Take two of these, and one of these, and one of these… and all of these…

When you feel a cold coming on you hit it with vitamins, right? Everyone knows that!

Feeling the unwelcome presence of a cold announcing itself, I went out to [a British chemist chain] and procured the cold-busting trifecta of Berocca, Echinacea and Ginseng.  Berocca because it’s packed with vitamins including C, and that’s widely established to be The Thing For Colds – everyone I’ve spoken to since I was about 10 years old would more than likely tell you that.  Echinacea, because it’s meant to be good for your immune system, or something.  And ginseng because… well, primarily because there was a buy 2, get 1 free promotion on at the chemist.

Out of curiosity, and because I had a lot of time to kill on this particular afternoon, I thought I’d read the Echinacea box, to see just what exactly it’s meant to do for you.  Being a massive alternative medicine skeptic*, what I read didn’t really surprise me at all.

In case it’s too hard to read, it says:

Echinacea or purple coneflower is a North American perennial that is indiginous to the central plains where it grown on road banks, prairies, fields and in dry, open woods.  The name for the plant comes from the Greek echinacea, meaning hedgehog, and reflects its sharp-pointed nature.  Since the early 20th century hundreds of scientific articles have been written about echinacea.

Now, is it just me, or does that blurb say absolutely bugger all of any value whatsoever?

By happy serendipity, a very good friend of mine tweeted about an article by the highly excellent NHS: Behind The Headlines team.  The article (opens a PDF in new window) is entitled “Supplements: Who needs them?” and inkeeping with the goals of the series addresses some common beliefs about remedies and treatments by examining the evidence to support the efficacy of those treatments, and in the case of echinacea the findings are about as confident as the labelling on the box.

A 2010 trial found that echinacea did not reduce the duration or severity of colds.  This large randomised control trial in more than 700 participants found that people who took a standardised dose of echinacea had no significant improvement in either duration or severity of their colds compared with those taking a placebo.

So vitamin C might not be any use for colds (see the article), but at least we know it stops us getting scurvy.  Man, I hope that ginseng’s doing something useful.  At least by using a BOGOF offer I can pretend that I got the echinacea for free.

* Tim Minchin summed this up nicely in his awesome poem, Storm, with the line: “By definition alternative medicine has either been not been proved to work, or been proved not to work.  You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”