One of the staples of late night advertising is the host of herbal remedies claiming to cure all known human ills. Having trouble shedding that last 10 pounds? There's an herbal pill for it. Can't concentrate or focus like you used to? We have magic plants for that, too. Sex life not what it used to be? There's a whole forest of herbs for that one. (And with that much wood, how can you go wrong?)
These herbal cures are always packaged similar to modern pharmaceuticals, using plastic bottles or sheets containing pills or capsules. However, none of them have undergone any FDA (or other-country equivalent) scrutiny since they don't claim to treat a disease (not even normal food safety requirements), as their disclaimers would tell you if you could read them. That doesn't necessarily mean they don't work, but it means that we cannot be certain that they do; and even if they do, there is also no guarantee of consistency, since plants vary widely in their potency. Testing by consumer protection agencies in several countries has shown that potency of herbal remedies can vary between non-existent to potentially harmful, even between different batches from the same manufacturer; and contamination with harmful substances such as heavy metals and pesticides is a frequent occurrence and the actual levels of the purported active ingredient might even vary.
Equally important, there are often no warnings of potentially harmful side-effects, or interactions with prescription drugs, foods, or even other herbal pills; even when there really ought to be. It's wise to remember that Nature Is Not Nice and is full of things that are trying to kill us.
In the U.S., a law has forced advertisements of such herbal remedies, which are not run through the Food and Drug Administration, to say as much at the end of their ads. Thus, you'll hear or see the following: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease." Which basically translates into "We just lied through our teeth" if the whole point of the ad was to imply that the remedy did "diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure" a specific disease. The above disclaimer has been derisively dubbed by the medical community as "The Quack Miranda Warning".
See also All-Natural Snake Oil. For something that actually works, see Panacea. Compare and contrast Side-Effects Include.... Also consider the Placebo Effect, which means that even useless remedies can produce genuine results since Your Mind Makes It Real.
- Discworld: King Verence of Lancre and Queen Magrat, for all their savvy and intelligence (Magrat is a herbalist), think that medicine containing "herbs" is better, something enterprising merchants like C.M.O.T. Dibbler (and his Ramtops equivalent Lobsang Diblah) are all too eager to cash in on, by shoving whatever random plants they find into bottles of shampoo and calling it a day.
- Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax make use of this tendency often, with the former providing it as a reason why her scumble is a healthy tonic ("It's made from apples. Well, mainly apples."), and the latter explaining to certain folks that some of her medicines contain rare herbal ingredients, like akwa and sukrose. It helps that, on the Disc, when a witch hands you a bottle and says that it will cure your ailments, you'd better darned well believe that it'll cure your ailments.
Live Action TV
- An episode of House from the first season dealt with this. He had to prove that it wasn't his failure to keep good records that caused a nun to react unexpectedly to an allergy shot. After about forty minutes televised time, he figured out that the figwort tea she drank all the time caused that particular problem; figwort acted like a stimulant.
- An episode of Law & Order deals with a doctor selling one of these as a breast cancer cure, with the result that one of her patients dies from complications of the disease.
- An episode of Perfect Strangers had Balki mentioning ''The Midolcrampabloatalis root that grows on the summit of Mt. PMSkalos" as a cure for something that ailed Larry.
- In New Tricks, Defective Detective Brian Lane switches from the powerful anti-depressants he normally uses to combat his OCD and paranoid manic depression to a holistic regime... and quickly becomes an unstable, nervous and paranoid wreck who's no good at his job. In her defense, the holistic practitioner he consults urges him to consult his medical doctor before making any shift in his medication or including her holistic treatments in his routine; Brian simply chooses not to listen.
- In King of the Hill, Hank reacts to herbal tea as if it was a form of illegal drug by calling it "dope".
- Futurama episode "Fry and the Slurm Factory", when Bender complains about feeling sick:
Amy: You should try homeopathic medicine, Bender. Try some zinc.Bender: I'm forty percent zinc.Amy: Then take some echinacea, or St. John's wort.Professor Farnsworth: Or a big, fat placebo. It's all the same crap!
- Metabolite, and everything else that contained ephedrine. After synthetic versions of the weight-loss chemical were banned due to violent side effects, people just switched to ephedra, a plant that produces ephedrine naturally. Will people ever learn?
- Even better, ephedra is a common ingredient in the production of meth. Will the FDA ever learn?
- The main active ingredient in the weight-loss supplement Hydroxycut is a form of nicotine derived from hemlock. The FDA issued a warning about Hydroxycut causing liver damage, causing it to be pulled from store shelves.
- Airborne was advertised as a vitamin and herb supplement that helped prevent or shorten colds. The creators were eventually sued, but production was not shut down. One lawsuit was over the fact that, when used as directed by the packaging, it could provide potentially toxic overdoses of Vitamin A. The product had to be reformulated to prevent such an overdose in order to remain on the market, and later lawsuits dealt with Airborne committing fraud. The product in the past was advertised as being scientifically tested. However, the testing was done by a company created by the makers of Airborne, and the "company" consisted of only two men, with no laboratories, clinics, scientists or doctors qualified to perform such a study.
- It seems that every month or two someone tests some herbal treatment, and discovers that the manufacturer is slipping in ground-up Viagra or blood pressure medicine or some other prescription medicine appropriate to the condition. Not that they're mentioning that little fact on the label, opening people to surprise drug interactions and overdoses, and this is if the consumer's lucky. Many herbal medicines contain drugs that were banned in the West years ago after they were discovered to be unsafe. Others contain veterinary drugs that aren't safe for human use - one example contained an antibiotic used to treat horses which in humans could be lethal.
- The "colon cleanser" products often advertised on talk radio or spam mail fall into this trope, too; one product contains things like inulin, psyllium and guar gum (safe, effective fiber laxatives that are available much more cheaply at the local drugstore), but also senna, aloe vera and cascara (sources of anthraquinones, powerful stimulant laxatives that shouldn't ever be used for more than a week at a time.)
- Many people use natural MAOI-containing herbs such as Passionflower to treat their depression. What many of them don't realize is that if they take these herbs while or even 2 weeks before taking an SSRI-based substance (most prescription antidepressants), or eating certain foods you can basically overdose on your own serotonin and get very sick, or even die. Similarly, St. John's Wort contains SRIs similar to anit-depressants such as Prozac. Taking multiple SRI/SSRI/SNRI type drugs can cause serious and potentially fatal complications. Combining MAO inhibitors with SRIs, or with any number of different types of foods, can also cause serious and potentially fatal complications. St. John's wort is also known to interact badly with certain heart medications; and can greatly reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.
- Warfarin, a prescription drug used to treat many heart and circulation problems, is known to have potentially harmful interactions with over 200 herbal medicines, including ginseng, dong quai, feverfew, gingko, alfalfa, chamomile, and St. John's wort. Warfarin was originally developed as a rat poison before its blood thinning properties were used in therapeutic doses, so high doses can easily be fatal.
- The funny part? Some of the things it interact with can actually help treat heart problems, like grapefruit.
- Echinacea, commonly used to treat colds and other mild viral infections; is known to react badly with heart and anti-anxiety medications.
- Licorice root, often used in large doses to treat stomach problems, is known to cause high blood pressure.
- Kava is a particularly irritating example in that it may actually work—according to Time Magazine, a study in Germany concluded that the roots have a mild antidepressant effect, like natural Prozac. The leaves and stems, however, are suspected to cause long-term liver damage. Manufacturers who sell it in America have little incentive to make certain no leaves or stems get mixed in with the roots. It does help that most people consuming it aren't doing it for any medicinal purpose: they're using it as a substitute for alcohol (for whatever reason), as the stuff is definitely an intoxicant.
- Many plants contain various amount of phytoestrogens, which are compounds that behave like estrogen in the body. Whether or not phytoestrogens have any real health benefits for adult women is uncertain, but some people claim (or strongly imply) that phytoestrogens are better for you than the estrogen your own body makes because it comes from plants. Whut?
- Valerian, often bought on its own and in conjunction with other herbs as a natural insomnia remedy, does work to help you sleep... and it also brings on depression in people with Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Bipolar, and possibly even in people who were not previously ill. Especially bad as a common symptom of any of the above conditions (and a common side effect of antidepressants, which people with those conditions are likely to be on) is insomnia.
- During the SARS outbreak, internet chain letters claimed things such as Vitamin C, Belladonna, and Colloidal Silver would cure it. Vitamin C is fairly tame, but Belladonna is a poisonous plant and Colloidal Silver will permanently turn your skin blue. note
- Someone tried selling medicinal bleach a couple of years ago. Even now, there are those who claim it cures everything from cancer to autism.
- Bleach is healthy. It's mostly water, and we're mostly water. Therefore, we are bleach.
- More on the topic of crazy medical uses of industrial cleaning agents, Lysol was marketed as a vaginal douche in the 1950's.
- The original formula for Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, sold as a cure-all for "female complaints", included some herbs still recommended by alternative medicine for treating menopause symptoms. It was also nearly 40 proofnote , packing more alcoholic punch than most nonfortified wines. (Mrs Pinkham's competitors used an even higher alcohol content.) In an era when ladies did not drink in public, a couple bottles of Vegetable Compound in the medicine cupboard could give you a very nice buzz without the stigma of being a Lady Drunk — you're just taking your medicine.
We'll drink a drink, a drink/To Lily the Pink, the Pink, the Pink/ The saviour of the human race!
- Hence the Scaffold's 1967 hit, Lily The Pink
For she invented, Medicinal Compound/Most efficacious, in every case!
- Most people in the pharmaceutical industry know that nearly every drug we have was initially discovered in a plant (less commonly an animal) or is a minor chemical modification to such a compound. A significant method in new drug development is called alternatively "weeds and seeds" or "find 'em and grind 'em": a bunch of interns will be given a large trash bag, dropped off in the country a couple of miles apart, and told to pick up examples of every unique plant they see and someone will be back to pick them up later. These samples will be brought back into the lab, separated by type, and assayed for pharmacological effect. If some plant extract has an interesting effect, then scientists start looking at what specific compound is involved. (The formal name for this is "bioprospecting.")
- A well known example being Taxol (paclitaxel), a high effectly chemotherapy drug derived from the bark of Pacific Yew trees (Taxus brevifolia). A fully synthetic version of the drug was quickly invented thereafter because making a single dose of the drug requires the cutting down of an entire Yew tree and the manufacture of the drug was threatening to put the Pacific Yew on the endangered list.
- No, you cannot prevent, treat, or cure cancer by eating "superfoods," or a low-acid or vegan diet (you may however be able to prevent it by lowering sugar in your diet, as cancer has some links to diabetes).
- As stated on All-Natural Snake Oil, raw and wholly organic bitter almonds as well as apricot and peach pits (that is the seed within the stone) contain Amygdalin, the chemical used to get the "almond smell", which breaks down in the body. The chemical itself has a nitrile group that decomposes into cyanide. Amygdalin and its synthetic cousin laetrile have been pushed as "vitamin B17" (note that it is not, nor has it ever met the scientific definition of a vitamin) and has been made claim that it "selectively targets cancer cells" (yes, this is true and no, they don't explain how) and that The FDA is conspiring with "Big Pharma" to withhold information of the "natural cures" for some sinister reason and not because these are so bad that the bags that sell them explicitly state "don't eat more than six a day" (see Health).
- Turmeric, and lately, cinnamon (on its own or mixed with honey), cure anything, according to the Internet. Of course, they're good in curries...
- Kala namak, or Himalayan black salt, is a type of rock salt which is chemically very similar to table salt, but with a few different impurities which alter its colour, smell and taste. However, many health food sites such as this one claim it to be a cure for anything from bloating to depression to dandruff, despite these assertions seemingly being based on no evidence whatsoever. What makes this even more jarring is that many articles freely admit that there have been no scientific studies done on the health benefits of the salt, yet they then go ahead and present their claims as fact anyway. Also, many things they say are just plain wrong- a common claim is that it's good for people with high blood pressure because it's supposedly low in sodium, which is completely untrue. Like most edible salts, kala namak is mainly composed of sodium chloride, and even the trace impurities is contains are mainly sodium compounds. Some sources also say that it's a good source of potassium (it isn't), and say it contains "a unique sulfurous component" (god knows what that's meant to be).
- It does have at least some sulfur in it, from the taste of it. However, let's pass on the claims for curing bloating. Like all salts, high doses cause water retention (pretty much bloating). And any sulfur it might have will probably upset the stomach and give you gas.
- Shilajit (spellings differ), is a sludgelike substance derived from the gum of a certain cactus-like plant forming a sort of tar that looks and tastes like pavement would. Supposedly, it's ayurvedic and supports a healthy system. Well, it may do that, but it does so be causing gas and pretty severe abdominal pain.
- Black salve is a paste made by combining the acidic juice of the bloodroot plant with the highly acidic salt zinc chloride. It's marketed as a cure for acne, blisters, lesions, and even skin cancer, but all rubbing the stuff on your skin will accomplish is making it [[Squick blacken and burn off.]] And if you're really unlucky, you might lose your nose, ears, or whatever facial feature you rubbed it on.