Traditional treatment ... evidence of cupping therapy on the back of Chinese Olympic swimmer Wang Qun at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Photo: AFP
We've all got one, that friend or work colleague who waxes lyrical about the benefits of alternative treatments every time someone presents with a physical ailment or concern. From olive leaf extract and Echinacea when you've got the sniffles to bathing arthritic joints in diluted kerosene or vinegar, they prefer home remedies to a pharmaceutical solution.
And it's not just illness that can be prevented or cured with natural therapies. These are usually the same people who recommend lemon and egg facials and replacing your conditioner with olive oil in a bid to circumnavigate the costs and empty promises offered by cosmetic companies.
While it can be easy to discount these suggestions as fanciful – or downright disgusting – Dr Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, says they shouldn't be instantly dismissed.
"We in conventional medicine have done a great job in many regards – wiping out polio, developing antibiotics for infections that once killed millions, et cetera," he said. "But where conventional medicine hasn't had as many successes or cures, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, anxiety, and so in, it shouldn't be surprising that folks would start looking for other options."
Though he warns that an individual should practise caution when embarking on any form of alternative therapy, when used in conjunction with proven conventional solutions they can sometimes prove to be quite effective.
"Of course, the internet opens up a world of choices – some safe and effective, and some silly or dangerous. The key is to separate the two," he added. "Good research has shown the benefits of acupuncture, massage and meditation, and we offer all of these to our patients at Mayo Clinic. Not as a replacement to their conventional care but as a complement. We integrate the best of both worlds and refer to that combined approach as integrative medicine."
But, outside of a hospital setting how do you differentiate between those that work and those that are little more than unfounded and potentially harmful opinions whose prolonged existence have given them false credence?
This is especially important when it comes to the more radical forms of alternative medicine and beauty treatments. From leeches and Reiki to urine therapy, here is an informed take on the methods that work and warnings against those that might do you more harm than good.
Sometimes used to relieve congestion of blood and serum from around a wound – for example, after a finger is reattached – the application of leeches as a viable medical option gained speed when the US Food and Drug Administration officially approved their use in 2004.
But Dr. Danforn Lim, associate lecturer of medicine at the University of New South Wales, remains unconvinced and warns against home use on the grounds that they can cause infection and inflammation.
"Currently there is nil evidence to suggest that live leeches have any health benefits to treat any disease," he said. "However, use of live leeches can easily cause various infections through the microorganism Aeromonas... Aeromonas species cause a wide spectrum of disease syndromes among warm- and cold-blooded animals, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and humans."
Founded in Japan in 1922, the practice of Reiki relies upon the belief of an invisible energy that is transmitted from healer to patient through intention. Positive energy is transferred by placing the hands on particular parts of the patient's body with the aim of restoring imbalances and promoting healing.
"Reiki practitioners purport to be able to affect health of another individual by moving that person's energy field. Because these fields cannot be measured by scientific instruments, that premise has always been difficult for most scientists and doctors to accept," said Bauer. "The fact that there is a relatively small amount of research on Reiki compared to things like acupuncture doesn't help. But what does tend to come through in most of the studies is the fact that patients report stress reduction. Given the fact that reducing stress is probably helpful regardless of the condition or disease, the final word on Reiki's role in health promotion remains to be determined."
Another mainstay of Eastern medicine, albeit one with a far richer history, is cupping. An ancient form of alternative medicine usually associated with China – though records indicate it was first practised by Egyptians as far back as 3000 B.C. – cups are placed on key parts of the body and heated to form a suction effect. It's believed that this helps mobilise blood flow, which, in turn, promotes healing.
"The theory about cupping is... [that] it can help promote the qi flow of the meridians. Thus, reduce the pain within that region," said Lim. "Despite the fact that China has performed a large number of studies in cupping many have methodological flaws. Cupping may have potential therapeutic effect on pain syndrome management but it is beyond doubt that we need a larger scale of population research study to elicit its true effects."
The placenta plays an important role in many cultures. The Māori and Navajo traditionally buried it to highlight the human connection to the earth, and it is eaten throughout many parts of the world. But the extract of animal placenta – usually sheep – is also used in hair and skin treatments and there are unverified reports of it being injected directly into the body to heal damaged muscle or connective tissue.
"Sheep's placenta have been used in many cosmetic products and is claimed to reduce facial winkles," said Lim. "Many studies have been performed using sheep's placenta for its claimed effect in cosmetic medicine. So far there is lack of convening evidence to prove its theoretical effect on skin. It may have a potential role in skin repair but once again this needs to be shown in larger scale studies."
Referred to as a "Geisha facial" and reportedly used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, the faeces of a nightingale called the Japanese bush warbler has been used as a cosmetic treatment in Japan for centuries after being introduced by Koreans as a fabric stain remover. With a slightly musky odour, it's primarily used as an exfoliant that is left on the skin for several minutes before being rinsed off – with reports that its enzymes give you a warm glow.
"We know that a nutritious diet, daily exercise and stress management can improve telomerase – the enzyme that creates telomeres, the caps on our chromosomes," said Bauer, who remains unconvinced about the special properties of bird poo. "The healthier our telomeres, the healthier our cells. I'm going to stick with these three approaches and pass on bird droppings."
Perhaps one of the most hotly contested forms of alternative medicine, urine therapy refers to the consumption and topical application of human urine. Proponents claim it's beneficial because it contains a chemical compound called urea – which, by itself, can be used to promote skin rehydration and treat psoriasis and eczema. Some say it's an anti-cancer agent, and that drinking your own urine can help promote meditation. However, research shows that it can spread bacteria and lead to high levels of sodium if ingested. With Bauer adding that any purported benefits attributed to urine therapy are scientifically baseless.
"Absolutely not – and some potentially serious risks if you do," he said when asked if there were any benefits to be gained. "This concept goes back several centuries and should have died out long before now. All of this reflects the importance of doing your homework. Just because something is touted as natural doesn't mean it is safe.