May is the month associated with flowers, so I thought it would be timely to look at flower remedies. You may have heard of “rescue remedy” or other Bach flower remedies. (The preferred pronunciation is “Batch,” but it’s also acceptable to pronounce it like the composer.) They contain a very small amount of flower material in a 50:50 solution of brandy and water, and are said to work by transmitting a vibrational energy through the memory of water (not the same as homeopathy, but equally implausible).
Bach was trained as a homeopath and even created some bacterial homeopathic nosodes, but then he branched out. He used his intuition to access a psychic connection to plants. He would hold his hand over different plants to see which one affected his emotional state, and he would collect the dew from that plant to use as a remedy.
A facsimile edition of Bach’s 1936 book The Twelve Healers is available free on the Internet. It makes interesting reading. It starts off:
From time immemorial it has been known that Providential Means has placed in Nature the prevention and cure of disease, by means of divinely enriched herbs and plants and trees. The remedies of Nature given in this book have proved that they are blest above others in their work of mercy; and that they have been given the power to heal all types of illness and suffering.
I have no clue what he means by “proved.” He offers no evidence of any kind, not even testimonials. The book explains how to prepare flower essences by exposure to sunlight or by boiling, and lists the remedies and their indications under 7 headings:
- For fear
- For uncertainty
- For insufficient interest in present circumstances
- For loneliness
- For those over-sensitive to influences and ideas
- For despondency or despair
- For over-care for welfare of others.
You see, the nature of the disease is immaterial. The mind shows the onset and course of the disease, and the outlook of mind is all you need to consider. Heal the mind and the body will heal itself. He isn’t just offering to affect psychology: he promises to cure all that ails you. The book was advertised as “An explanation of the real cause and cure of disease.” The “12” in the title refers to the original 12 remedies. Discovery of 26 more “completed the series.” He doesn’t explain how he knew the series was complete. I can only guess that a little flower told him.
As a specific example, he lists larch under “For despondency or despair” with the criteria:
For those who do not consider themselves as good or capable as those around them, who expect failure, who feel that they will never be a success, and so do not venture or make a strong enough attempt to succeed.
The descriptions sound more like personality types in astrology than like temporary manifestations of illness.
Bach died of cancer at an early age, but his supporters explain that “he died of exhaustion rather than of the disease itself.” The Bach Centre is carrying on his work. They say,
We don’t see it as our role to ‘prove’ that the remedies work, then — instead we simply demonstrate how to use them and let people prove the effect on themselves.
Nevertheless, they point to a summary of the evidence base, and to one double-blind trial of rescue remedy that is far from persuasive. I also found a study by 2 Italian geologists who used the remedies to enhance the inherent properties of rocks. I confess I couldn’t force myself to read that one.
The indefatigable Edzard Ernst did a systematic review of randomized clinical trials as of 2010, concluding that the most reliable trials did not show any difference between flower remedies and placebos. A search of PubMed found a couple of other reviews in CAMjournals, one negative and one (a retrospective case-study analysis) claiming that flower essences had value in getting patients to open up about their issues.
People Actually Believe This Rubbish
They offer training courses in over 40 countries worldwide to become a qualified Bach practitioner and they provide extensive lists of qualified practitioners in over 60 countries. I looked at the website of one who practices near where I live. Karen practices Bach Flowers Essence therapy and she has lots of testimonials from grateful clients. She offers a consultation in person, by phone, or by Skype for $65, which includes a bottle of remedies and shipping. She also practices crystal healing (to balance the energy in the etheric body) and energy therapy and quotes Dr. Oz as saying energy medicine is the next big frontier in medicine. A website selling Bach remedies crows “Dr. Oz recommend Rescue Remedy for stress.” Thanks, Dr. Oz, for muddying the waters.
Hilariously, the Bach Centre gives this answer to a FAQ about using dowsing and applied kinesiology to select remedies:
[they can] introduce a barrier… [they will] go straight to the heart of the problem before the client is necessarily ready to go that far. This means that self-knowledge, which is one of the aims of treatment with the remedies, is never attained properly.
They insist that it is essential to select remedies by the classic interview technique prescribed by Dr. Bach.
There is even an offshoot Down Under: Australian bush flower essences. Just meditating on Bach remedies is said to be helpful Just chant OM HUM NAMAHA. The naturopathic Bastyr University teaches Bach flower therapy and even sells a book about flower remedies for animals.
Apparently the usually CAM-friendly NCCAM is not convinced: I couldn’t find any mention of Bach remedies on their website. The usually reliable Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database wimps out with a noncommittal
There is insufficient reliable information available about the effectiveness of Bach flower remedies.
The Cochrane Collaboration has not studied flower remedies, but it lists them among acceptable topics for funding.
At Least They’re Safe
These remedies are unlikely to cause any adverse reactions, since there’s so little of anything in them. What if you are allergic to the flower? No worries!
The Essences do not contain any material substance deriving from the Flowers; thus they contain no allergens. They carry only the energetic information of each Flower.
The one thing that might have any real effect is the brandy used to dilute them, but a patient is unlikely to ingest enough of it to have much of an effect. I wonder if they might be dangerous for patients on Antabuse who are warned to avoid alcohol in any form, even in colognes and aftershave lotions.
This is all just too silly. But on second thought, nothing has ever proved too silly for people who want to believe. The term “bloomin’ idiot” comes to mind, but these people are not idiots, they’re just misguided. It’s depressing. They would probably tell me I should take a flower remedy for despair. I’ll pass.
This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine blog.