Posted on 20 September 2023
Alternative medicine is loosely defined as practices that are believed to have healing effects, but are unsupported or directly contradicted by scientific data. The term ‘alternative medicine’ is problematic not just because it’s badly defined, but because of the implication that these practices offer an ‘alternative’ to conventional medicine. Even those rare alternative medical practices that may have some benefit cannot and should not substitute conventional medicine. If they could, then they would simply be ‘medicine’.
While most alternative medicine is generally frowned on by respectable members of the medical community, there is a hierarchy of alternative medicine ranging from misguided science to practices that are, to put it bluntly, insanely dumb. What follows is a list of some of the worst common offenders.
Essential oils are oils extracted from plants. Their name is a little misleading, as unlike essential amino acids or essential fatty acids, their consumption is not ‘essential’ for the body. Rather, they are essential in that they contain the ‘essence’ of their plant’s fragrance. They are usually volatile and are used to produce aromas that many find relaxing, but that’s where the proven benefits of essential oils end. Studies have so far failed to find sufficient evidence that essential oils can be used to treat any condition, including anxiety. Improper use of essential oils can also be harmful, especially for children, by causing inflammation and allergic reactions.
120 odd years ago, an American physician called William Sutherland was looking at the cranial bones of the skull and thought: ‘These bones look like they should move. I’m going to try to move people’s cranial bones by pressing on their skulls and see what happens’. Well, over a century has passed and scientific studies still have not produced any credible evidence that this practice has any medical application. In fact, there’s no evidence that adult cranial bones can be moved at all in this way, and attempts to do so can be damaging, especially for infants.
I’ll leave you to take a wild guess as to what this one involves. Proponents of this practice claim it can ‘revitalise’ the vagina/uterus by exposing the vagina to steam, often produced by water mixed with various herbs. However, the only scientifically proven effects of vaginal steaming are infections, allergic reactions and second degree burns. A study from 2016 found that marketing of vaginal steaming often involved the promotion of false claims about women’s health, such as the idea that western bodily care leaves female genitalia full of ‘toxins’ of unspecified nature.
Reflexology is based on the belief that certain areas of the feet are linked to other areas of the body, and that health can be improved by manipulating the feet. Nobody, including reflexologists themselves, actually seem to know how this is supposed to work, though it often requires the existence of invisible ‘life force’ or ‘energy fields’ whose existence they are unable to prove. There’s no convincing scientific mechanism for reflexology and, more to the point, meta analyses of clinical trials have not provided convincing evidence that it is more effective than placebo for the treatment of any medical condition.
Various forms of folk medicine advocate drinking one’s own urine to treat a range of diseases, from hair loss to autism. Some also advocate drinking the urine of animals such as camels (camel urine is extra concentrated, so it must be extra good, right?) However, there’s no scientific evidence to support these practices, and it also makes absolutely no sense. Every chemical in an organism’s urine is there because it was filtered out of the blood by the kidneys. The human renal system has evolved to get rid of everything that is in the urine, so why would anyone want to put it all back in?
It’s debatable to what extent most alternative medicine can be called a scam, as many practitioners do truly believe that their methods can help people. Foot detoxification treatments, however, seem to be purposefully designed to deceive. They usually involve placing your feet in a water bath through which an electric current is passed, or placing a pad on the bottom of your foot. These devices are supposed to leach toxic chemicals out of your body. The water bath/patch will often turn an unpleasant shade of brown, which is supposedly an indication of toxins leaving your body.
In reality, these devices are designed to change colour, either through the production of iron oxide rust at the iron electrode in the case of the bath, or a chemical reaction with sweat in the case of the patch. Scientists have sampled the brown residue and failed to find any toxic waste products from the body, and have also shown that the water changes colour regardless of whether your feet are submerged when the device is turned on. These are experiments that most school chemistry students could reproduce with ease.
Crystals are pretty. They also have some very useful scientific applications, but magic healing power isn’t one of them. Studies have randomly given volunteers real crystals or fake ones, and find that people are equally likely to experience ‘crystal effects’, regardless of whether their crystal is genuine or not. In other words, it’s all placebo. To make matters worse, crystal mining can cause environmental damage and sometimes involves child labour.
Homoeopathy may be among the most popular forms of alternative medicine, but that doesn’t make it any less nonsensical. Homoeopathy is founded on three key ideas. The first is that a substance that causes disease can cure that same disease. The second is that diluting a chemical increases its potency. The third is that even if a substance is diluted to the extent that not a single molecule remains, the diluent ‘remembers’ the effects of the substance it once contained.
Each statement by itself is an extraordinary claim not consistent with any legitimate science. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no such evidence has ever been presented. Meta analyses of clinical trials consistently fail to provide clear evidence that homoeopathy is any more effective than regular water when it comes to treating any diseases.
The only reason homoeopathy is not number 1 on this list is because homoeopathic treatments themselves are not likely to harm your health (though seeking homoeopathic treatments in lieu of real medicine certainly can).
This is a collection of practices in which fluids are delivered to the colon in order to wash out unspecified toxins and pathogens. This is not to be confused with enemas, which are usually performed under medical supervision with a specific purpose such as relieving severe constipation or preparing for an investigation such as a colonoscopy. Practitioners of colon cleanses will inject water into the colon via the rectum. This water is sometimes mixed with herbs, laxatives or dietary supplements. The goal is to wash out old faeces that practitioners believe harbours toxins and pathogenic bacteria. However, there is no evidence that this is the case – in fact, colon cleanses risk disrupting the gut flora and the use of poorly sterilised equipment can result in infection. Frequent colon cleanses can result in long term problems such as difficulty defecating. Colon cleansing is based on a flawed and outdated understanding of where diseases come from.
Bleach can refer to a collection of chemical products, usually a dilute solution of sodium hypochlorite. It’s useful because it reacts with many organic compounds including coloured ones (thus bleaching the colour out of things). This also makes it good at killing living cells, which is why it’s used as a disinfectant and why drinking it is a very bad idea.
Drinking bleach damages the oesophagus and the stomach, which will be highly unpleasant at best and fatal at worst. Yet for some reason, people continue to claim that bleach (or bleach-containing products marketed under a different name) can cure all manner of diseases including autism, cancer and COVID-19. This might have something to do with the nature of bleach as a disinfectant, leading to the assumption that drinking bleach can ‘disinfect/cleanse the body’. If you’ve read our article on health misinformation red flags, you might recognise this a prime example of ‘extrapolation that lacks key logical steps’. I hear fire kills cancer cells – perhaps someone should try drinking it?
That concludes our round-up of ineffective alternative medicine. Not all alternative medical practices are unsupported by science – some practices classified as alternative medicine may be more effective than placebo, but they should only ever be used as a complement to conventional medicine, not as a replacement.
Title image by Towfiqu barbhuiya, Upslash
Aromatherapy for health care: An overview of systematic reviews https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.12.018
[Cranial osteopathy, delusion or reality?] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2173359/ PMID: 2173359
‘Basically, it’s sorcery for your vagina’: unpacking Western representations of vaginal steaming https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2016.1237674
Is reflexology an effective intervention? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials https://doi.org/10.5694/j.1326-5377.2009.tb02780.x
Colonic Irrigation and the Theory of Autointoxication: A Triumph of Ignorance over Science https://journals.lww.com/jcge/fulltext/1997/06000/colonic_irrigation_and_the_theory_of.2.aspx