diluted almost to nothingness might help us have better sex.
First, our brains are designed to look for patterns, even if they’re wrong.
If a friend has a cold, takes an herbal supplement, and gets better, we might think the pill cured her. But the cold could’ve just as likely gone away on its own. Without clinical studies, we’re just guessing.
Or if you have a headache and your friend says, “I put three drops of lemon oil on my wrists and my headache went away,” you might give it a try. What the heck, right?
Choosing treatments for your illness is complicated by research that suggests many published studies — yes, scientific studies — are wrong.
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Science isn’t infallible. But it is methodical and self-correcting. Over time, new studies either confirm past results or weed out the mistakes.
People should “ask their doctor to provide evidence to support his or her recommendations,” said Hall, “and then they should check to see what others have said about that evidence.”