You’ve probably seen Bach flower remedies at health food stores or new-agey sorts of shops. Or maybe your chiropractor or vet has recommended them. They’re recommended for all sorts of maladies, including asthma, hypertension, migraines, eczema, allergies, dyslexia. But do they work?
The story behind Bach flower remedies is pretty romantic. Dr. Edward Bach was a Welsh physician with an interest in homeopathy. He believed that many illnesses are caused by things like fear and despair–not so different from how many researchers today view the effects of stress. He also believed that we could develop a new medical system by focusing on cures found in nature. So he abandoned his London practice and headed out into the countryside to investigate the curative effects of flowers. In addition to abandoning city life, he decided to jettison the scientific method and instead use intuition to guide his work. Wandering the lanes of Oxfordshire, he developed a number of flower remedies–many of which you can still buy today.
While Dr. Bach was initially interested in the dew that collects on flowers, he realized that collecting dew drops wouldn’t be very practical if he wanted to reach the masses. So, as the closest large-scale approximation he could think up, he began to make his remedies by putting fresh flowers into water and then steeping them in the sun or boiling them. He also added brandy as a preservative. It’s highly doubtful that the flower remedies contain pharmacologically significant amounts of any flower-derived chemicals–instead, the flowers are supposed to transmit their energy to the water and then to you. So, basically, they are supposed to work via the memory-water mechanism on which homeopathy is based.
A few randomized, controlled trials have actually tested the effects of Bach flower remedies. For example, researchers tried using the Rescue Remedy or a placebo on 100 University students about to take exams. Less than half of the students completed the study, but in those who did, no effect on test anxiety was found. A similar study on test anxiety also found no difference between flower and placebo groups (although even taking a placebo helped soothe students). There is one study that has reported a significant effect of Rescue Remedy in reducing stress in a subgroup of students with very high-anxiety… but if you test enough subgroups you are bound to find a positive result eventually, due to chance alone, so I’m not sure I put much stock in these results.
In another study, researchers randomized 40 kids with ADHD to either Bach flower remedies or a placebo for three months. With only 20 kids in each group though, and with half of the kids dropping out before the three month study was complete, the power to detect any changes in behavior was pretty low. The effect of the flower remedies would have to be pretty amazing to show up. I’m fairly certain a study this small couldn’t have demonstrated a significant effect of ANY ADHD medication.
The good news is that nobody has reported any adverse effects associated with the flower remedies. Since they are essentially water, that makes sense! The bad news is there is not much evidence that they work, except for as a placebo. Some flower enthusiasts point out that so far the remedies have only been investigated for anxiety and ADHD. That’s true. It’s also true that most of the studies done so far have been so small, and getting patients to comply with treatment has been so difficult, that even if the remedies DID work, chances are that the trials wouldn’t detect an effect. Unless you buy that water can holds memories, though, it doesn’t seem likely that even a huge NIH-sponsored trial would pick up any beneficial effect of the Bach flower remedies.
That said, it’s not unusual for 30-40% of people given a placebo to report that they feel better. And Bach flower remedies appear to be harmless. So if someone’s feeling bad and they believe in the potential of these remedies to cure, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to give them a try! Since I don’t see how the placebo effect would work on pets, though, it’s hard for me to see how using the remedies on animals would be of much use. I guess that as an owner, maybe your own anxiety about your pet’s condition could be alleviated in a sort of indirect placebo effect.