Bach Flower Remedies: Do They Work?

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. bachproducts-allThey’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.

13 thoughts on “Bach Flower Remedies: Do They Work?

  1. I’ve always been fascinated/perplexed by the placebo response – in particular, how placebos have become more effective over time. How can that be?
    Perhaps the effect is not tied to any placebo being given, but to the expression of empathy shown by the act of prescribing the placebo. If so, does that mean placebos are more effective now than before because empathy is harder to come by than previously? I can see that being the case where person-to-person inetraction is becoming less frequent.
    And if the placebo effect is tied to that inetraction – maybe animals are subject to the effect to.

  2. Do you remember where you read that placebos have become more effective over time? That’s interesting! I definitely think that compassion–and also someone acknowledging that you are experiencing a problem–could play a role. I imagine that one of the reasons why massage and talk therapy can be so helpful is because someone is paying attention to you! That’s a good point about animals responding to care. I hadn’t thought about that.

  3. Nice article. I have to comment, though, that using Rescue Remedy for testing purposes isn’t really going to work as it’s diluted to begin with, or it just happens that one of the 5 remedies in it are correct.

    The thing about the BFR is that they don’t work if you choose the right one. Choosing the right one means that you need to understand what the cause is.

    For those having anxiety, that would most likely be Aspen, though Larch, Gentian Mimulus would also be a likely candidate to use.

    Using the wrong remedy is like replacing a working fuse in a fuse box and saying, hey, this light is still not working, this fuse is bunk.

    One thing I can guarantee, they are not a placebo, but they do take skill to use.

    Thanks for the article.

    • That is definitely one of the criticisms of the current studies that people have made. Everybody tends to get the same remedy, and it’s possible that other remedies may have had different effects. My guess is that Rescue Remedy was used because it’s very popular, but you make a fair point!

      • Thank you. Really, though, the easiest way to prove if they are a placebo or not is to use Rescue Cream on a burn and see how fast the pain goes and how quickly it heals. This works on second degree burns amazingly well. No way a placebo could heal something like that.

  4. I was one of the ones that bought Rescue Remedy from the vet for my dog. I sure wanted it to work for him and for me, but I had no luck. I gave up the first time and even bought it a second time I wanted it to work so bad.

  5. Rescue Remedy was recommended to me for a dog I had with severe anxiety (he was a rescued racing greyhound). I investigated the Remedy, and decided that putting a several drops of brandy into my dog’s water (or mouth) four or five times a day might indeed be calming, but that I didn’t think it was a good approach to Arthur’s care. Especially after that time I caught him guzzling down a glass of red wine I had left on the coffee table…

  6. I have eczema on the palm of the hand, I have it for 8 months, during this time, different doctors prescribed me different drugs, but without any results at all, so I decided to use Bach Flower ‘CRAB APPLE’, I’m using this for two weeks now I am without inflammation,The hand still a rough skin. I hope I’m cured, it was bothering me to much.

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