Saturday, February 11, 2012

Herbal and homeopathic products

Last July, when my Choranche neighbors brought me home from the hospital in Romans after my stupid accident [display], Tineke dashed into a local pharmacy and presented me spontaneously with a couple of products (previously unknown to me) capable of relieving the pain that would inevitably beset me.

The small plastic tubes contain homeopathic pills based upon an astronomical dilution of the European wildflower called Mountain Arnica… which looks a bit like wild daisies, or a small variety of the sunflowers whose seeds are such a delicacy for our mésange birds.

The big tube contains a gel, based upon the same Arnica wildflower, but not at all (so I thought) of a homeopathic composition. I tested both products, and found that the gel was particularly soothing, although I'm incapable of saying whether its effects stemmed from the 7 percent of mysterious Arnica tinctura in the product or rather from the 93 percent of other simple stuff in the preparation: essentially a carbomer of the kind used to manufacture home-made cosmetics, and an excipient composed of alcohol (ethanol), sodium hydroxide and distilled water.

One of the first people to extol the benefits of Arnica was the German mystic Hildegard von Bingen [1098-1179], known to believers as Saint Hildegard.

She proclaimed: "If a man and a woman are in love, and somebody smears Arnica on the skin of one of the two lovers, then, when the Arnica has dried, the man and the woman become so madly in love that they go out of their minds." Far more powerful than eating oysters, a kind of medieval Viagra…

More recently, my former neighbor Bob, who used to be a prominent rugby-player at St-Marcellin, told me that Arnica ointment was used regularly to treat players who got badly bruised in a match. Apparently, a guy who had been thrashed to pulp on the playing field only had to get smeared all over with Arnica and he would be fresh as a daisy. And after the match, the bruised rugby-player's girlfriend (according to Hildegard) would have been feverishly rucked!

I have an excellent book on medicinal herbs in our Vercors region:

One of the delightful anecdotes in this book concerns the fabulous reputation of Mountain Arnica in the Vercors (as elsewhere). This plant doesn't actually grow here, because it requires granitic soil (whereas ours is calcareous), but people have heard a lot about Arnica, and everybody knows that its yellow flowers look like daisies.

Wise local folk reasoned as follows: If the yellow petals of the Arnica plant can produce such medicinal marvels, then why shouldn't the yellow petals of daisies work just as well? Consequently, Vercors peasants have got into the habit of macerating Buphthalmum flowers (wild daisies) in alcohol, naming it "Arnica", and using it as a miracle remedy for bruises, cuts, sprains, etc. Does it work? Of course it does!

The Arnica-based pharmaceutical products that Tineke bought for me are manufactured by an old family firm named Boiron, located in nearby Lyon. And when I say "family firm", this is literally the case. According to Wikipédia (in French), the president is a man named Boiron, the administrators are his brother and sister and their cousin. And board members include this cousin's husband and their daughter. Maybe this kind of closely-knit corporate structure has enabled them to test their products thoroughly upon one another…

Be that as it may, I was thrilled to discover yesterday that the Boiron products have just hit the headlines in the popular and respected US Jezebel website [access].

This is amazing publicity for French export products. And it's so much nicer than the idea (no more than an idea for the moment) of selling Rafale jet fighters to India [display]...

BREAKING NEWS: Not surprisingly, the Pharyngula blog of the celebrated US biologist and atheist P Z Myers has shot down the Jezebel article in flames [display]. His quantitative evaluation of the infinitesimal active agent in homeopathy is well-known and undeniable. I liked certain remarks concerning Boiron's herbal gel. Nobody seems to know whether or not it's a serious pharmaceutical product. On the other hand, if you like it, and it doesn't seem to harm you, then why not carry on using it? That's pretty lukewarm clinical advice, but I can't see how we might obtain a more informed judgment on the product. Incidentally, I'm intrigued to discover that the printed paper from Boiron attached to their gel affirms that it is a "homeopathic product". Are they suggesting that the actual Arnica in their tinctura has been diluted astronomically, as for their pills? Frankly, I have to admit that I don't understand what is meant by this claim. But I hasten to add that homeopathy is not a subject that interests me greatly. Live and let live...

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