are herbs. Herbs are good for kids.”
She must have been in her 60s, a kindly looking woman who
had probably worked at the health food store since the days
when East Orange, N.J., had been a place you’d expect to find
a health-food store. She was talking to a small kid, but really
talking to the kid’s parent, and gesturing broadly to a wall
full of medicinal herbs.
I probably stared for a while as I absorbed her preposterous
statement, but then went quietly about my shopping. It’s one
of those head-slapping moments you remember for years because
you wish you’d said something. Not to the store clerk, who
was surely set in her beliefs, but to the parent. Something
like: “That’s as silly as saying ‘medicine is good for kids.’
” Or maybe “Anything strong enough to have an effect could
also have a bad effect if you used it wrong.”
I thought of this little incident recently when I read an
article about pennyroyal. A very strong member of the mint
family, pennyroyal is often used as a pest repellant, especially
in herb flea collars. It’s also known as an herbal abortifacient.
As a college student, I kept a small jar of it around, and
occasionally brewed myself a cup when I had a little reason
to be nervous. I wasn’t the only one.
Turns out I was lucky. The article I was reading, which was
in a pro-herbal medicine publication, explained that we’ve
found that way pennyroyal “works,” when it does, is probably
by causing liver damage, straining the liver enough that the
body thinks “I can’t handle this and be pregnant!” One young
woman died from ingesting a not particularly large amount.
It’s only speculation, but I can also trace the onset of my
supernatural sensitivity to caffeine (which is broken down
in the liver) to the era of my pennyroyal use. Coincidence?
The point is, I was a chemistry major and not a super credulous
person. And yet when the herb store I visited in New York
City made a point of labeling its pennyroyal as for external
use only, I thought it was merely politics—specifically, skittishness
about abortion. That was surely plausible. Witness, after
all, how merely wanting to celebrate the inauguration and
using the generic phrase “freedom of choice” has brought the
anti-abortion forces howling down on Krispy Kreme.
Looking back, I can see that clearly I should have done my
homework more thoroughly. But that thought is enough to make
me want to hibernate until some new golden age of holistic
Thing is, homework about medicine and other health-care options
is, in my experience, generally miserable and unsatisfying,
full of blatant contradictions that are hard to assess without
hours of reading.
On the one hand you have the medical establishment supposedly
representing the forces of science and reason. The only problem
is, they’re legendary for refusing to admit what they don’t
know, and also for getting some pretty basic things wrong.
Think infant formula, thalidomide, routine hysterectomies
for “hysteria,” or “smoking is good for you.” Or look at their
current economically motivated fight against home birth, which
is not supported by evidence-based medicine (much like many
of their birthing practices).
Among my peers I’ve discovered that most of us feel that a
majority of the time we not only know more than many doctors
we’ve seen about what’s going on with our own bodies or our
children’s bodies, but also more about the options for treatment
(even the regular medical/Western ones). We’ve caught them
doing tests wrong (one doctor tried to prescribe me drugs
I didn’t need based on an inappropriately conducted cholesterol
test) and giving out misinformation (infants can’t be lactose
intolerant, but a surprising number still diagnose it). We
still need them, but the level of independent work it takes
to get proper care, not to mention all the non-covered expenses,
The doctors are accompanied by the proud skeptics, who feel
they are responding appropriately to widespread anti- science
gullibility by loudly and condescendingly pooh-poohing any
“alternative” treatment that comes their way. Often they are
right, since there’s plenty of nonsense out there, some of
it dangerous. But I’ve also seen some of them dismiss things
abut which I’ve read peer-reviewed confirmation, and plenty
of others dismiss the possibility that something might work
on a physical level just because proponents explain it in
mystical language, not because it actually doesn’t make sense.
In fact, there are scores of “traditional” remedies that have
been proven to work, even if the traditional practitioners
didn’t know why. And there are others for which we don’t know
why they work, but they seem to do so. Not only that, but
they sometimes work when Western medicine doesn’t. The body
is a complicated place that we are still a long way from figuring
And yet, as with the pennyroyal, there are some things we
ought to call foul on, some things scientific research can
tell and has told us with reasonable certainty. It’s easy
to get lost in a thicket of snake-oil salesmen and well-intentioned
promoters of alternative therapies that are no better than
a placebo, and sometimes much worse. The perspective of the
woman in the health-food store is dangerous, and all too common.
Traditional doesn’t always mean good—some folk remedies involve
scattering elemental mercury around your house. And “Western
medicine” isn’t always bad.
Unfortunately, it seems like each of us has to navigate our
way among all this information ourselves. There’s no trustworthy
one-stop-shop, though I certainly put that on my cosmic wish
list quite a while ago.
For now, I keep my skeptic on one shoulder and my willing-to-give-it-a-try
persona on the other. Sometimes, in the midst of their constant
chatter, I do make some useful discoveries. Too bad they have
to feel so hard won.