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2016-04-05
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Naturopathy : Bogus Placebo or Legitimate Medicine

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Not too long ago, my little girl was having a bout of coughs. Her mother took her to a Naturpath to get natural remedies and she received a prescription for ALJ – a dietary supplement. I rolled my eyes at this approach and was challenged with, “What do you think people did before modern medicine?” To this I responded, “Died young.”

Now, to be fair, before modern medicine this was the method by which people were treated and the properties of various plants formed the basis of initial scientific research into why people were getting better. But lately, especially with the anti-vaxxers, there seems to be this movement away from modern medicine as if the ways of the past using nothing but natural herbs and spices is the way to go.

Curious, I took to looking at the ingredients. Fortunately, our government recognizes that people are looking back into these and various health agencies (FDA, NIH, etc) are checking these very things to validate their claims. So, this ALJ product contains:

  • Boneset Aerial Parts (Eupatorium Perfoliatum)
  • Fenugreek Seed (Trigonella Foenum-Graecum)
  • Horseradish Root (Armoracia Rusticana)
  • Mullein Leaves (Verbascum Thapsus)
  • Fennel Seed (Foeniculum Vulgare)

Starting with the first, Eupatorium Perfoliatum apparently has not even had its effects confirmed by clinical study yet but its believed to be an anti-inflammatory effects against the parasite responsible for malaria. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (henceforth NCBI) shows that in vitro experiments support a possible effect against arthritis, rheumatism, and the common cold. WebMD also addresses that insufficient evidence exists for its curative effects but lists known side effects from liver-damaging chemicals and is known to stimulate an allergic reaction to people susceptible to ragweed and similar plants.

Secondly, there is Trigonella Foenum-Graecum. The work from the NCBI predominantly associates Fenugreek for helping to control glucose for Type-2 diabetes. Generally, it’s mostly just used for its sweet flavor in curries and other foods as a tasty ingredient though some unsubstantiated claims are that it helps lactation in nursing mothers. The WebMD site includes the caveat about its positive effects largely being untested but includes some interesting known side effects – “Fenugreek can cause nasal congestion, coughing, wheezing, facial swelling, and severe allergic reactions” and “Fenugreek might be UNSAFE for children. Some reports have linked fenugreek tea to loss of consciousness in children.” The bottomline on Fenugreek is that it’s not even remotely an appropriate natural ingredient to prescribe for a child coughing.

The third ingredient in ALJ is Armoracia Rusticana, also known as Horseradish. Perhaps most obviously, this is the same horseradish used in culinary sauces. There are no real medicinal applications of the root although it does break down into seven molecular compounds of which four (Allyl isothiocyanate, trans-anethole, diallyl disulfide and p-anisaldehyde) are known to be toxic and good for use as an insecticide against particular larvae and repelling dust mites. It was experimentally demonstratedthat Armoracia rusticana reduced nitric oxide, tumor necrosis factor-α and interleukin-6 release and nitric oxide synthase and cyclooxygenase-2 expression in macrophages, acting on nuclear transcription factor NF-κB p65 activation. Moreover Armoracia rusticana reduced reactive oxygen species release and increased heme-oxygenase-1 expression, thus contributing to the cytoprotective cellular effect during inflammation.” Aside from the NCBI making my head explode on that one and being a tasty ingredient, horseradish has nothing to do with suppressing a cough.

Coming up towards the end, we have Mullein Leaves or Verbascum Thapsus. Mullein actually has a demonstrated history of treating coughs, sore throats, bronchitis and … hemorrhoids. Of course, it is the leaves that provide this property and it requires a fine sifting to eliminate irritants and works as an expectorant (causing extra mucus to be expelled). For asthma, the leaves are to be dried and smoked. The flower portion of the Mullein plants can be converted into oils that are recognized to function as an intestinal wormicide as practiced by Pakistani tribes. While the historical practices are well known and the science behind the wormicide has been proven, WebMD reports that insufficient evidence actually exists regarding Mullein as a remedy for ear infections, colds, flu, asthma, diarrhea (actually can cause it), gout, migraines, cough, etc. Mullein in its pure, smoke form, may facilitate a reduction in coughing but liquified into ALJ suggests the flower oil which is a wormicide.

Lastly, ALJ consists of Foeniculum Vulgare or Fennel Seed. This common herb is largely used in cooking and is also one of the three main ingredients to the highly alcoholic beverage absinthe. A scientific study conducted by the NCBI tested fennel seed oil against infants with colic and determined it was better than the placebo effect. Despite its more common naturalist use for just about everything – heartburn, bloating, loss of appetite, coughs, respiratory infections, and reducing menstrual pain – the best results were not declared conclusive, only better than placebo. It is known to have the side effect of reducing blood clotting and inducing an estrogen like effect.

So where does all of this leave us? There are a couple of ingredients that have a historical practice of being applied to cough – but they seem to be applied for a myriad of completely unrelated ailments as well. I’m not averse to using an all natural remedy that’s actually proven to work. However, this product seems to be a mishmash of completely unrelated ingredients with an “all natural” label stamped on the front as if that makes it the wünderdrug (NOTE: they’re not allowed to call themselves drugs – hence dietary supplements). In summary, in my opinion, the application of this product to a child’s cough is about as scientific as Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker comedy routine:

When I was a kid, I had to be near-death to see a doctor, so my daddy got into the habit of putting Robitussin on everything, and I mean EVERYTHING! Daddy, I got asthama! “Well here, take some Robitussin!” Daddy, I got cancer! “Here, take some Robitussin!” Daddy, I broke my leg! “Here, put some Robitussin on it… that’s right, let the Robitesum sink in there.”


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