5 Natural Remedies That Don't Actually Work (According To Science, Anyway)

A lot of medical knowledge has actually been derived from natural sources. The real origin of aspirin is willow bark, which had been used as a pain medication ingredient for thousands of years. Other folk remedies, like cranberry juice for UTIs or cloves (specifically the chemical it contains, eugenol) for tooth pain, have produced contradictory results under scientific testing. That may just mean we haven't isolated exactly what's happening yet, but it does show that "alternative" medicines always need to be researched properly. And some natural remedies shouldn't be attempted at all, whether because the science indicates it's a lost cause, or because they're actually dangerous in practice.

The key thing to remember about natural remedies is that the word "natural" doesn't mean that they're safe, useful, good for the environment, or for your body. Just because something's derived from the natural world doesn't guarantee it's healthy for you; you find arsenic and deadly nightshade naturally, too. And years of folk tradition behind a particular remedy or cure only indicate that it probably didn't hurt.

That said, here are five "natural" remedies and cures that definitely don't have any scientific basis. Apologize to your great-aunt if she keeps pressing them on you; the research right now indicates that they're no-go.

1. Colon Cleansing For "Detoxing"

I've been waging a one-woman war on colonics as a beauty aid for ages, or at least since Gwyneth Paltrow put them forward as a good idea in her GOOP newsletter. Heads up: they're not. The concept of colonics, or flushing out the bowel and colon with a flush of water, is only medically recommended for people with severe constipation or needing preparation for colonoscopies, but certain people recommend it as a "natural" way of "cleansing toxins" out of the bowel. The problem? Those toxins don't exist in the first place.

The thought process behind colon cleansing as a natural cure for everything from sluggish digestion to poor skin is this: allegedly, the colon and bowel gradually develop a "buildup" of waste products, or mucoid plaque, that leaches "toxins" into the bloodstream and prevents proper functioning. It turns out, however, that mucoid plaque is a complete myth; the lining of the colon is shed every 72 hours, so there's no chance for anything to build up, and colonics are doing a job that the body does just fine by itself. Introducing water is, if anything, a possibly dangerous idea, since it raises the possibility of nasty bacterias or perforating the bowel. Nope nope nope.

2. Copper Bracelets For Arthritis

This is an old remedy that's often popular among those with aching joints; copper bracelets are alleged to be helpful for chronic pain conditions. The reason? Proponents allege that copper worn on the skin will be absorbed into the troublesome areas and provide some kind of boost in pain relief. Science says, however, that this one, however beautiful, is actually a myth.

The definitive study of the phenomenon happened in 2013, when University of York researchers investigated not only copper bracelets but also magnetic ones, which promise the same results. They studied 70 different patients of different ages and genders who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and found that copper and magnetic bracelets were no better for the pain than a placebo. The scientists think that some people might find them helpful because arthritis can occur in "waves," and that people may start wearing a bracelet during a pain period, after which the agony naturally abates. It won't hurt, but it definitely won't actually do anything to help, non-placebo-speaking.

3. Butter On A Burn

I'd never heard of this one, but apparently it's quite a common American folk remedy; your grandmother may have rushed over with the butter when you got a nasty scald in the kitchen. But it turns out that butter's superficial benefit, its coldness, may bely a more problematic effect on burns as it melts.

Medical advice indicates that butter is actually a poor coolant for the skin, even if it's fresh from the fridge; the most important thing for burn treatment is to immediately cool the area rapidly, and grease in butter may slow this cooling process, holding more heat in the skin and potentially causing more damage. Doctors also note that butter is not sterile, and may contain bacteria that could cause difficulty and infection if it interacts with torn skin. Stick it under freezing running water and leave the butter for cake.

4. Peeing On A Jellyfish Sting

Tom Hiddleston will likely be vaguely mortified by this, but his apparently "heroic" act in urinating on his co-star Tom Hollander after he was stung by a jellyfish likely did little or nothing. The idea of urination to cure a jellyfish sting is one of those remedies that's wandered around in folklore for a long time, but surprise, surprise: it's not based on any real science.

It's so widespread as a belief that Scientific American actually did an investigation into its possible benefits. The really important thing to put on a jellyfish sting, it turns out, is saltwater, and the salt content in urine is constantly shifting, making it unreliable as a method of cleaning the wound and neutralizing the venom left behind. Depending on the species, Scientific American advocates vinegar or a baking soda paste. But I'm Australian, so my automatic response to being stung by a jellyfish would be to call an ambulance so I didn't die.

5. Garlic To Lower Cholesterol

Garlic has had a lot of health benefits attached to it over the years. (You begin to wonder if people just want it to be a cure-all because it's so tasty.) It's full of vitamins and has been touted as a new "superfood," but its age-old reputation as a good method of lowering cholesterol may not be as simple as it seems.

The science is actually very complicated on this one. In a famous 2007 study from Stanford, 192 adults with high cholesterol were put on a stinky regime of either powdered garlic, raw garlic, aged garlic extract, or a placebo. The conclusion was that none of the particular methods of garlic consumption did anything for the participants' low-density lipoprotein ("bad cholesterol") levels. However, a review in 2009 of 29 separate studies found that garlic didn't do anything for low-density lipoprotein or high-density lipoprotein ("good cholesterol"), but that it seemed to slightly reduce triglycerides (a type of fat) and overall cholesterol levels.

As it stands, the Mayo Clinic has removed garlic from its list of supplements that might help cholesterol levels, citing the scientific lack of consensus and need for further studies. So eat that garlic tart, but don't expect it to do anything for your lipoprotein levels.

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