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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. [1]

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. [2] 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:

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’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 [6].

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 [7] 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.