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Take Health Advice with a Thank You and a Smile—And a Grain of Salt

Seems like a person can’t get sick in privacy and peace. No sooner is it known that you’re ailin’ then somebody – Aunt Martha, the supplement salesman in Bible study, or the eccentric neighbor across the way – has got the cure for you, whether it’s from the drugstore, the garden or automotive supplies.

Do any of these folk remedies actually work? The answer, unsurprisingly, is much like what we find in conventional medicine: some things work, some might help, some seem harmless, and others are not such a good idea.

Run cool water over a burn to stop the damage? Yup. Ice or very cold water? Nope, that can compound the damage. Oil or butter? That’s a big no. Seriously, mention it to EMTs (paramedics) and they shudder—or yell at you.

Corroborative evidence aside, what about things that seem to work, whether or not we understand how? Well, there are plenty of these.

The Placebo Effect

We are not being dismissive when we talk about the placebo effect; it is a real phenomenon, recognized for centuries and continuing to puzzle medicine to this day. And it’s not by any means restricted to folk remedies.

For much of the latter twentieth century, people with colds and flu went to their doctors for “a shot of penicillin”. They got better. But not, generally, because the penicillin killed their cold “bug”; antibiotics kill bacteria, and are useless against viruses, which cause flu and the vast majority of colds. All kinds of factors might have contributed to people’s getting better:

  • Cold symptoms can be caused by a bacterial infection, so the antibiotic might have been directly effective in a small minority of cases.
  • By the time patients saw a doctor, their cold or flu might have been close to running its typical course.
  • The doctor might have offered other medications for symptom relief or helpful advice.
  • Going to the doctor meant taking the cold seriously enough to seek help, to (maybe) follow the doctor’s advice, or at least to get the relative rest afforded by a doctor’s visit on a workday.
  • The belief that the shot was effective could have had a placebo effect.
  • Just the fact of having taken an out-of-the-ordinary step, to have “done something” about the cold or flu, might have fostered a placebo effect.

Now let’s look at a remedy both older – by centuries – and newer, insofar as its stock (pardon the pun!) has risen as penicillin’s has declined; there could be any number of reasons why generations of mothers have put their faith in chicken soup:

  • It feeds the body. Remember “Starve a cold, feed a fever”? It may not mean what you might think. It’s not “do one for a cold and the other for a fever”, but like “waste not, want not” or “no justice, no peace.” It means that the second clause is the inevitable result of the first. Starving a cold—even though you may not feel much like eating when you’re all stuffed up, dripping, coughing, sneezing, listless or weak—“feeds” or nurtures a fever. So eat, my child!
  • Soup provides warm, steamy liquid to rehydrate and to break up congestion by thinning mucus. Salt may also help the body keep hydrated.
  • Garlic, onions, parsley and various peppers – all of which might appear in chicken soup – have health benefits still being unraveled by medical science. (As we get into health claims for foods and herbs, we note that the Internet is awash in regurgitated folklore and sweeping claims. We like the calmly stated specifics we find at World’s Healthiest Foods as an antidote to the generality, uncriticalness, and often hucksterism of many herbal and “health food” sites, even those that brandish the word “research.”)
  • Yes, at least one over-cited study, begun as a lark and ultimately conducted and accepted as legitimate research, found a specific anti-inflammatory action that may reduce unpleasant symptoms of a cold, many of which are thought to be from the body’s overzealous attempts to expel or neutralize its microscopic invader. An interesting aspect of the study is that it started with a traditional recipe that did not include garlic or whole peppers, and yet all the vegetables and the chicken separately reduced inflammation, and the chicken also neutralized the vegetables’ cytotoxic effect (that’s a good thing). A variety of commercial soups showed great variation in degree of the same effect.
  • The physical comfort soup provides may also soothe a raw throat, helping inflamed tissues relax and heal.
  • Soups in general (and chicken soup in particular) are considered comfort foods, which may help with general stress relief, a sense of wellbeing, and healing.
  • Whether somebody makes you up the special family recipe, or runs to the store to pick some up—for that matter, even if you just heat up a can for yourself—it’s an act of loving and nurturing that is gonna feel good.

It’s worth mentioning that the placebo effect can produce actual changes in the body. Some of the best-documented and most striking placebo effects have to do with relieving pain. Believe it or not, there’s a chemistry to this. Why are humans attracted to, why do they even become addicted to, opiates? Because they mimic the body’s “endogenous opioids,” its own self-limiting natural pain relievers. These can be released by just the prospect or the promise of relief.

There is a fascinating history to the modern use of placebos, and they may have an even more fascinating future. One of their most useful tasks at present is to serve as at least a partial control for the drug-driven culture of modern medicine, by serving as the gold standard for proving efficacy and calibrating safety of any new drug. And their continued mystery, as well as their secrets we are starting to unravel, serves in a more general way as a check to the arrogance of a medical establishment that can sometimes seem to think itself infallible just because it can work miracles.

And finally, let’s not be too harsh on our well-meaning advisers. Listening in humility, we may learn something. And in any event, a visitation of the sick, or an act of Christian charity or any expression of love, may be the most potent medicine we know how to take or to give.

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