“It can’t do any harm…”

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One of the commonest statements I hear about so-called natural therapies is they don’t do any harm. Many people have a degree of scepticism as to whether they do anything, but an understandable reluctance to move to high powered mainstream medicine and on the well-meant advice from friends etc, I can readily see why people take natural therapy pathways.

I have done lots of thinking and research into natural therapies over two decades, and of course have interacted with countless couples who have used these strategies in their attempts to conceive. So, here’s my evolved view about natural therapies:

 

  1. There are many people who undoubtedly need to clean up their act. Stopping smoking, eating better, getting more sleep, reducing stress etc are all clearly valuable in helping people to conceive. Couples who use natural therapies and work closely with a practitioner in the area usually undertake these strategies; I’m not convinced the additional herbal stuff makes any extra difference.
  2. As in mainstream medicine, there is enormous therapeutic power in the strength of the relationship between the health worker and the patient (client?). This is not a placebo effect per se, it simply recognises that having confidence in the person and the process will improve the likelihood of a successful outcome. In many ways, sadly some doctors in mainstream medicine have lost that relationship potential and have inadvertently ceded care to natural therapy workers for many reasons – and this is not necessarily the fault of the doctors themselves. Doctors are busy people and have to manage a wide variety of conditions.
  3. Many people undertaking natural therapies would have conceived anyway. With the exception of acupuncture as a component of IVF, there have been NO properly conducted studies to assess the benefit of natural or alternate therapies. A properly conducted study would be thus: take several hundred couples that are very similar in terms of age, general health etc. They all see the naturopath who gives them all the same advice. Then (unbeknownst to anyone involved), half the couples take the herbal preparation and the other half take a placebo that is indistinguishable. Then stand back and one year later, count how many babies were conceived in the treatment group and how many were conceived in the placebo group. By the way, this is what is called a “prospective randomised blinded placebo controlled trial”, one of the most powerful research methods we have in science. A research study that says “100 people came to me and x got pregnant” has no value in proving whether the treatment works.

By the way, some natural therapies can do harm. For example, people can be allergic to therapies like royal jelly and deaths have been reported. But the more subtle harm is when couples spend way too long pursuing natural therapies and in the end, lose valuable time. For example, a woman undertaking natural therapies for three years between the age of 38 and 41 is a dangerous mistake at a time when egg age and quality is going into serious decline.

I also believe that there is a more subtle harm going on, one that is more across the whole of society as much as for individuals. And that is that people seem to feel that treatments don’t need to have any proof any more – that unfounded claims about body toxins and the need for supplemental substances is accepted fact. We now give something a try because it feels good and the sensational aspects of the media push these stories along. We are unhappy when a doctor won’t recommend something on the basis that it is not proven, because we instead have relied on an internet article, a friend’s tip or a current affairs story. The irony is that these “treatments” can be industries far more commercial than mainstream medicine, often using pills and potions very similar in intent to the mainstream medicine that people are so suspicious of. At least mainstream medicine tries to rely on proof, even if you think the doctor isn’t as interesting to talk to.

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