Mayo Clinic on Home Remedies

I write a lot of critical articles. It’s nice to be able to write a positive one for a change. I received a prepublication proof of The Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies: What to Do for the Most Common Health Problems. It is due to be released on October 26 and can be pre-ordered from Since “quackademic” medicine is infiltrating our best institutions and organizations, I wasn’t sure I could trust even the prestigious Mayo Clinic. I was expecting some questionable recommendations for complementary & alternative medicine (CAM) treatments, but I found nothing in the book that I could seriously object to.

It is organized alphabetically, starting with acne and airplane ear and progressing through bedbugs, boils and bronchitis, dandruff, depression and diabetes to warts, wrinkles and wrist pain. Each entry consists of (1) a description of the problem and its symptoms, (2) treatments you can try at home, and (3) when to seek professional medical help. It concludes with a short section on emergency medicine that covers anaphylaxis, bleeding, burns, CPR, choking, fracture, heart attack, poisoning, seizure, shock and stroke.

Nowhere does it mention acupuncture, chiropractic, energy medicine, or homeopathy. It gives good, clear guidance about when a health problem should not be treated with home remedies. Its recommendations about diet and exercise are solid. It doesn’t recommend anything that can’t be supported by published studies and common sense. When it recommends herbal remedies and diet supplements, it is cautious about what it claims. For instance, glucosamine and chondroitin are listed for osteoarthritis, but they point out that further study is required and they say “because the supplements may help and appear to be safe, it may not hurt to give them a try.” Not exactly a strong recommendation!

For elevated cholesterol, it recommends weight loss, diet, exercise, limiting alcohol, avoiding tobacco; and then it says “Experiment with natural products. Although few natural products have been proven to reduce cholesterol, some may be helpful. You could consider…” artichoke, barley, psyllium, flaxseed, garlic, oat bran, and plant sterols. I can’t really argue with that, especially if the patient is monitored by a doctor (which of course would be required to get blood tests that would tell if the natural products have had any effect).

For gout, they recommend against megadoses of vitamin C and their mention of cherries is fair and balanced:

Studies show an association between cherries and lower levels of uric acid in your blood, but it isn’t clear if the cherries have any effect on the signs and symptoms. Eating cherries and other dark-colored fruits, such as blackberries, blueberries, purple grapes and raspberries, may be a safe way to supplement gout treatment, but discuss this strategy with your doctor first.

It includes appropriate warnings. For instance, in the article on bladder infections, it says that for prevention you can try cranberry juice (“though still not proven in rigorous study”), but don’t try it if you’re taking Coumadin, since it may lead to bleeding. In the cholesterol section, it warns against red yeast rice because it contains lovastatin and there is no way to determine the quantity or quality of the drug.

The book recommends a few things that a rigorous scientist might hesitate to recommend because of insufficient evidence. But unlike many less trustworthy sources of medical advice, this book will not tell a patient to try anything that might be dangerous, anything that has been tested and found not to work, anything that is based on belief rather than on evidence, or anything that might delay or interfere with needed medical treatment. It is safe, sensible, and woo-free.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. I would feel comfortable recommending it to a layman who wanted to know “what home remedies can I try?” or who wanted a home reference book about what can be done instead of calling the doctor and when calling the doctor is the more prudent course.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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