,If you were an American woman living any time between the mid-19th and early 20th century, and if you suffered from women’s troubles, then you may have dosed yourself with Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Developed from a recipe sold, as the story goes, to her father for $25.00 as payment for a debt, the herbal-alcohol mixture was transformed through aggressive marketing into a wildly successful product. Lydia’s picture was on the label, as it should have been, since she concocted the potion in her kitchen. Eventually its manufacture moved into a commercial facility.
Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound promised to cure, or at least relieve, ailments that at the time had no treatment.1 Women with menstrual difficulties were treated with leeches, or even surgery, and premenstrual syndrome was often ascribed to either hysterical personalities or water on the brain. And of course, many women did not want to go to a male physician for their female problems. Treating themselves with the vegetable compound maintained their privacy and probably, through its placebo effect, took away some of their distress.
Today we chuckle at the naiveté of Lydia Pinkham’s’ customers and the many others who purchased products that in our modern eyes were clearly fake, and had nothing in them to relieve symptoms or cure disease. Patent medicines, aka Quack Medicines, claimed to cure or prevent ailments ranging from venereal disease to indigestion to cancer. Their promises were outrageous. One well-advertised product supposedly contained snake oil, an ingredient reportedly miraculous in its ability to cure. Subsequently if someone tried to sell an obviously fake medicine, he stood accused of selling snake oil. 2
Of course this could never happen today; we are much too sophisticated and medically knowledgeable to believe in such nonsense.
Or are we?
Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound contained many of the ingredients–like black cohosh root, fenugreek seed, dandelion root, motherwort, and gentian root–sold today to help women with menstrual and/or menopausal symptoms. However, unlike today’s elixirs for female problems, Pinkham’s beverage contained a substantial amount of alcohol, which may have relieved some of the stress the women were feeling from their cramps and bloating.
A recent issue of a popular tabloid magazine directed to women and sold at the supermarket checkout counter reported these medical claims:
A 500 mg dose of a flowering plant called Rhodiola (not sure if one is supposed to eat just the flowers or the stem and leaves as well) will decrease stress and accelerate weight loss by making more serotonin (stress relief) and increasing energy output (weight loss). Fact: Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. There is no evidence that this flower increases energy output.
Holy basil, which related to mint, will relieve stress by making a soothing hormone, dopamine.
Dopamine is like amphetamine. It energizes and stimulates when it is released; it does not soothe. Also, it is not a hormone.
Siberian ginseng will reduce your tension, assuming that holy basil and the Rhodiola flower has not already done so. It soothes your adrenal gland, in case you were wondering. Really?
There are many more of these fascinating tidbits of ‘snake-oil’ recommendations, and this magazine is not alone in describing them. Just go to the Internet.
The Quack Medicines of the last two centuries were not only ineffective; many of them were dangerous and could even cause death. Morphine, opium, cocaine, and alcohol were added, sometimes in substantial quantities and given not only to adults, but also to babies and children who might have colic or were fussy because of teething. Not surprisingly, physicians and medical societies were skeptical and critical of this ‘alternative’ medicine and those who did not want alcohol and drugs like opium to be included in these potions reinforced their criticism. But also, not surprisingly, there was pushback from manufacturers of the quack goods, as well as from the newspaper owners who benefited from the advertisements. Finally, in l908, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act under President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and prohibited the sale of products with misleading advertising and unlabeled or mislabeled ingredients. 3 So the era of Lydia Pinkham and similar patent medicines came to an end.
Or did it?
More than 100 years later, the New York Attorney General investigated the contents of what we now call herbal supplements. And like the Emperor’s new clothes, whatever was supposed to be there wasn’t. Herbs like St John’s Wort and ginseng listed on the label were not in the bottles; only the fillers like starch were to be found.4 Was the testing accurate? The manufacturers fighting the inevitably swift to arrive class action suits claim that the testing may have been flawed.5 However others stated that this was not the first time the content of an herbal supplement was missing or the dose incorrectly stated.
What is the consumer of such products to believe? At least Lydia Pinkham’s beverage contained enough alcohol to give the user a slight buzz, even if she did not get relief from menstrual cramps. But what if you were taking Echinacea to prevent getting a cold, or St John’s Wort to help your depression? And now you find out that the Echinacea was missing from the bottle and it was filled with ground houseplants instead, or that your St John’s Wort bottle contained only rice, garlic or beans?
There are two conclusions: The first is that a placebo is mighty powerful and rarely causes side effects, so be happy you stayed healthy, didn’t get the cold and your depression got better, even if you were ingesting ground rice. The second is that it is time to hold the manufacturers of herbs, twigs, grasses, and root supplements to the same standards to which pharmaceutical manufacturers must adhere. And maybe we should bring Lydia Pinkham’s beverage back on the market. At least she labeled her potions correctly.