Let's face it: If alternative medicine worked, it wouldn't be called "alternative." It's no shock to find out that remedies involving magic and ghosts don't really make your pain go away. It would be more of a surprise to learn that they do.
Well, surprise! They do! Sort of!
You may not know the theory behind it, but you probably know what acupuncture looks like: Someone lies face down on a bed while a Chinese lady sticks a few dozen needles in his back, and this makes his chronic pain go away. The idea is that the needles are directing the flow of "chi" or life energy around your body, and this causes something or other, and then bingo, you're healed.
"Don't worry. When we insert these needles into your brain, you'll never doubt us again."
How It Sort of Works:
It's probably not very surprising that science has been unable to locate chi energy on any X-Rays. What might be surprising is that despite this, actual scientific studies that don't involve a single "spirit crystal" show that acupuncture actually freaking works. Yes, according to that article in The Wall Street Journal, "neuroimaging studies show that it seems to calm areas of the brain that register pain and activate those involved in rest and recuperation," all of which sounds surprisingly official for a pain-relief method that involves repeated stabbing.
That's actually one theory on how it works. When an acupuncturist sticks a tiny needle in your skin and twirls it around, she's not quite harming you enough to cause real pain, but she is harming you just enough for your body to act in self-defense and release a natural chemical called adenosine, which acts like a local anesthetic.
Those aren't man-boobs, they're chi-sacks.
As a side effect, you also experience relief from whatever else might be ailing you. Of course, this doesn't mean that the process is actually healing you, but it has been shown to treat some pains that Tylenol can't help with. Which is why the world's best hospitals like the Mayo Clinic and Duke University Medical Center now offer acupuncture. Still, most doctors agree that as a general policy, you shouldn't attempt to cure diseases by stabbing them.
These days, the word "aromatherapy" is slapped onto pretty much everything from candles to car fresheners, promising stress relief in addition to covering up that vague puke smell coming from your back seat.
But in New Age circles, aromatherapy involves using something called "essential oils," which are plants, herbs or spices distilled into a perfume. Proponents believe that they contain the volatile "essence" or "life energy" of a plant. When you inhale them, these essences, aka plant ghosts, enter your body and cure all kinds of shit from headaches to cancer.
Then they take root and find new life right behind your eyeballs.
How It Sort of Works:
It should go without saying, but inhaling something's "life energy" in order to become stronger only works for evil wizards and mummies. No matter how strongly you concentrate the smell of flowers, you're still just smelling flowers.
Which is, admittedly, preferable to smelling like a misdemeanor.
That said, there is some evidence that aromatherapy can make people feel better. Despite how it may seem, it's not actually curing your headache, but it is helping you deal with it. Studies into the effects of smells on pain tolerance suggest that sweet smells actually do make you slightly more impervious to pain. It's not exactly going to turn you into Wolverine, but it can take the edge off your debilitating migraine.
"My technologically advanced smell powers will tame Gotham. I ... am Patchouliman."
As we've already told you, your sense of smell is hardwired to your memory. Our brains pair smells with our experiences and judge the pleasantness of a smell by what we were experiencing when we first smelled it. Your sense of smell is also processed in the same part of the brain as your emotions. So, chances are if your first experience with lavender or lemon ("relaxing" scents) was during a massage or from the candle on your girlfriend's nightstand, you're likely to feel pretty good the next time you smell it.
"This takes me back to the attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Bring forth the dogs of war."
So, it stands to reason that if you take some pleasant scent that a person doesn't run into in his everyday life and introduce him to it during a pleasant massage or bubble bath, then the next time he smells it he'll get back into that massage state of mind.
#4. St. John's Wort
St. John's wort is the go-to plant for herbalists. It's been around for thousands of years and has about a hundred supposed uses, for everything from hepatitis to hemorrhoids. Medieval Christians hung it in their homes to ward off evil spirits and scare away witches. When herbal medicine exploded during the '70s and '80s, St. John's wort pills showed up in drugstores everywhere. These days you'll find it being marketed as an all-natural, no-prescription-needed antidepressant.
Presumably they throw some rose-tinted glasses at you and stand you in a flower field for a while.
How It Sort of Works:
After shooting St. John's wort at every disease known to man, it was only a matter of time before it actually helped something. It turns out that, when you strip away all the stuff about magic and witches, St. John's wort actually can take the edge off depression thanks to a chemical it produces called hyperforin.
When you take St. John's wort, the hyperforin interacts with the neurotransmitters in your brain. Simply put, it gives the brain more access to serotonin and dopamine, two of the most important feel-good chemicals your body makes. In other words, it does the same thing to your brain as Prozac.
With wussier side effects.
Hold on, don't run out to the grocery store and buy a case of the shit just yet.
See, the problem is that, unlike Prozac, there's no real way to regulate whether a capsule of St. John's wort is going to contain enough hyperforin to do any good. That's one of the problems with herbal cures -- they're not regulated in any way, not for effectiveness or even to find out if they actually contain what their labels say.
Apparently it's really hard to quantify unicorn breath and dragon song.
And, sure enough, tests on commercially available brands of St. John's wort found wildly fluctuating dosages that don't necessarily resemble the dosage claimed on the bottle. And even when the dosage is correct, it's only effective for mild to moderate depression. So unless you feel like rolling the dice with your depression (or relying on a nice placebo effect), see a damned medical professional.
"We need some feel-good plant medicine photos. I dunno, just stick them on your face or whatever."