If It Has No Side Effects, It Probably Doesn’t Work

If It Has No Side Effects, It Probably Doesn’t Work

If a drug or supplement or treatment actually works, it will carry risks as well as benefits. That’s why TGA-approved drugs carry inserts listing their side effects, for example. But sketchy wellness treatments rarely have any such thing.

As a rule of thumb, something that claims benefits without any downsides or risks is either:

  • Lying
  • Or it does nothing.

Most homeopathic remedies, including nearly all cold “medicines” meant for toddlers, are just plain old water. Their proponents are happy to explain that there are no side effects to homeopathic treatments, so they are totally safe.

But actually, a few homeopathic products have turned out to contain serious amounts of their active ingredient, enough to allegedly kill babies. Muscle-building supplements have a similar paradox: Many of them do nothing, but a few contain undisclosed stimulants or hormones or metabolism-boosting drugs.

One of the salespeople at the Goop summit had a theory about health products’ benefits. (Goop-endorsed products are overhyped and often useless or harmful.) I asked her about side effects right after she ran her finger down the lists of ingredients and benefits on products such as Sex Dust and Sun Potion Reishi, telling me what they were good for. Your body takes what it needs and leaves the rest, she explained. If something doesn’t apply to you, you just don’t get that benefit.

She brushed off the idea that a supplement might be harmful. It didn’t fit with the Goop philosophy of trying everything to see what might work for you.

On the other hand, every time my kids get vaccines at their checkups, I get an information sheet to take home that goes into just a little too much detail about all the terrible but very rare things that could happen. Even without the sheet I know that the shot will leave my older kid’s arm sore, and might make the baby cranky or even feverish for the rest of the day.

I get them shots because the benefits outweigh the risks. I don’t just inject everything I find into my kids’ bloodstreams and see what happens.

Real drugs and treatments aren’t necessarily dangerous, of course. Sometimes the side effects are minor, such as the sore arm. Other times there is a risk that is rare or that only affects people with certain other conditions. For example, over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen have minor risks. We still take them. But you can read all about them on the package insert.

These drugs are worthwhile in spite of their side effects, for most people most of the time. Only a few real treatments have zero side effects: Vitamin C, perhaps, so long as you take a normal sized dose. (Huge amounts can cause issues, including nausea.)

If someone tries to sell you something with zero risks and zero side effects, they’re either lying or they’re selling something useless.

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