Every year, Americans spend $22 billion in classes, self-help relaxation guides and herbal supplements, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Nearly $15 billion of that is spent on "natural" over-the-counter medications intended to help people either feel better or prevent illness. Here are four "cures" that have been proven by scientific studies to be baseless yet remain on pharmacy and health foods store shelves.
The root of this North American herb has been used throughout history as a medicine. In recent years, it has been hailed as a both a preventative measure and a treatment for the common cold. Echinacea, both in pill and oil form, can be found at natural foods stores and, increasingly, on pharmacy shelves. Although some studies have suggested over the years that the plant can decrease the severity of a cold or even prevent one, a large peer-reviewed study in 2005 published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that it had no effect on the common cold virus.
Vitamin D is another over-the-counter "remedy" for the common cold. The theory is that it boosts the immune system to help the body fight off the virus or prevent the body from contracting it in the first place. People often take megadoses that are many times higher than the recommended daily dose. Scientists in New Zealand have concluded that Vitamin D has no effect on the common cold, however, based on a study of 322 adults over an 18-month period. Doctors still recommend taking daily doses of Vitamin D for general health, but at a much lower dose than most people use to try to prevent colds.
These fad diets have been around for decades in one form or another. Each works differently, but the main goal is to eat or drink only one thing for a period of days to remove toxins from the body. They are also touted to help one lose weight and are endorsed by several Hollywood celebrities. Most mainstream doctors warn that these detox diets are not only completely ineffective, but they may also be dangerous. Fasting for several days deprives the body of nutrition and caloric intake and can actually prompt it to go into "starvation mode," causing it to store more fat. Yet, the number of commercial detox diets on the market continues to grow and consumers still buy them, hoping for a quick-fix weight loss solution.
The purpose of colon cleansing is to detox the body from the other end. The treatment consists of large amounts of water being pumped into the lower colon to wash out intestinal waste. This supposedly makes people feel healthier and have more energy. The treatments can be done in a practitioner's office or with a do-it-yourself kit. Some kits include pills or fiber capsules to help with the cleanse. Most conventional doctors say that it is useless, as the body is able to eliminate its own waste effectively. On top of that, they say, it can result in damage to the colon, bacterial infection or even liver toxicity. The American Medical Association warned of the dangers as early as 1919, yet colon cleansing is more popular today than ever.
The Bottom Line
As healthcare costs continue to rise, consumers will buy more alternative "cures" to try to avoid illness and feel better. While scientific studies try to put to rest the claims of these miracle treatments, they still fly off the pharmacy shelves, putting money in the pockets of the manufacturers and leaving people without the health benefits they were seeking.