Which Natural Therapies Work?

CrohnoNaturalMany people with inflammatory bowel disease turn to ‘natural therapies’ — sometimes called ‘alternative medicine’ — to manage their symptoms. Are any of these therapies proven effective?

To find out, the Australian government reviewed 17 different therapies, including yoga, homeopathy, reflexology, and Tai Chi. Their goal was to determine which therapies should be eligible for government insurance rebates. The review looked at the medical literature for evidence supporting each therapy, especially randomized controlled trials (RCTs).

The report of the review process is available online. For the most part, the reports says, “there was not reliable, high-quality evidence available to allow assessment of the clinical effectiveness of any of the natural therapies for any health conditions.” There just wasn’t enough information to prove the effect of most therapies.

The therapies reviewed were:

  • Alexander technique is a form of physical therapy intended to help with posture and movement. For two clinical conditions — low back pain and Parkinson’s disease — there was weak evidence of its effect.
  • Aromatherapy uses essential oils from plants to improve mental health. The study found that there is low-quality evidence that it may reduce “anxiety and agitation in dementia patients”.
  • Bowen therapy is a type of ‘bodywork’ — that is, massage. The study found no evidence of Bowen therapy’s use for any clinical condition.
  • Buteyko is a breathing technique mostly used for respiratory conditions. There was limited evidence that it might help people with asthma, but no evidence for any other condition.
  • Feldenkrais teaches posture, breathing, and movement through mindfulness. There was insufficient evidence that the practice helps any clinical condition.
  • Herbalism uses medicinal plants to treat illness. The study noted that there is lots of research on specific herbal agents, but no good info on “the real-life practice and outcomes of herbalism as a health service”.
  • Homeopathy involves diluting potentially harmful (or helpful) substances, so that the water (or alcohol) retains a ‘memory’ of the original substance. Not surprisingly, the study found zero credible evidence that homeopathy treats any clinical condition.
  • Iridology is based on the idea that irregularities in the iris — the colored part of the eye — can indicate health problems elsewhere in the body. There was no adequate evidence of its effect.
  • Kinesiology focuses on body movements to identify “factors that block the body’s natural healing process”. The study found insufficient evidence for treating any condition.
  • Massage therapy/myotheraphy treats the muscles and ligaments of the body by kneading, rubbing, or otherwise applying pressure — and there are a bunch of different styles. Of many clinical conditions the study looked at in adults, only low-back pain showed any evidence of effect.
  • Naturopathy combines many natural therapies — herbalism, aromatherapy, homeopathy — into a single practice. The report found one limited study that showed evidence of it helping various chronic conditions.
  • Pilates is an exercise practice aimed at “strengthening core muscles and improving posture”. The report looked at a number of conditions, but found little or low-quality evidence that it helps.
  • Reflexology applies pressure — “usually to the feet” — to release ‘blockages’ in parts of the body that cause pain or illness. The report found no adequate evidence of its effect.
  • Rolfing is a form of body work “that claims to organise the body in gravity”. The report found no studies that met their criteria.
  • Shiatsu is also a form of bodywork or massage, focused on “acupressure points”. The report found no adequate evidence of its effect.
  • Tai Chi is an exercise practice that uses slow movements and deep breathing. The report found “very-low-quality evidence” that Tai Chi helps people who are aging, having heart disease, high blood pressure, or arthritis.
  • Yoga is also an exercise practice, combining posture, breathing, and meditation techniques. The report found weak evidence that yoga helps people with depression, but there was not sufficient evidence for any other condition.

Keep in mind that the lack of evidence does not mean that a treatment does not work, at least for this report. We have evidence for most conventional treatments only because government regulators require that research before a drug is sold to the public. Natural therapies have no such requirement, and thus there is no incentive and little funding for research into their use.

So the lack of evidence only means the therapy is not proven to work. Better quality research might demonstrate stronger results for some natural therapies. In fact, Crohnology members rate yoga and meditation as effective treatments. Personally, I have had good results with massage therapy, as well as yoga.

Natural therapies can help patients with IBD — at least for some people, some of the time. The Australian report shows, however, that there is very little evidence for the broader use of natural therapies, and that much more research is required.

Photo “Yoga in the mountains” by Flickr user Thomas Sobek used under Creative Commons license.

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One thought on “Which Natural Therapies Work?

  1. For severe Crohn’s disease: Not over the counter but I used Slippery Elm in bulk used traditionally with hot water 4x a day. Culterelle , over the counter probiotic, and I immersed myself in creative activities ( for me it was painting ) for 2-21/2 hours a day. I had my last flare up in 2008 after over fifteen years of severe Crohn’s.

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