From using WD40 for achy joints and chesty coughs to wrapping a verruca in duct tape and eating a placenta to boost one’s health, all manner of old wives’ tales have been tried by people looking for alternative treatments.
Now a new Channel 4 series, Health Freaks, which begins on Monday, will put some of these remedies under the microscope and discover if any of them actually work – or if they are in fact endangering people’s health.
Jewish GP and broadcasting favourite Dr Ellie Cannon joins Dr Pixie McKenna and Dr Ayan Panja in putting these homespun cures to the test.
Jewish News: We have all heard chicken soup being called “the Jewish penicillin”, but does it really have healing powers?
Dr Ellie Cannon: I grew up in a family, which like every other Jewish family, believed in the healing powers of chicken soup. I do think it has that, because it’s fluid and it means somebody is looking after you enough to actually be making the chicken soup! To be honest though, the reason why it works is that it fits with known cures for coughs, cold and flu – resting, eating well and drinking plenty of fluid.
JN: Do many of your patients use home remedies?
EC: Actually yes. I look after many Ethiopian patients and they tend to use garlic as a remedy for coughs. That was the kind of thing I was expecting to investigate on Health Freaks, but I have to say I was rather shocked by what we were faced with – the home remedies were far wackier than this!
JN: One of the “cures” you investigate is the use of WD40 by builders for achy joints?
EC: That was possibly the first case where I was genuinely gobsmacked. We met a pair of builders. One uses WD40 on his joints for arthritis and the other one, shockingly, is a smoker who wakes up in the morning with chest pain – and he actually rubs the WD40 on his chest to “help” his breathing! They told us using WD40 is as much an old wives’ tale among brickies as it is among Jews to drink chicken soup! They believed it works because it contains fish oils, but this is false and it is actually a by-product of the petroleum industry. The WD40 website now has a health warning on it, because they know people use it for this purpose.
JN: What other bizarre remedies did you come across?
EC: Well, I have now met people who have drunk their own urine, eaten their own placenta and one lady, who believed a family remedy for styes is to put a copper coin on your eye. Coins are absolutely filthy, so why on earth would you want to do that? We met quite a crowd of people.
JN: But surely there were some good, natural alternatives to strong medicines?
EC: I’m actually known as someone who doesn’t hand out medicine or antibiotics all the time to my patients. I do believe the body can help heal itself and natural is always best, because drugs have side effects. But the point is just because something is natural does not always mean it is safe. That said, in each episode we put one remedy to trial and there was one man who believed he could cure his verruca by putting duct tape on it. I’ve heard that before, and it seemed an inert, safe thing to trial. We found there was some evidence to show that it worked.
JN: Do you think people rely too much on doctors and not enough on their own, safe remedies?
EC: Very much so. In this country we rely on the NHS and GPs. We rely on having a medical answer and much of that is to do with the internet. People will get a rash on their arms after gardening and will diagnose themselves with something crazy, as read on the internet – whereas actually they have nothing like that! It certainly makes interesting clinics for me. I think people are not given enough basic health education, for example, what to do when their child has a fever. It was fine two or three generations ago when people lived with their families, but we don’t have that anymore. We’ve lost alot of that self-care knowledge and leads to people looking at the internet. But there are some good resources, such as NHS Choices and patient.co.uk.
JN: You have a new book in the pipeline – can you tell me about that?
EC: Keep Calm, It’s Only A Baby, will be out early next year and is a guide for first time parents. I wanted to stand up for the mothering instinct above all these other parenting experts out there, because I truly believe the only parenting expert they will need is themselves.
Health Freaks begins on Monday, 21 October, 8.30pm on Channel 4.