Rhodiola rosea redux

Katie Jones recently read a post on Sciencebase about the herbal “remedy” Rhodiola rosea for which there is little verifiable independent evidence of efficacy. Nevertheless, the comments thread caught her attention as it shuttles back and forth between those who have faith in unproven herbal tonics and those who would prefer at least some science-based evidence to appear before imbibing plant extracts of unknown chronic toxicity.

A neat summary of the comment thread follows:

1) It is insane to think that any one product can cure everyone’s problems, and while some things may benefit one person’s body, they will not necessarily benefit all people or have the same effects. Just as people may experience varying symptoms, the same applies to the treatment and cure. It really is different strokes for different folks. There is no one-cure-fits-all solution and we should remember this applies to all medicines.

2) Most often it is a person’s will to change themselves that actually changes how their body feels, and taking pills can often serve as rituals, if you will, to convince someone that they have decided to change.

3) Trying something might be beneficial – unless you are wary of the health benefits for your body in particular, and are unwilling to risk such a thing.

4) Scientific approaches to things must be taken if you’re going to try and give a general statement that can apply to everyone – for example, just because eating a cookie is okay for one person does not mean that a diabetic person would also enjoy eating a cookie. Thus, it is silly to try and say “cookies are good for everyone” is a scientific statement.

5) Skepticism is healthy – especially in an age where “facts” often prove to be “statements that we received more money for publicizing”.

She then asked whether I personally believe in the body’s natural ability to heal itself instead of relying on outside remedies, that may or may not have additional effects besides positive ones? But, I felt that a rhetorical question of that nature should be answered rhetorically by the inquisitor and she agreed:

“I think that there is definite evidence for both answers, and that the answer of an individual on the matter reveals more about their personality (the way they view the world) than it does anything else. That said, I also think that I have a lot to learn, and either answer would give both me and the respondent a new perspective; my question was in part an attempt at creating a win-win situation.”

Personally, I think we have to be over-skeptical of the claims made by marketeers, whether they’re selling something with genuine physiological activity or snake oil. After all, if a product is physiologically active, then strictly speaking it is potentially medicine or poison, or something in between. If it has not been properly trialled who’s to say what side-effects it might be having or what contraindications there are with conventional prescription drugs.

And, speaking of which, something like 30% of prescription drugs are derived from natural products, and yes they do have side-effects, there is no such thing as a 100% risk-free medicine nor any panaceas that can treat all ailments, regardless of what the snake oil marketeers or even pharmaceutical shills might tell you.